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.

An ICCP public opinion survey marks the beginning of POSTGEN survey data collection

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.

The “Public Opinion” POSTGEN Component

A dedicated “Public Opinion” POSTGEN work package will use public opinion surveys to collect information about political attitudes and behaviour in representative samples of the Italian voting-age population. Following the ICCP scheme, this WP will gather standardized, issue-rich (approx. 30 issues), quantitative-oriented information about intergenerational differences in the structure of both the party and attitude space.

The sample strategy will cover the Italian population aged 18 or older, with an oversampling of respondents aged 18-34 (overall N=4000 approx.). Data will be collected through a survey with a panel design, including two waves, taking place in proximity of general and European elections (in 2022 and 2024), so as to explore the relevance of major national and international political events in attitude formation.

The panel will feature CAWI (Computer Assisted Web Interviewing) interviews, ensuring efficiency and flexibility, and allowing the adoption of survey experiments for item validation. Issue selection will be synchronized across the CAWI and the social media component to allow cross-dataset analysis of issue opportunities and party strategy. We also plan to contextualize generational differences in a longer-term context using data from past surveys on Italy (ITANES, World Value Survey, European Values Study).

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