English title: Popular Trust, Mistrust, and Approval: Measuring and Understanding Citizens’ Attitudes Toward Democratic Institutions

Author(s): Chiara Superti -

Language: English

Type: Thesis / dissertation

Year: 2015


High levels of political trust and approval are believed to be the basis of a healthy democracy. Attempts to gauge citizens’ political attitudes have flourished in the past decades, but political science has yet to converge on a valid – and cross-nationally comparable – measure of popular political approval. Meanwhile, from New York City’s Zucconi Park to Istanbul’s Gezi Park, from Madrid’s Puerta Del Sol to Cairo’s Tahrir square, popular political discontent is on the rise and historic manifestations of it remain difficult to interpret, reverse, or anticipate. The essays in this manuscript introduce a new measure of political approval and propose a different institutional interpretation of the determinants of political trust. The first essay, “Individual Blank Voting, Mobilized Protest Voting, and Voting Abstention,” compares different forms of electoral dissent – individual blank voting, mobilized null voting, and voting abstention – across Italy and in the Basque Country of Spain. It demonstrates that the least studied of the three – blank voting – expresses the most conscious and educated rejection of political candidates, parties, and electoral systems. The second essay, “Measuring Discontent and Predicting Trouble,” proposes the use of unconventional voting as a powerful alternative metric of popular electoral approval, by showing the existence of a systematic link between blank and null voting, and larger popular protests. I demonstrate that the rate of blank and null voting at the national level is a reliable proxy of larger popular discontent and an effective predictor of future protests. As such, it is comparable to other widely used measures of perceived electoral quality and popular approval, while being much less costly, time consuming, and with greater disaggregation potential. In the last essay, “Corruption and Trust in Institutions, Evidence from Israel,” Noam Gidron and I exploit a natural experiment offered by Israel’s unique immigration law, which expedites naturalization for Jewish immigrants. We find that cultural norms, as shaped by levels of corruption in immigrants’ sending countries, affect only their initial levels of trust, while subsequent exposures to socially inclusive institutions (e.g., the military) shape a mature and more positive political attitude.


Awarding institution: Harvard University

Number of pages: 192

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