Politicization of Inequality and the Political Behavior of Low-Income Citizens

About this Session


Fri. 08.04. 15:15



Speaker: Paul Marx

By the standards of recent German political history, the 2021 election was characterized by pronounced competition on the socio-economic issue dimension. Proposals such as raising taxes on high incomes and wealth were not only included in manifestos (as they had been before) but ended up among the most salient topics of the campaign. Voters were hence confronted with a choice set that provided clearly distinguishable economic policy programs. This arguably represents a break with the dominant pattern of party competition in the 2000s and 2010s of de-politicizing socio-economic conflicts and inequalities. This contribution is mainly concerned with the extent to which the debate about inequality and redistribution in the 2021 campaign influenced lower-income citizens’ perceptions of left parties and voting behavior.
Theoretically, one would expect that the Social Democrats (SPD), by championing classic left-wing economic policies, were able to rally support from relatively poor voters and to increase their turnout. In addition, and most importantly, one could expect that the salient debate over redistributive policies contributed to better subjective representation among the poor and therefore to more favorable attitudes towards the political system (such as satisfaction with democracy, political efficacy, and trust). However, it is far from clear whether short-term changes in party competition and issue salience have noticeable effects on voters that habitually lack interest in politics.
It is often argued that left parties adopting neoliberal policies (such as the SPD) suffer a lasting loss of trust among their working-class voters, which might be hard to reverse. Likewise, life-course frameworks of political participation suggest that apathy can be a stable trait which makes it uncertain whether new signals from the political systems are received and processed at all. To study the contrasting expectations, the contribution relies on a multi-method approach. In a first step, it analyzes the degree of politicization of socio-economic issues and inequality in comparative case studies of recent elections (2009-2021). Data from the German Longitudinal Election Study then allows for assessing whether this contextual variation is mirrored in micro-level variation in voting behavior and the attitudes of low-income citizens. The micro-level analysis is complemented with 1) a set of survey experiments on the appeal of different social-justice frames the SPD used in the campaign and 2) focus groups that zoom in on the perception of the SPD’s treatment of tax increases for high incomes and wealth during the campaign.