Majority Representation and Legitimacy: Survey-Experimental Evidence from the European Union

Christopher Wratil, Jens Wäckerle

Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed


What can policy makers do in day-to-day decision making to strengthen citizens' belief that the political system is legitimate? Much literature has highlighted that the realization of citizens' personal preferences in policy making is an important driver of legitimacy beliefs. We argue that citizens, in addition, also care about whether a policy represents the preferences of the majority of citizens, even if their personal preference diverges from the majority's. Using the case of the European Union (EU) as a system that has recurringly experienced crises of public legitimacy, we conduct a vignette survey experiment in which respondents assess the legitimacy of fictitious EU decisions that vary in how they were taken and whose preferences they represent. Results from original surveys conducted in the five largest EU countries show that the congruence of EU decisions not only with personal opinion but also with different forms of majority opinion significantly strengthens legitimacy beliefs. We also show that the most likely mechanism behind this finding is the application of a ‘consensus heuristic’, by which respondents use majority opinion as a cue to identify legitimate decisions. In contrast, procedural features such as the consultation of interest groups or the inclusiveness of decision making in the institutions have little effect on legitimacy beliefs. These findings suggest that policy makers can address legitimacy deficits by strengthening majority representation, which will have both egotropic and sociotropic effects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-307
Number of pages23
JournalEuropean Journal of Political Research
Issue number1
Early online date15 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 506004 European integration


  • EU
  • European Union
  • democratic deficit
  • legitimacy
  • public opinion
  • survey experiment

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