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The Politics of Inequality. Economic Inequality, Political Trust, and Electoral Behaviour.

Book - Dissertation

Does economic inequality influence political trust and voting behaviour of citizens in Western democracies? And how can political trust contribute to more support for income redistribution? This doctoral dissertation aims to provide an answer to these two questions from a comparative and quantitative angle. The key assumption of this dissertation is that some countries are more, and other countries are less successful in creating an equal society, and establishing a generous social welfare state. In more equal countries, so the literature predicts, we should expect that citizens will have more trust in their political institutions, and hence, that it will be easier for these institutions to enact social welfare and redistributive policies. We find this pattern because citizens with higher levels of trust, tend to be more in favour of government interventions in the economy, and they are more supportive of welfare state policies. Trusting citizens, moreover, are more likely to cast a vote that is in line with their policy preferences, because they will trust their political actors to implement their preferred policies. In more unequal countries, in contrast, we expect the opposite. Precisely because the political system is unsuccessful in curbing inequality, citizens will not believe that their political institutions will be capable of ensuring a more equal income distribution. In consequence, political actors will not receive a mandate to curb inequality. However, we may also expect that citizens of unequal countries, will more often punish their incumbent governments for failing to curb inequality. Or, they might vote more often for parties who promise to curb the power of economic elites, such as the populist radical right, but also social-democratic parties. In summary, we could hypothesise that the level of economic inequality of a given country, will influence political trust and voting behaviour. These democratic inputs, moreover, may also lead to support for income redistribution. In consequence, some countries become “trapped” in inequality. To test these research questions, I analysed various international surveys, such as the European Social Survey and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, as well as the Belgian Electoral Study and Norwegian panel data through regression analyses. In the first section of my doctoral dissertation, I focused on the influence of economic inequality on political trust, and electoral behaviour. From a theoretical point of view, we can in this regard expect two main patterns: on the one hand, it could be expected that all citizens of a given country would react equally to the level of inequality in their country (in keeping with uniform effects theories), or on the other hand, inequality would mainly have an indirect effect, through changing the cleavages in political trust and vote choices of the different socioeconomic strata (in keeping with the adjustment theories). Theories that argue for uniform inequality effects, highlight that economic inequality leads to negative externalities (such as higher crime rates or lower social cohesion), and that citizens may reject inequality out of moral and fairness principles. Hence, all citizens will react equally to the extent of inequality within their country, and economic inequality is suggested to have a negative influence on a thriving political culture. The results of this dissertation, however, suggest that this is not always the case. Economic inequality is partially connected to political distrust, but it does not lead to specific vote choices. I did find further evidence for the adjustment theories. In more unequal countries, more well-to-do, and less well-to-do citizens report more similar levels of trust. A level of trust that is on average lower than what is the case in more equal countries. In equal countries, in contrast, we observe bigger cleavages in political trust between the different socioeconomic strata. I speculate that this is the consequence of processes of cognitive dissonance, a lower level of political sophistication, and adjusted expectations in more unequal countries. In more unequal countries, citizens might be rationalising the extent of inequality in their country through adjusted moral norms. They might also expect less from and pay less attention to politics. This does not mean, however, that citizens would be satisfied with the allocation of economic resources in their country. On election day, we observe a higher polarisation in incumbent support between those voters who are satisfied with the management of the economy in their country, and those who are not. In more equal countries, in contrast, we observe less polarisation in economic voting behaviour. We do find that citizens become more critical about what their governments are doing for them. Precisely because their government is ensuring more equality, and more generous social policies, citizens will be more critical when they themselves are still not faring well economically. Hence, we observe a stronger trust gap between more and less well-off citizens. In the second section of this dissertation, finally, I investigated whether political trust leads to more support for income redistribution. In particular, I studied the idea that political trust can be used as a heuristic by citizens when making political decisions. According to this logic, citizens with more political trust, will support political action in the field of social policy and income redistribution, and will let their vote choices be guided by these concerns. The logic behind this is that citizens with more political trust will believe that their political institutions are capable of reducing economic inequality. The results of this dissertation indeed suggest that this is the case. Citizens with higher levels of trust, will more often vote for parties that represent their policy views. Political trust will also increase social solidarity, and support for more targeted welfare policies (such as policies aimed at unemployed or poorer citizens). Moreover, trust will make citizens accept more drastic welfare state reforms and more controversial welfare policies. In summary, we can conclude that a cyclical pattern is occurring, where economic inequality, and the democratic inputs under study are interconnected with each other, whereby some countries seem to be trapped in inequality, while others are more successful in achieving an inclusive society.
Publication year:2021