Research program

A large literature has documented the process of dealignment and its causes but no one has systematically investigated its consequences for representative democracy yet. The ambition of this research program is to take a next step and to fill this important gap in the literature by examining the consequences of the erosion of partisanship on 1) the vote choices of citizens, 2) the behaviour of political parties and 3) the congruence between citizens and parties. These three elements constitute the three research lines of this program and will be investigated using representative voter survey-data, party-level data and survey experiments.

Objectives

Across advanced democracies, linkages between citizens and parties are weakening. The aim of this research program is to examine how this widely observed erosion of strong ties between citizens and parties – referred to as dealignment – affects the functioning of representative democracy. Thinking about changes in electoral democracies over the last decades, dealignment is perhaps the single most important and fundamental process. This process of change and the fact that citizens are becoming more and more apartisan is a major challenge for democracy because parties are at the very heart of democracy. Much research, including my own, has documented the process of dealignment and its causes but no one has systematically investigated the consequences of dealignment for the functioning of representative democracy yet. The ambition of this research program is hence to take a next step and to fill this important gap in the literature by examining the consequences of the erosion of partisanship on 1) the vote choices of citizens, 2) the behaviour of political parties and 3) the congruence between citizens and parties. These three elements constitute the three research lines of this program and will be investigated using representative voter survey-data, party-level data as well as survey experiments. Within this research program, we first focus on the level of the individual voter and investigate how party alignments impact on the vote choices that citizens make. More specifically, we investigate whether dealignment strengthens or weakens two essential vote choice mechanisms that are thought to allow for democratic representation: proximity voting (i.e., the fact that voters choose the party that is ideologically closest to them) on the one hand and accountability (i.e., the fact that voters use their vote to hold parties and politicians accountable for their performance) on the other. A second line of research will focus on the effects of dealignment for political parties. We will determine whether dealignment induces parties to take less polarized positions and to change their ideological positions more frequently. The third component of this research program, finally, aims to investigate how the process of dealignment affects policy congruence between citizens and their representatives. To that end, we will ascertain whether ideological congruence between public opinion and parties in the legislature is affected by the level and strength of partisanship in the electorate. By combining analyses of voters, parties and the congruence between both, this research program will offer a comprehensive account of the democratic consequences of the process of dealignment.

 

State of the art and research lines

Since the 1970s, numerous studies have observed that linkages between citizens and political parties are eroding. The occurrence of this process of dealignment is by now well established, and it is obvious that partisanship is in decline. As a result, voter turnout rates are decreasing and election results are increasingly unstable (Dalton & Wattenberg, 2002). Voting behaviour in a large number of advanced democracies is  becoming increasingly unstable, which is clear at the aggregate (Dassonneville & Hooghe, 2015) as well as at the individual-level (Dassonneville, 2013). This empirical evidence suggests a structural change of mass politics, with profound impacts on representative democracy (Mair, 2005). Traditionally, political parties are assumed to play a crucial role in ensuring that citizens’ views are represented in government. Indeed, it has been argued that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Schattschneider, 1992: 1). Parties, and partisanship in particular, serve as an excellent and ‘easy’ shortcut for voters to decide whom to vote for. By relying on partisanship, voters can – even without being informed on each and every policy issue – be confident that ‘their’ party will represent their interests in the best possible manner. From this point of view, dealignment and the waning of these partisan cues inevitably has to be conceived of as a threat for representative democracy. The central aim of this research program is therefore to investigate the consequences of dealignment for representative democracy, and this is done with respect to three main elements – that are corresponding to the three research lines of this research program.

