Winning with Equality: How Left-wing Parties Attract Votes but Amplify Electoral Cleavages

About this Session


Wed. 10.04. 16:45



Authors: Alexander Horn, Carsten Jensen, David Weisstanner,

Western democracies have undergone profound changes in the past decades. Traditional class-based voting has declined, while new socio-political issues like equal rights for disadvantaged groups, such as women and ethnic and sexual minorities, have emerged. Sometimes derogatorily referred to as “wokeism”, this heightened sensitivity towards social inequalities has also been described as a wedge issue that pitches center-left parties against more activist postmaterialist new left parties.

In this paper, we ask how the rising awareness on equal rights affects party competition, specifically focusing on center-left and postmaterialist left parties. Social democratic center-left parties have historically championed reducing economic inequalities through expansive welfare programs and progressive taxation. They enjoyed high “issue ownership” on economic equality. As postmaterialist left parties have begun to emphasize equal rights as a – perhaps even more important – dimension of equality, the electoral value of such hard-earned issue ownership may be diminished.

We focus on two related questions. First, which parties benefit from emphasizing equality issues, and how has this evolved over time? Drawing on issue ownership theory, we argue that postmaterialist left parties, rooted in social rights and protest movements, gain electoral support by highlighting equal rights, while mainstream center-left parties attract votes by emphasizing economic equality, although this effect may have declined in recent years. Second, do these electoral strategies amplify the social division of the party system along socioeconomic lines? Inspired by extant research on electoral realignment, we argue that parties emphasizing equal rights increasingly attract highly educated voters, while emphasis on economic equality attracts low-income voters.

We explore these expectations by combining a novel dataset on the emphasis on equality during election campaigns – based on 47.439 crowd-coded party manifesto statements to decipher positive references to economic equality or equal rights – with national election surveys in seven countries (Australia, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA) from the 1970s until today. We find strong evidence for our expectations, but with the important nuance that mainstream center-left parties have gained surprisingly much from emphasizing both economic equality and equal rights. This suggests that the center-left benefits electorally from embracing both the traditional stance of economic equality as well as the new issue of equal rights for disadvantaged groups. At the same time, we show that this successful electoral strategy amplifies cleavages between educational and income groups. It is, in other words, an electoral strategy with possibly dire consequences for social divisions in society.