- Link to the scientific article: Maggini, N. (2022). New Challenges for Representative Democracy: The Changing Political Space in Western Europe. Italian Journal of Electoral Studies QOE – IJES, Early View.
Which and how many dimensions characterise political space is a recurring topic in the political science literature. In recent decades in Western Europe (and beyond), the electoral rise of nationalist and anti-establishment parties has politicized new issues: European Union, globalisation, immigration, climate change. Many scholars have begun to question whether the ideological dimensions that were used to define the political space of European democracies before these changes are still relevant.
No longer just left and right: electoral competitions between economy and culture
Until the late 1970s, the most widespread representation of electoral competition envisaged two main parties or coalitions competing against each other in a mostly one-dimensional space – usually identified with the left-right continuum – widely recognised by citizens. At that time there was a 'progressive' and a 'conservative' pole: the former, on the left, was in favour of economic equality and cultural pluralism; the latter, on the right, was in favour of economic freedom and cultural uniformity. Over time, with reference to individual attitudes towards policies, economic and cultural issues have become separated and the political space has become increasingly two-dimensional. On the economic dimension, advocates of economic redistribution are pitted against advocates of laissez-faire. On the dimension with social and cultural issues at its core, the contrast is between ecologist, alternative and libertarian post-materialist (GAL) positions, on the one hand, and traditionalist, authoritarian, and nationalist (TAN) positions on the other. Some argue that these positions can be combined with concerns for diversity and group identity in an increasingly multicultural and globalised world. Others, on the contrary, argue that issues of European integration and globalisation are not connected to the libertarian-authoritarian elements of the TAN dimension; rather, they constitute a third dimension in their own right.
Ages, generations, and political attitudes
Type of party voted for and the birth cohort can help to understand the different extents to which citizens' opinions are ideologically structured. Some research on party competition, in fact, has shown how radical right-wing populist or new/anti-establishment parties strategically combine, in order to expand their electoral bases, bundles of issues and themes –– in a non-ideological manner (i.e. not reflecting the traditional progressive-conservative opposition), for instance by mixing anti-immigration positions with progressive positions on personal freedoms. Political change, moreover, occurs mainly through the younger generation. There is the so-called 'age effect' whereby young people generally have less stable political views than older people and are more open to innovation. And there is the so-called 'generation effect' whereby what counts in defining political attitudes in different age groups is the period in which political socialisation takes place. Whereas young people in the 2000s were socialised to politics in a historical period marked by the issues of immigration, European integration, globalisation, and the environment, older people, on the other hand, grew up in the period of the creation and consolidation of the welfare state, characterised mainly by the left-right economic conflict.
In light of the transformations described and the knowledge gained, does it still make sense to interpret voters' preferences on economic, cultural, and transnational issues by means of an all-encompassing, single ideological dimension based on the progressive-conservative antithesis? Does it make more or less sense depending on the type of party that voters cast their votes for? Do young people have positions in a multidimensional political space better representable than those of people who are no longer young? A study by the Milan State University focused on these questions.
An empirical test
In order to answer these questions, the research made use of original survey data from the CISE-ICCP survey recording voters' preferences on issues at the centre of election campaigns in seven Western European countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom), in the context of general elections held between 2017 and 2019.
The dimensions of the political space were studied by investigating the respondents' positioning on a number of issues, all of which can be allocated to three spheres: the economic sphere (with issues related to taxation, the welfare state, labour market regulations, and government intervention in the economy); the cultural sphere (with issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, law and order, environmentalism, democratic participation, and gender equality): and the transnational sphere (with issues related to European integration, globalisation, and immigration). These spheres can be interpreted as the three dimensions discussed in the literature: the left-right economic dimension, the GAL-TAN cultural dimension, and the supranational integration-demarcation dimension.
In each group of questions relating to a specific sphere, the respondent's consistency with the corresponding dimension was tested. For example, in the cultural sphere, a voter who declared him/herself in favour of same-sex marriage was consistent if at the same time, s/he declared him/herself in favour of abortion, euthanasia, and environmental protection policies. In this case, it can be said that the GAL-TAN cultural dimension is relevant to the choice of vote.