In a first research line, the effects of dealignment on citizens’ electoral behaviour are investigated. There are two opposing views in the literature. On the one hand, scholars have argued that without the presence of strong parties, vote choices have become “merely a blurry snapshot” (Andeweg, 2003: 151) that no longer reflect the stable preferences or interests of voters. An opposing view argues that the erosion of strong linkages between citizens and parties allows voters to choose their parties independently and freely (Rose & McAllister, 1986). From this perspective, the process of dealignment can be argued to strengthen representation, as it allows voters to rationally choose the party that would best represent their interests instead of blindly choosing the party they identify with. The inconclusiveness in the literature necessitates investigating systematically how dealignment affects the vote choice. To do so, we will focus on two essential mechanisms that are thought to allow for democratic representation: proximity voting on the one hand and mechanisms of accountability on the other (Przeworski et al., 1999). First, proximity voting means that voters should choose the party that is ideologically closest to them and the ‘Responsible Party Model’ assumes that this mechanism is essential for ensuring democratic representation (APSA, 1950). The straightforward though fundamental question that will be investigated is whether weaker allegiances result in more proximity voting. Our results will hence clarify whether the erosion of partisanship indeed implies that voters are able to identify in a more effective and less biased manner the political party that best matches their own political and ideological positions (Dalton & Wattenberg, 2002). A second important mechanism for allowing democratic representation lies in the electorate holding parties and politicians accountable for their performances (Key, 1966). Unlike the proximity-perspective, where the focus is on voters prospectively assessing which representatives are most likely to defend their interests, this perspective implies that voters are retrospectively assessing whether representatives have defended their interests in the past (Przeworski et al., 1999). We will investigate whether weaker party allegiances imply that such retrospective evaluations are more important and whether representatives are hence held accountable to a larger extent. While both proximity voting as well as accountability are regularly investigated mechanisms in the field of electoral research, no study has yet examined whether and how they are affected by the process of dealignment (see however Dassonneville & Lewis-Beck, 2015). In addition to assessing over-time dynamics, it is important to investigate how exactly – in causal terms – partisan attachments are affecting proximity voting and accountability mechanisms. Inspired by the idea that partisanship can act to bias voters’ perceptions (Zaller, 1992), a number of studies have already examined how partisanship mediates the impact of proximity voting or accountability, mostly by means of survey data (see e.g., Kayser & Wlezien, 2011). These studies offer indications that proximity voting as well as mechanisms of accountability are indeed more pronounced among voters with weak party attachments. In the context of this research program, we build further on these findings and investigate this question experimentally. With respect to mechanisms of accountability more specifically, different policy domains (i.e., not only the economy but also domains such as crime, migration or social security) as well as more general aspects of governance (e.g., corruption) will be looked at, which constitutes an important innovation in a field that is still primarily focused on the impact of the economy on vote choices (although there are exceptions e.g., Hobolt et al., 2013).

A second research line of this program focuses on parties and examines whether and how dealignment affects parties’ behaviour and their ideological position taking more specifically. Mair (2008) has argued that the erosion of partisanship leads parties to pursue more catch-all strategies. As they have lost their ‘heartlands’, political parties have to engage in a more open competition for votes if they want to win elections. As a result, party competition is changing and parties are expected to become ideologically more similar (and thus less polarized) in an attempt to all convince the median voter. While there is a large literature on parties’ strategic behaviour and ideological position taking (Adams, 2012), very few studies have investigated temporal dynamics in party competition and no one has systematically assessed yet whether the process of dealignment is associated with parties becoming more ideologically similar. What remains to be addressed, hence, is whether the erosion of partisanship leads parties to take less ideologically polarized positions. Additionally, it will be investigated whether weaker party alignments lead parties to change ideological positions more quickly and whether parties are changing their party manifestos to take into account new issues that they consider attractive to volatile voters. While scholars have already investigated party manifesto change and its determinants (see e.g., Walgrave & Nuytemans, 2009) no one has investigated whether the erosion of partisanship affects how quickly parties are adjusting their programs to take into account new issues. As an example, do parties in a context of weak partisan attachments more quickly address new issues – such as the environment or migration? In sum, this second line of research starts from the assumption that in order to increase our understanding of the impact of dealignment on representative democracy and because parties can be considered to act strategically as well it is important not only to focus on voters but also on supply-side actors.

A third research line reaches a higher level of aggregation and relates citizens and parties by looking at ideological congruence between the two. The aim of this third line of research is to understand how dealignment is affecting the quality of representation itself. In line with Pitkin (1967), the quality of representation can be assessed by examining the extent to which elected representatives act in favour of the interests of their voters. For evaluating the quality of representation, a number of studies have already examined indicators of ideological congruence between citizens and their representatives (Blais & Bodet, 2006; Golder & Stramski, 2010). These studies have mostly focused on the impact of electoral institutions on levels of congruence. Our research program will build further on the insights of previous research and investigate the impact of partisanship on congruence. To that end, we will examine the effect of temporal and cross-national variation in levels of partisanship on congruence. By doing so, we will shed light on the question what impact partisan ties have on ideological congruence between the citizenry and their representatives and whether the process of dealignment strengthens the ideological congruence between citizens and parties.

In sum, this ambitious and original research program aims to clarify the impact of the widely noted process of dealignment in advanced democracies on the quality of representative democracy. To that end, we will investigate how the strength (or weakness) of partisan ties affects citizens’ as well as parties’ behaviour and ultimately the ideological congruence between citizens and representatives. This research program will not only offer an all-encompassing view of the consequences of dealignment, it will also clarify the role of voters and parties in this process. More broadly, the analyses on congruence between the citizenry and the legislature will allow us to judge whether partisanship is improving the quality of representation and hence whether the process of dealignment is indeed jeopardizing the quality of representative democracy – as some have claimed.

 

This content has been updated on 31 October 2016 at 14 h 24 min.