Political Legitimacy and Participation in Costa Rica: Evidence of Arena Shopping

Article excerpt

Considerable research has failed to establish a link between political legitimacy and system breakdown. This does not mean, however, that researchers should abandon the concept of legitimacy altogether, since it may have other important effects that shape the character of the political system. We explore the impact, or lack thereof, of legitimacy on citizen behavior. Specifically, we test the proposition that legitimacy may have complex effects by differentially affecting a variety of modes of citizen participation. Empirical evidence from a 2002 national survey in Costa Rica, a consolidated Latin American democracy, reveals how legitimacy shapes citizens' political participation and civil society activism. We find that legitimacy has no uniform relationship across diverse modes of political participation. Some legitimacy dimensions increase certain participation modes while they decrease others, but have yet no effect on other modes. Specifically, other factors held constant, greater belief in two dimensions of legitimacy, "political community" and "trust in local government," increase voting and civil society activism. Low rather than high levels of "system support" increase party activism-instrumental contacting and communal activism, and low trust in regime institutions elevates civil society activism. Contradictory findings emerge on the impact of low legitimacy on protest participation. An important and novel finding is that two legitimacy-participation relationships are curvilinear. These findings suggest that prior research, based on a unidimensional notion of legitimacy and binary treatment of participation as conventional vs. unconventional may have been misleading. We discuss the implications of these patterns for political stability and legitimacy theory.

Legitimacy is a theoretically rich concept and is widely invoked by political scientists. In his classic work Political Man Lipset (1961) emphasized the long-term, historical process by which regimes overcome crises and evolve into political systems whose legitimacy is broadly accepted and infrequently challenged, except by fringe groups or after protracted crises of performance. According to this theory, most citizens in consolidated democracies do not challenge their regimes' right to rule. Yet, in the United States and many other established democracies, surveys have shown that in recent decades the legitimacy of quintessentially democratic institutions (especially legislatures and parties) has eroded markedly.J Scholars and public figures have repeatedly voiced alarm that legitimacy's decline might threaten democracy itself (Preston, Briggs, Kornberg, and Clarke 1983; Kornberg and Clarke 1992; Nye 1997; Nye, Zelikow, and King 1997; Norris 1999b; Pharr and Putnam 2000). Yet despite this trend, over the same period there have been no democratic breakdowns in advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, there has been no hint of such breakdowns.2 These empirical "facts on the ground" challenge fundamentally the role of political legitimacy for political stability (Norris, Walgrave, and Van Aelst 2004).

In light of the failure of declining levels of legitimacy to produce democratic breakdown, should we discard legitimacy theory entirely? We believe it is too early to do so. Rather, we contend it is important to determine whether legitimacy matters, but does so in ways less dramatic than directly driving democratic breakdown. Consolidated democracies may be very unlikely to fall, as Przeworski et al. (2000) have found, but their characters can be transformed in important ways. One key way in which democracies can change is in the arena of political participation, which virtually all theories of democracy regard as essential to its functioning. In essence, if there is no participation, there is no democracy. As Morris (2002: 3) in her cross-national study of participation ominously warns, "The conventional wisdom suggests that in the late twentieth century many postindustrial societies experienced a tidal wave of citizen withdrawal from the traditional channels of political participation. …