Electoral notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ could consolidate a new divide in Western European politics
West European party systems have been characterized by increasing fragmentation and the rise of new challengers. Delia Zollinger writes that while these developments may suggest a future of political volatility, they don’t necessarily. Based on a new study, it illustrates that we may instead see the rise of a new political divide that has the potential to shape politics in the years to come.
Historically, voting for the left was a question of identity for many people – of feeling “worker” or “working class”. Likewise, support for Christian democracy throughout Western Europe was rooted in identification with the Catholic faith as central to worldview and self-understanding. Such notions of group membership – nurtured from cradle to grave through family ties, community networks, and institutions with ties to political parties such as social clubs, unions or churches – have enabled politics remarkably stable over much of the 20e century.
A limited number of key conflicts (including class and religious conflicts) have shaped political life in most Western European countries. These conflicts originated in the nation-building processes and the Industrial Revolution, but once reflected in party systems, they dominated politics for decades. Electoral alternatives were widely offered and stable, and the positions of many voters in their communities provided them with an almost permanent social identity (eg as a “worker” or “Christian”) that came with the knowledge of their political affiliation.
This image of stability began to fragment from the 1970s, and there is much evidence to suggest that we have long since entered a new political era. The profound changes in the economy and in society – linked to economic modernization and globalization – have given rise to new political demands and grievances. Across Western Europe, new parties expressing these demands have emerged at the expense of established parties.
On the left, the ecological parties have become the standard bearers of a socially progressive agenda. Defending a diverse and inclusive society (for example by defending liberal migration policies, LGBTQ rights or gender equality), these “new left parties” have succeeded in a growing urban and educated middle class. At the other end of the political spectrum, far-right parties have gained ground among people with little or medium education, people living outside urban centers or among workers. They did so in particular by espousing socially conservative and anti-immigrant positions or by calling for the protection of national sovereignty.
This fragmentation of the political landscape could be seen as evidence that politics is becoming more and more volatile. Indeed, in a more educated and individualized society, one would expect voters to critically assess the performance of parties before each election, flexibly adjusting their voting behavior. However, recent evidence from Switzerland suggests that – rather than reflecting the general disorder and instability – electoral politics may be reorganizing itself more fundamentally, with strong group identities playing an anchoring role. no less important than before.
The third ingredient in a new fracture
Obscure behind the apparent political fragmentation and instability of Western European party systems, we have seen a growing conflict emerge over whether society should be more open (cosmopolitan, diverse, with equal rights for all) or firm (conservative, nationally defined, with strong boundaries).
This debate has been expressed by political parties, particularly in the opposition between the far right and new left parties, the latter including but not limited to environmental parties. Moreover, the debate also has a clear basis in the structure of society, with those with higher levels of education tending to favor the open and those with lower levels of education tend to take the opposite perspective. We have thus seen the emergence of the first two ingredients of a new major cleavage in West European politics: socio-structural cleavages linked to political cleavages.
The question remains whether this emerging conflict has too become anchored in the way voters think of who they are socially and politically, as class conflict once was. A sense of collective identity can be seen as the third ingredient in the major conflicts that characterized West European politics for much of the 20e century. Could the open-close divide evolve into something comparable?
Identity conflict today: merging economy and culture
In a recent study on voters in Switzerland, my co-authors and I trace the identities linking the far right versus the new left to socio-structural characteristics such as education and occupation. Switzerland lends itself well to the study of emerging identities because it illustrates the structural and political transformations underway in most Western European countries. Notably, the early expansion of education and the growth of a highly skilled service sector led to the emergence of a large urban and educated middle class in Switzerland, while jobs in industry largely disappeared. .
At the political level, the demands of this new middle class gave birth to the Green Party and also prompted the Swiss Social Democrats to adopt a socially progressive “new left” agenda. In opposition to this large “new left” bloc, the Swiss People’s Party has grown into one of the most powerful far-right parties in Western Europe, with its growing popularity among working people and small business owners dating back to the 1990s. If new collective identities are formed somewhere, we should now be able to observe them in Switzerland.
Indeed, our analysis, which is based on an online survey of 1,000 people questioned, reveals that the subjective notions of belonging to a group of Swiss voters are clearly anchored in their objective socio-structural characteristics, which goes against the idea of an increasingly individualized “non-rooted” politics. . Beyond educational and professional identities, for example, cosmopolitan identities as opposed to national identities are clearly linked to educational level or urban residence (implying that the so-called “cultural wars” have an unmistakable basis. in the economic structure).
The closed questions we asked about the identities of Swiss voter groups indicate that economically rooted cleavages have become politically mobilized mainly in cultural terms: identities linked to cosmopolitanism, nationality and cultural lifestyles are by far the most important. more distinctive between far-right and new-left voters. The only politicized identity that clearly reflects the corresponding socio-demographic divide is urban-rural residence. Education and professional class appear more marginally.
These observations suggest that even economically entrenched social identities must be culturally politicized to unfold their structuring potential. Therefore, although translating structural divisions into politics is not always straightforward, our study provides evidence that the ‘third ingredient’ of a new, enduring political divide exists.
The role of political actors
The Swiss case indicates that, in the grand scheme of things, the open-closed divide (or the “universalism-particularism” divide, as we call it in our study) has the potential to structure politics in the 21st century.st century, in the enduring and ubiquitous way that class conflict once did.
In Switzerland, this divide shapes the way voters see their place in society and politics. Beyond Switzerland, the question of whether, when and how these new collective identities emerge also depends on the organization of the party – the success of the challengers parties or the strategic reactions of the parties established on the center-right and the center. -left. Our analysis of Swiss survey data suggests at least that the potential for a major new political divide with antagonistic identities exists between countries undergoing comparable structural and political transformations.
For more information, see the author’s accompanying article (co-authored with Simon Bornschier, Silja Häusermann and Céline Colombo) at Comparative political studies
Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash