Whose Democracy is it? A study of inequality in policy opinion congruence between privileged and underprivileged voters in Belgium
20 april 2017
UAntwerpen, Stadscampus, Hof Van Liere, F. de Tassiszaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus
Prof Stefaan Walgrave
PhD defence Christophe Lesschaeve - Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Political Sciences
Christophe Lesschaeve - Research group: Media, Movement & Politics (M²P) - University of Antwerp
In the last decade, the perception has taken root that parties are disconnected from their voters, and do not represent their voters’ policy preferences. This dissertation puts these perceptions to the test by studying inequality in the degree to which voters’ policy positions are congruent with those of political elites.
The central concept of this dissertation is policy opinion congruence, which refers to the agreement between voters’ and political elites’ policy preferences. Studying policy-opinion congruence is important, and the underlying idea is simple: The more that voters and their representatives want the same policies, the higher the chance that elected politicians will effectively represent those voters in their actual political decision-making. However, this dissertation examines a specific aspect of policy-opinion congruence: differences or inequality in policy-opinion congruence between privileged and underprivileged voters. The impetus to study inequality in congruence was born out of the concern that some voter groups’ greater access to, and control over, certain resources translates into increased levels of policy-opinion congruence.
To study inequality in policy opinion congruence, this thesis examins the concrete policy positions of voters and parties in Belgium during the 2014 electoral campaign. It finds that, despite a number of safeguards against inequality in congruence, the policy positions of political parties are more congruent with those privileged voters than with those of underprivileged voters. However, the primary explanation for this inequality in policy opinion congruence is ‘correct voting’. Voters vote correctly when they vote for parties with policy positions congruent to their own. This dissertation finds, however, that privileged voters are better able to vote correctly than underprivileged voters. Consequently, to a large degree, Inequality in policy opinion congruence is self-inflicted.
This thesis also looks at how correct voting is affected by electoral campaigns by comparing the extent to which voters vote for a party they agree with before and after the 2014 electoral campaign. While it finds that campaigns do increase the correctness of voters’ party choices, this increase is limited to privileged voters. Throughout the campaign, the correctness of privileged voters’ party choices increased, while underprivileged voters’ party choices hardly changed at all. Campaigns can thus be subject to a ‘Matthew effect’: Instead of closing the correct voting gap between privileged and underprivileged voters, campaigns primarily enable privileged voters―who are already in closer agreement with their party choices on policy positions―to increase their dyadic policy opinion congruence even further.
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