Elite-Citizen Gap in the Perception of International Organizations

Centre Co-Director Jan Aart Scholte Co-Authors Study with Implications for Global Governance

A recent study published in the American Political Science Review sought to identify and explore contrasting views by elites and citizens regarding the perceived legitimacy of international organizations (IOs). Centre Co-Director Jan Aart Scholte, together with co-authors Lisa Dellmuth, Jonas Tallberg, and Soetkin Verhaegen, have presented a nuanced analysis of this gap and have extrapolated from the empirical data what an increased understanding of this divide might teach us about global governance.

The study analysed data collected from both elite and citizen groups in five countries (Brazil, Germany, the Philippines, Russia, and the United States) concerning perceptions toward six IOs:  the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations (UN), the World Bank (WB), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Citizen values were measured through the World Values Survey (WVS7: October 2017 and December 2019), whereas elite values were measured through LegGov Elite Survey, conducted in the five countries between October 2017 and August 2019.

According to the authors, the article ‘offers the first systematic comparative analysis of elite and citizen views of global governance’ (1), filling a gap in the research that has so far focussed at the national level, rather than addressing a global, intergovernmental phenomenon. The ontological starting point of the study is at the level of the individual, which ‘attribute[s] legitimacy beliefs to circumstances of the person holding them, such as interest calculations, political values, and identity constructions’ (4). Elites are understood as those participating in the areas of bureaucracy, business, civil society, media, political party, and research. Citizens are those living and working outside of these fields of engagement. Perception of IO legitimacy refers, specifically, to ‘the extent to which these elites and citizens consider an IO’s authority to be appropriate’ (1). The data show an overwhelming tendency for elites to perceive a greater degree of legitimacy of these IOs than does the general public.

‘This gap suggests that global governance may confront problems of democratic accountability, as elites (who conduct the global governing) consistently accord more legitimacy to IOs than citizens at large. The gap also highlights a significant challenge for contemporary international cooperation, as the general population appears to be more skeptical of IOs than elite circles. The gap moreover clarifies why populist politicians around the world can take advantage from targeting IOs with antiglobalist messages’ (2).

Some important conclusions are described in the article. The size of the elite–citizen gap in a given context offers an account of ‘democratic accountability’ (15). Instances of increased closeness of opinion between those who govern and those governed imply a certain type of political constellation, impacting both national and international politics. Are elites adjusting their views to correspond with their constituents? Under populist governance (where the citizen–elite gap is, on average, smaller), politicians gain a great deal of influence by appealing to, for example, a popular distrust in IOs to engage in antiglobalist rhetoric. Alternately, a wider gap might have drastic consequences for global policy and decision making, leaving intergovernmental collaboration stalled and ‘hostage to domestic support’ (15).

The authors propose that further research of this kind is necessary to understand the dynamics of the elite–citizen gap. Future studies could, for example, extend the breadth of both the countries and the IOs examined, and could offer findings on the changing dimensions of the gap over time and geographical space. In conclusion, the authors suggest an exploration of ‘theoretical complementarities’ between elites and citizens, rather than stereotypical rivalries, and stress the ‘importance of comparative designs, in order to avoid context-bound and oversimplified conclusions’ (15).

Dellmuth, Lisa, Scholte, Jan Aart, Tallberg, Jonas, and Verhaegen, Soetkin (2021). 'The Elite–Citizen Gap in International Organization Legitimacy', American Political Science Review, 1–18. www.doi.org/10.1017/S0003055421000824.