Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?

The forthcoming article “Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?” by Taishi Muraoka and Guillermo Rosas is summarized by the author(s) below. 

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Economic inequality produces a number of negative impacts on democracy. For example, inequality is associated with lower turnout, increased polarization among elites, and diminished support for political institutions. In this study, we suggest that inequality can deteriorate the quality of democracy for yet another reason: high inequality can make it more difficult for people in different economic strata to agree on the ideological (left-right) positions of political parties. 

We build our argument on class conflict theory, which suggests that people are more likely to use class identification as a meaning-making tool in highly-unequal societies. People in different strata develop beliefs and attitudes consistent with their economic status, which in turn shape not only how they see the world but also how they think the world ought to be. A straightforward, but largely ignored, implication of this theory is that class-based reasoning makes people understand the messages of parties in ways that are consistent with their own class beliefs, introducing systematically warped views about where parties stand on the ideological spectrum. These perceptual biases, we submit, become even larger in highly unequal societies. 

Our analysis is based on cross-national surveys from 113 elections in 45 countries, which comprise a diverse set of electoral democracies. We demonstrate that after controlling for individual-, party-, and system-level factors, the respondent’s economic status and the country’s level of inequality jointly predict how he or she perceives the ideological positions of political parties. Specifically, people in the top income quintile in highly unequal societies tend to show leftward perceptual biases in party positions, which means that they tend to see left-leaning parties as more extreme compared to the perceptions of people in the middle-income quintile. By contrast, people in the bottom-income quintile tend to hold rightward biases in party positions. In the aggregate, these perceptual biases add up to pronounced rich-poor disagreement on the ideological placement of political parties. 

We think that class-based disagreement on party positions has two worrisome consequences. First, it can have a noticeable effect on aggregate electoral results. Indeed, we suggest in simulation exercises that class-based misperceptions are most likely to result in declining electoral support for centrist parties. This result is consistent with the idea of a “hollowing out’’ of the center that arguably characterizes a number of contemporaneous Western democracies. Second, a more serious threat is that class-based disagreement on perceived positions may make it more difficult for governments to establish legitimacy. After all, when people in different classes cannot agree on where the government stands, they are also unlikely to agree on how well the government performs. Both of these consequences can hinder the effective operation of representative democracy. 

About the Author(s): Taishi Muraoka is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Program on US‐Japan Relations at Harvard University and Guillermo Rosas is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. Their research “Does Economic Inequality Drive Voters’ Disagreement about Party Placement?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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