Interview with Constantin Manuel Bosancianu on Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socioeconomic Biases in Representation

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu, of WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Germany, presented the paper, “Party–Voter Ideological Congruence and Socio-Economic Biases in Representation: OECD over the Past 5 Decades” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Constantin Manuel Bosancianu is a postdoctoral researcher in the “Institutions and Political Inequality” unit at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). He focuses on the intersection of political economy and electoral behavior: how to measure political inequalities between citizens of both developed and developing countries, and what the linkages between political and economic inequalities are. Dr. Bosancianu received his PhD in 2007 from the Central European University, Budapest, with a dissertation on how the dynamics of party ideological shifts, economic inequality, and individual political participation unfold over time. He is interested in statistics, data visualization, and the history of Leftist parties. In the past, Dr. Bosancianu taught or assisted with teaching methods courses at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Winter and Summer Methods Schools, University of Heidelberg or University of Gießen, with a focus on regression analysis, R, Bayesian analysis, and multilevel modelling.

We asked Constantin Manuel Bosancianu for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract

Disparities in political representation between socio-economic groups, if perpetuated over time, can lead to growing disenchantment with the political process, dropout from political life, and even the appearance of new political movements that challenge representative institutions (Taggart, 2002). Starting with the early investigations of Gilens (2005, 2009, 2012) for the US context, a series of analyses have found disparities in political representation across a larger number of consolidated democracies (Elsässer, Hense, & Schäfer, 2018; Giger, Rosset, & Bernauer, 2012; Peters & Ensink, 2015; Rosset, Giger, & Bernauer, 2013; Rosset, 2013). Despite the consistent results, we continue to have very limited knowledge about the causes and mechanisms for these disparities.

This analysis probes into this issue. By relying on an original data set of merged voter studies in 30 OECD countries, going as far back in time as the 1960s and 70s, I compute a measure of ideological congruence between voters and political parties. Called the Earth Mover’s Distance (Lupu, Selios, & Warner, 2017), it is based on citizens’ self-placement on a standard Left-Right axis, as well as their placement of parties on the same scale (Powell Jr., 2009). By relying on voters’ perceptions of parties rather than legislator self-placements (Lupu & Warner, 2018), my data overcomes the potential flaw of different understandings of “Left” and “Right” between people and political elites. This measure of congruence is then used to ascertain: (1) if representation gaps between voters at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum are found in my sample, and (2) whether the gaps in representation are associated with a demand-side characteristic (disparities in political participation between the same socio-economic groups) or a supply-side factor (party ideological changes over time).

Preliminary findings do little to dispel the mystery surrounding the causes of unequal representation for poorer citizens, though they conclusively establish that such a gap exists. They furthermore establish that overall quality of representation is associated with disparities in participation: contexts where turnout between income groups is more unequal have worse overall representation of income groups. However, even when relying on a measure of participation disparities generated from individual-level data, no clear association exists between disparities in political voice and gaps in representation between income groups. Neither do party-system dynamics appear to explain the disparity in ideological convergence between income groups. Though inconclusive, the findings confirm those of Lupu and Warner (2018) and will hopefully spur the focus on additional mechanisms to explain the relative disadvantage in representation that poorer citizens are faced with.

Interview

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on party–voter congruence. How did you get interested in this topic? And is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

The interest in political representation, for which party-voter ideological congruence is one proxy, came about through my focus on understanding how to measure the facets of political inequality between individuals and groups. For the past few years I have been interested in disparities in political voice between individuals and groups—aspects such as turnout, non-electoral participation, or political efficacy. These are shaped by individual resource endowments, which naturally generate inequalities in voice. This is only part of the story, though. Another part is how disparities in voice and political influence are shaped by systemic features pertaining to, say, the electoral system or party system configurations. Some of Orit Kedar’s work is an excellent example of this, as is that of Karen L. Jusko. My own attempts refer to another feature of the system: the distribution of parties along a Left–Right ideological dimension.

In this paper, you use an original dataset. Please briefly describe these data and why they are well-suited for your research.

The dataset is based on the one I used for my dissertation project. It represents a merging and harmonization of numerous individual-level election studies projects carried out in OECD countries. In some cases, such as the United States’ ANES, or the Swedish election series, the coverage extends as far back as the 1940s or 50s. For other studies, though, the coverage is more recent: 1980s or 90s. In total I merge about 300 election studies, out of which 190 had an item asking voters to first place themselves on a Left–Right axis, and then place the most important political parties in the country on the same axis. The data is certainly not as extensive as the one which Zach Warner and Noam Lupu use in their analysis of party–voter ideological congruence. However, it does afford me the chance to directly test whether a more refined measure of the participation gap between income groups is associated with the extent of (in)congruence.

bosancianu poland 2018 politics and inequality conference

What surprised you most about your research on party–voter congruence?

I find that the most puzzling aspect of the results, which Warner and Lupu also obtain, is that even though I can identify a clear pattern of worse representation for poorer voters, compared to rich ones, I cannot find a single aggregate-level factor that would explain this. The income-based turnout gap does explain aggregate quality of representation, but does not explain the representation gap between income groups. The results are provisional, but if they hold up they might cast doubt on an oft-repeated assumption in political science: that disparities in turnout lead to disparities in representation (Lijphart, 1997).

