“The welfare state” is a distinctly European invention that took shape during the twentieth century. Its constituent policy areas include social insurances such as pensions, unemployment benefits, and sickpay, public services like health and elder care, family policies such as parental leave and child care, as well as social assistance and public housing policies. Today, the expansionist “golden age” of the first post-war decades is often said to have been succeeded by a more sinister “era of permanent austerity”, spurred by some combination of external and internal reform pressures. The latter include sluggish growth, high unemployment, low employment rates, international competition, population ageing, immigration, and European integration. While apocalyptic “race to the bottom” scenarios have not materialized in the face of these potential reform pressures, the “old” politics of welfare expansion appears transformed into a “new politics of the welfare state” with a focus on cost control, resource efficiency, increased spending on “new social risks,” a growing concern with work incentives as well as with public human capital investment, all of which co-exist with non-trivial cutbacks of entitlements and services in the face of the multiple pressures. Many of these processes, which are often controversial if not outright unpopular, have been accelerated in several European countries by “the great recession” and the euro-zone sovereign debt crisis.
We analyze citizens, democracy and welfare state politics against the backdrop of these challenges and changes. One group of questions concerns the structure and contents of public opinion. Is normative support for the welfare state changing in the face of the multiple reform pressures? Is there continued relevance for “old” cleavages, such as occupational class, compared to new ones, such as those related to immediate to self-interest invested in specific polices?
A second set of questions address political communication between elites and citizens. How do political parties communicate with citizens on issues of reform pressures and policy change? Which parties put pressures and responses on the public agenda? Which argue forcefully that status quo is still viable? Which prefer to exercise “blame avoidance” i.e. believing that potentially unpopular reforms are necessary while preferring to keep them off the public agenda? And which messages, in which contexts, affect citizens’ acceptance of retrenchment and other types of potentially unpopular policy changes?
A third area of interest is electoral accountability. Given the favourable attitudes towards existing policies one might suspect that voters defect from the parties and governments that are perceived as responsible for any unpopular retrenchment and restructuring. Under which circumstances and among which individuals is this the case?
The fourth group of questions concerns policy feedback, i.e. effects of public polices, once enacted on citizens perceptions and attitudes. For example, to what extent, under which conditions, and time horizons, do citizens gradually accept implemented policies they strongly disliked at the time of decision.