Beyond the balance sheet : performance, participation, and regime support in Latin America



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Most studies on regime support focus on performance, or policy outputs, as the principal causal variable. This study challenges this conventional wisdom by focusing on two countries where performance and support do not match. Chile is the economic envy of every country in the region, yet support has been surprisingly anemic since the return of democracy in the early 1990s. By contrast, Venezuela managed to maintain extremely high levels of support during the reign of Hugo Chávez despite severe failures of governance in areas such as economic management, employment, and public security. Resolution of these paradoxes requires turning away from policy decisions and focusing instead on how those decisions are made. Taking inspiration from democratic theory and social psychology, I argue that extensive opportunities for direct participation in the political process engenders in citizens strong feelings of efficacy, a sense of control over the course of politics. Such sentiments increase support both directly and by softening the impact of performance failures. I use a mixed-methods approach to test this theory. Quantitative analysis of survey data confirms the relationships between efficacy, performance, and support. I then show, through both quantitative and qualitative techniques, that participatory programs such as the communal councils in Venezuela have a key role in preserving the legitimacy of that regime, especially in light of the hegemonic and authoritarian practices of chavismo at the national level. Finally, I use experimental data, survey data, and a qualitative analysis of a nascent participatory program in one of Chile’s municipalities to demonstrate that a lack of participatory access lies at the heart of that country’s relatively weak regime support.