Concurrently with Italy’s early general elections (held on September 25, 2022), the POSTGEN project conducted its first survey data collection effort. This was a pre-election survey, carried out following the guidelines of surveys previously administered within the ICCP (Issue Competition Comparative Project), a project that in the past few years studied party “issue” competition in Western Europe, surveying citizens’ opinions on a wide range of political issues.
Here is a conversation with Lorenzo De Sio and Davide Angelucci, both members of POSTGEN and ICCP, on the importance and the implications for POSTGEN of this first survey data collection.
Lorenzo De Sio, what was this data collection about, and how was it conducted?
Lorenzo De Sio: The POSTGEN project, started officially on June 1. While we already started social media data collection, the first survey data collection effort was constituted by a pre-electoral survey conducted in the first weeks of September, at the occasion of early elections held in Italy. It was a panel survey, with data collection organized in two waves, one a month before the election and one immediately after the election. In a way, it also provides a continuation of the ICCP, a project that in the past years studied party competition in various European countries, surveying citizens’ opinions and party credibility perceptions on many political issues (approx. thirty!). Why was it useful for POSTGEN and why the project opens with a data collection based on the scheme in ICCP? Basically, because one of the key ideas of POSTGEN is to investigate citizens’ opinions on many central issues, and to assess whether these opinions are organized according to some consistent ideological scheme, or rather idiosyncratic, e.g. combine traditionally left-wing with traditionally right-wing stances. By the way, the ICCP framework also covers party communication on Twitter, to observe if parties also have ideological consistency, and as a result it provided a guide for designing POSTGEN itself.
Davide Angelucci, what are the main findings of the survey?
Davide Angelucci: The research reveals some new elements compared to previous ICCP analyses. A first relevant point is related to what as been called an “induced polarisation”. When only considering their opinions, voters of different parties tend to mix left-wing with right-wing parties, without particular constituency polarization. However, when we incorporate party credibility perceptions, voters identify their parties as clearly and consistently characterized as either left-wing or right-wing. For Italy, this is new compared to 2018, where most parties were indeed mixed and post-ideological. In addition, we record a dominant importance of cultural, non-economic issues in characterizing most parties and their polarization.
What are the main differences among parties?
LDS: The most interesting aspect that emerges is the prevalence of cultural issues for all parties, except the M5S. For example, Fratelli d’Italia is almost exclusively characterized by cultural issues. Their only economic issue is the abolition of the basic income, but it is a core issue for this party, which comes more from the polarization of public debate. The same happens for other parties. Azione – Italia Viva and the Partito Democratico are also mainly characterized by cultural issues. Azione – Italia Viva even with a right-wing positioning in reference to some goals. Forza Italia and the League are a bit different. They are characterized by a slightly higher number of economic issues, especially the League, sometimes (such as in reducing the retirement age) with a left-wing perspective. But the only real exception is the Five Star Movement, which is mostly characterized by economic issues, where it has a left-wing constituency, and a credibility on left-wing economic issue goals.
It could be argued that, except for the M5S, cultural issues were central for the 2022 Italian party competition?
DA: Yes, of course. However, it is necessary, to point out, although we have not tested it in reference to 2022 but have done so previously, the possible existence of a paradox. Behind some cultural issues, there could be elements related to the economic dimension. It is well known that there is a second dimension of competition, the cultural dimension, which is different from and in some cases independent of or even orthogonal to the economic dimension. We imagined that behind the prevalence of cultural issues, there may be an effect of an economic variabile (such as economic distress) that could make these issues relevant. For example, immigration becomes especially relevant to those socioeconomic groups that suffer most from an economic point of view. This is a hypothesis that has already been confirmed by some research, but we are still working on it, to see if we find further confirmation in empirical data.
And, finally, what are the implications of these survey results for the POSTGEN project?
LDS: The results are giving us an awareness that we may be observing something somewhat different compared to our initial expectations. Our general expectations, in line with the results of the ICCP project, implied the existence of original, post-ideological combinations of economic and cultural positions. Now, the first impression with these data is that, especially in reference to younger generations, we might be facing instead differences in issue salience, which could possibily hide the existence of profoundly post-ideological stances. Let’s take the example of Fratelli d’Italia. FDI attracts a constituency that requires protection on economic issues (so, has left-wing positions) but at the same time rewards a party perceived as right-wing predominantly on cultural issues. This means that economic issues have a substantially low salience, compared to cultural ones. They are not considered relevant. Furthermore, from the distribution of public opinion preferences, we have seen in some research that most voters support social protection measures but are against basic income. So, there is a general orientation towards redistribution, but then the vote is oriented by other factors of polarized party competition. In conclusion, “left” and “right” may still be alive and well, but when asking younger people about their meanings, they might tell us that these categories are perhaps almost exclusively related to non-economic issues, thus with a redefinition of their meanings, based solely on cultural issues. This is an important research question that animates our approach towards to the central part of the POSTGEN project.