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

I would probably break it down into two messages. One, that there is a clear income-based representation gap across a vast range of rich democracies: poorer citizens get worse representation. This is based on only one conceptualization of representation, which is party–voter ideological congruence, and on one measure of this congruence, which is the Earth Mover’s Distance (Lupu, Selios and Warner, 2017). Nevertheless, it emerges in a consistent way for income groups, and almost not at all for educational groups. Second, that none of the “usual suspects” for what might cause this gap between income groups to vary across time and space is found to be “guilty”. Neither the turnout gap, nor income inequality, nor party shifts explain why this gap varies over time. The phrase “further work is needed” is encountered often in conclusions, though this is one of the instances where it becomes a stringent necessity rather than an encouragement.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

Given that my analysis has yielded a null result, it certainly feels a bit premature to speak of the “next step”; there is still some refinement to do on the current step. However, a more ambitious goal for the future is to try and disentangle whether the representation gap has a feedback loop on the turnout gap. Accounts about abstention due to alienation have been presented before in the literature (Adams, Dow and Merrill, III, 2006), but empirical evidence has been scant in a cross-national setting. (I am grateful to one of the conference participants for pointing this literature to me.) Focusing on this link would provide a more complex picture of the dynamics between representational disparities and political responses at the individual level to them.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

The two contributions belong to the authors I named in the first question here. Orit Kedar and coauthors’ 2016 article on voter inequality under PR represents a very important addition to our understanding of how institutional features shape the political influence voters exert. I am particularly drawn by articles that don’t try only to test a proposition, but rather propose a framework that can be used by others, and theirs is a wonderful example of this kind of contribution to the discipline. The second is a book by Karen L. Jusko: Who Speaks for the Poor? Hers is a historical perspective on why new parties appear, and how this is shaped by the distribution of new and previously unrepresented voters across electoral districts. I particularly enjoy the in-depth evidence the author marshals, the elegance of the theory she proposes, as well as her attempt at focusing on explaining why the poor get better representation in some contexts compared to others (something that I try to do as well).

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

Although I hesitate to use the word “older” with respect to this work, I would opt here for Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence. In many ways, this is one of the books that put the topic of political inequality on the forefront and linked it with economic inequality; another example is Larry Bartels’ Unequal Democracy. What continues to appeal to me about this book is the longitudinal approach it uses, along with the breadth of surveys and data that must be collected to underpin this approach. Ultimately, showing that a group is consistently disadvantaged in the political arena requires finding not only disparities in inputs, but similarly consistent disparities in outputs. Collecting such data is probably unfeasible for a large number of countries for the time being, but I believe it makes for a much more convincing case regarding political inequality.

References (provided by Dr. Bosancianu)

Adams, J., Dow, J. K., & Merrill III, S. (2006). The political consequences of alienation-based and indifference-based voter abstention: Applications to Presidential elections. Political Behavior, 28(1), 65–86.

Anderson, C. J., & Beramendi, P. (2012). Left Parties, Poor Voters, and Electoral Participation in Advanced Industrial Societies. Comparative Political Studies, 45(6), 714–746.

Elsässer, L., Hense, S., & Schäfer, A. (2018). Government of the People, by the Elite, for the Rich: Unequal Responsiveness in an Unlikely Case (MPIfG Discussion Papers No. 18/5). Cologne, Germany. Retrieved from https://pure.mpg.de/rest/items/item_2598861_5/component/file_2599529/content.

Giger, N., Rosset, J., & Bernauer, J. (2012). The Poor Political Representation of the Poor in a Comparative Perspective. Representation, 48(1), 47–61.

Gilens, M. (2005). Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69(5), 778–796.

Gilens, M. (2009). Preference Gaps and Inequality in Representation. PS: Political Science & Politics, 42(2), 335–341.

Gilens, M. (2012). Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gilens, M. (2012). Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Jusko, K. L. (2017). Who Speaks for the Poor? Electoral Geography, Party Entry, and Representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kedar, O., Harsgor, L., & Sheinerman, R. A. (2016). Are Voters Equal under Proportional Representation? American Journal of Political Science, 60(3), 676–691. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12225

Lijphart, A. (1997). Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma. The American Political Science Review, 91(1), 1–14.

Lupu, N., & Warner, Z. (2018). Affluence and Congruence: Unequal Representation Around the World (Working Paper). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from http://www.noamlupu.com/A&C.pdf.

Lupu, N., Selios, L., & Warner, Z. (2017). A New Measure of Congruence: The Earth Mover’s Distance. Political Analysis, 25(1), 95–113.

Lupu, N., Selios, L., & Warner, Z. (2017). A New Measure of Congruence: The Earth Mover’s Distance. Political Analysis, 25(1), 95–113.

Peters, Y., & Ensink, S. J. (2015). Differential Responsiveness in Europe: The Effects of Preference Difference and Electoral Participation. West European Politics, 38(3), 577–600.

Powell Jr., G. B. (2009). The Ideological Congruence Controversy: The Impact of Alternative Measures, Data, and Time Periods on the Effects of Election Rules. Comparative Political Studies, 42(12), 1475–1497.

Rosset, J. (2013). Are the Policy Preferences of Relatively Poor Citizens Under-represented in the Swiss Parliament? The Journal of Legislative Studies, 19(4), 490–504.

Rosset, J., Giger, N., & Bernauer, J. (2013). More Money, Fewer Problems? Cross-Level Effects of Economic Deprivation on Political Representation. West European Politics, 36(4), 817–835.

Taggart, P. (2002). Populism and the Pathology of Representative Politics. In Y. Mény & Y. Surel (Eds.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge (pp. 62–80). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. Dr. Bosancianu provided the detailed references. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).