On the assumption that these three dimensions are strongly correlated with each other and that there is therefore a single all-encompassing progressive-conservative dimension that informs voters' choices, we expect, for example, to find not only that voters firmly in favour of increasing taxes and spending on social policies are also firmly in favour of greater state intervention in the economy but also that they support same-sex marriages, measures to protect the environment, and policies of greater European integration and openness to immigration. The consistency index used both for each specific dimension and the all-encompassing progressive-conservative dimension ranges from zero to one. The minimum value means that no answers to the questions on a specific dimension are consistent, while the maximum meant that 100% of these answers are consistent. Whenever a respondent provides answers that are inconsistent with the hypothesised latent dimension (e.g. with reference to the 'economic' dimension by stating that s/he wants lower taxes and health spending and at the same time wants more state intervention in the economy), we can conclude that this hypothetical dimension is not significant in structuring his/her preferences.
Table 1 shows, for each country, the average values of the coherence index of the individual answers to the questions on economic (economic left-right), cultural (GAL-TAN) and transnational (integration-demarcation) issues and the average values of the coherence index with respect to the all-encompassing progressive-conservative summary dimension, disaggregated by voting party and by age group (young vs. not young). The questions asked for consistency against the summary dimension include all the questions asked for the other three dimensions and none. Low coherence with respect to one of the dimensions identified a priori indicates that that dimension is not particularly relevant.
Lack of coherence with respect to a single progressive-conservative summary dimension
The data show that voters for the challenger parties (especially the radical right-wing populist parties) are more ideologically inconsistent than voters for the mainstream parties. For the all-inclusive progressive-conservative dimension, in fact, the lowest values of the coherence index are recorded by the answers of voters for the FPÖ in Austria (0.201), the AfD in Germany (0.196), the Lega in Italy (0.186), the PVV in the Netherlands (0.128), Vox in Spain (0.211), UKIP in the UK (0.179). In France, this is the case of voters for Macron's party (EM), a new centrist party that still wants to overcome the traditional progressive-conservative distinction.
Not all voters for traditional parties are consistent with the progressive-conservative summary dimension. The voters for centre-left parties are especially so. In Italy, for example, 41.7 per cent of PD voters' positions on all relevant policy issues are consistently progressive. In comparison, the percentage of consistency is much lower among Forza Italia voters (21.4 per cent). In some countries, voters for Green parties or new left-wing populist parties are more consistent with the progressive-conservative summary dimension. This is the case of GroenLink in the Netherlands, the Grünen in Austria and Germany, and Podemos in Spain.
Table 1 also shows that, in general, the positions of non-young people are slightly more consistent with the summary dimension than the positions of young people, with the exception of the Netherlands and Italy, where the coherence index shows a slightly higher value among young people.
Within the three specific dimensions (economic right-left, GAL-TAN, and integration-demarcation), socialist/social democratic and radical left voters take the most coherent positions on economic issues (i.e. left-wing positions), while green voters show coherent positions (i.e. GAL) mainly on cultural issues. By contrast, on issues related to the supranational integration-national demarcation axis, the most coherent positions are taken by voters for radical right-wing parties (with coherence percentages always above 55%). The exception is Spain, where the anti-immigration positions of Vox voters are not combined with anti-EU positions.
In each specific dimension, young people tend to take positions more inconsistent than those of non-young people – except in Austria and especially in France with regard to the GAL-TAN dimension, in Spain with regard to the integration-demarcation dimension. The greatest ideological inconsistency among young people concerns the economic dimension. The exception is Italy, where young people are basically always the most consistent with respect to all the dimensions considered.
A political space undergoing 'differentiated' restructuring
The traditional progressive-conservative (left-right in general) distinction seems to have lost its ability to order voters' preferences on the issues proposed by the parties. However, the political space is not completely unstructured. In the case of voters for left-wing parties or in some cases for environmental parties, the progressive-conservative summary dimension is still relevant. Similarly, the left-right economic dimension also seems to matter on average for voters on the social democratic or radical left, especially those aged over 35. In general, for younger people, the traditional left-right economic dimension is less relevant (but not in Italy) than the cultural (GAL-TAN) or transnational dimensions in structuring their political preferences. Finally, although the voters for the populist radical right are the most inconsistent with respect to the general progressive-conservative distinction, they are very coherent with respect to the supranational integration-demarcation dimension. In the final analysis, rather than a deconstructed political space, a political space in the process of differentiated restructuring seems to be emerging: that is, where principles on which voters structure their preferences are asserting themselves, but they differ according to age and the parties voted for.