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date: 26 June 2022

The Realignment of Class Politics and Class Votinglocked

The Realignment of Class Politics and Class Votinglocked

  • Geoffrey EvansGeoffrey EvansOxford University, Nuffield College
  •  and Peter Egge LangsætherPeter Egge LangsætherDepartment of Political Science, University of Oslo

Summary

Since the early days of the study of political behavior, class politics has been a key component. Initially researchers focused on simple manual versus nonmanual occupations and left versus right parties, and found consistent evidence of a strong effect of class on support for left-wing parties. This finding was assumed to be simply a matter of the redistributive preferences of the poor, an expression of the “democratic class struggle.” However, as the world became more complex, many established democracies developed more nuanced class structures and multidimensional party systems. How has this affected class politics?

From the simple, but not deterministic pattern of left-voting workers, the early 21st century witnessed substantial realignment processes. Many remain faithful to social democratic (and to a lesser extent radical left) parties, but plenty of workers support radical right parties or have left the electoral arena entirely. To account for these changes, political scientists and sociologists have identified two mechanisms through which class voting occurs. The most frequently studied mechanism behind class voting is that classes have different attitudes, values, and ideologies, and political parties supply policies that appeal to different classes’ preferences. These ideologies are related not only to redistribution but also to newer issues such as immigration, which appear to some degree to have replaced competition over class-related inequality and the redistribution of wealth as the primary axis of class politics. A secondary mechanism is that members of different classes hold different social identities, and parties can connect to these identities by making symbolic class appeals or by descriptively representing a class. It follows that class realignment can occur either because the classes have changed their ideologies or identities, because the parties have changed their policies, class appeals, or personnel, or both.

Early explanations focused on the classes themselves, arguing that they had become more similar in terms of living conditions, ideologies, and identities. However, later longitudinal studies failed to find such convergences taking place. The workers still have poorer, more uncertain, and shorter lives than their middle-class counterparts, identify more with the working class, and are more in favor of redistribution and opposed to immigration. While the classes are still distinctive, it seems that the parties have changed. Several social democratic parties have become less representative of working-class voters in terms of policies, rhetorical appeals, or the changing social composition of their activists and leaders. This representational defection is a response to the declining size of the working class, but not to the changing character or extent of class divisions in preferences. It is also connected to the exogeneous rise of new issues, on which these parties tend not to align with working-class preferences. By failing to represent the preferences or identities of many of their former core supporters, social democratic parties have initiated a supply-side driven process of realignment. This has primarily taken two forms; class–party realignments on both left and right and growing class inequalities in participation and representation.

Subjects

  • Political Behavior
  • Political Sociology
  • Public Opinion

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