New Challenges for Representative Democracy: The Changing Political Space in Western Europe

Nicola Maggini, member of the POSTGEN research team, recently published an article analyzing the ideological consistency of voters in various European countries, exploring, among other variables, differences between generations.

A short interview with the author on the main findings of the research follows below.

The article is open access and can be accessed here.

Nicola Maggini, your article explores if voters’ preferences on economic and cultural issues can still be interpreted by a one overarching ideological dimension (namely the left-right one).  The paper found that it is no longer possible to interpret voters’ stances according to the traditional alignment. Can you further elaborate on this?

In the past we knew that the European political space was divided between progressives and conservatives, which encompassed different position on economic and cultural issues. However, this space became progressively more two-dimensional, with the cultural dimension gaining more and more autonomy from the economic one. This process could presuppose a greater ideological inconsistency of voters. In the research I examine voters’ preferences on economic, cultural and related to the so-called transnational dimension (e.g., stance on EU, on immigration) issues in general elections from 7 Western European countries. The aim was to investigate if there are differences in ideological consistency among voters of different parties and between younger and older generations. The results show that, especially with reference to the economic dimension, there is a strong inconsistency of voter’s preferences.

In the article “ideological inconsistency of issue preferences” is mentioned, can you explain more in the details this concept?

Ideological consistency can be interpreted in three different ways. Between party positions and voter positions, as the internal consistency within each dimension and as consistency among dimensions, which implies they can be synthesized by an overarching dimension, traditionally the left-right opposition. The analysis shows that the overarching progressive-conservative dimension is no longer a dimension significantly structuring issue preferences among citizens, with voters mixing traditionally left and right goals. In addition, it was found that young people and voters of anti-establishment, challenger and radical right-wing parties are more inconsistent, whereas left-wing voters are more consistent. Thus, there is both a generational and a political distinction.

Your findings show the loss of structuring ability of traditional cultural and economic dimension and the rise of a new transnational dimension linked to the attitude towards immigration and the EU. Rather than of a de-structuration of the political space, should we speak about a re-structuration around this new dimension?

Yes, we can talk about a restructuration of the political space. Although it is an aspect not investigated in the paper, these issues are considered salient by voters of both right-wing and left-wing parties. These issues have their own dimensionality and there is a strong consistency. Even radical right-wing party voters, who, as I said are the most inconsistent ones, are the most consistent on this dimension. So yes, it is possible that, in the future, there will be a restructuration in this direction.

So, is it possible to say that the traditional left-right cleavage lost its relevance in Western European political space?

The research highlights how the traditional left-right distinction in economic terms seem to have lost its ability to structure policy space. Obviously, we are talking about positions on issues, not about values, and, also, there could be inconsistency between values and policies produced. Certainly, it emerges how voters tend to take ideologically inconsistent positions on economic issues. However, this does not mean that from a symbolic or political point of view the labels left and right no longer have any meaning. I explored positioning on issues, a different matter is the relevance of these labels, which, as we know, are important in orienting voting choices, although their content may vary from the past.

Moreover, your research shows that ideological consistency differs in relation both to party preferences and to age group. In reference to political identification, is it correct to affirm that voters of new challenger and/or radical right parties are less ideologically driven than voters of traditional mainstream parties?

Yes, voters of radical right or challenger parties are less consistent than others, especially on economic issues and on cultural issues related to lifestyle and personal freedoms, confirming initial expectations. This is probably due to the strategies of the leadership of these parties, which realized that they could expand their constituency by taking inconsistent but salient in the electorate positions. However, it should be specified that the real distinction is not between mainstream and challenger parties but between right-wing and left-wing parties. Right-wing voters of both mainstream and challenger parties exhibit strong ideological inconsistency, compared to the voters of left-wing parties.

About differences among generations, can we say that younger generations are less ideologized than older ones?

In line with our expectations young generations are more ideologically inconsistent. There are exceptions, such as in the Netherlands and in Italy, where young people do not exhibit higher levels of inconsistency. And in any case differences are not huge, so we cannot speak of a real deconstruction. This is good, because a complete deconstruction of political space cannot be regarded positively. But yes, in general, younger generations are more inconsistent.

From which factors can the less ideological consistency of the younger groups be driven?  Can we speculate on the effects of new social media on this phenomenon?

In the research, I have not explored what this lower ideological consistency of the younger generation may be due to. However, we can speculate on the influence of different factors. It is known that young people live at a stage when they are socializing to politics. They are more open to novelty, less structured in their opinions and more fluid in their voting choices. This is the so-called “life cycle” effect. Then there is a “generation” effect.  It is important to look at the historical phase in which people’s political socialization takes place. It is clear that those generations socialized to politics in the 70s, at a time of great ideological conflicts, are more ideologized than those who became socialized during a period of strong detachment from politics. Moreover, there are factors like the disintermediation of politics and the importance of social media in influencing political orientations. It will be important to understand the influence of these new actors, starting precisely with the role of the influencers.