Eelco Harteveld: a bit of affective polarization is necessary and the ‘oxygen’ of democracy

Why women are less likely to support far right parties? How does elite polarization influence voters behaviour? And why are we so hostile to each other, while our views are quite similar and moderate? We spoke about it with Eelco Harteveld, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Amsterdam.

How does voting behaviour differ between women and men in the modern world? Is the difference getting smaller?

In most countries women are somewhat more likely to vote for left-wing parties compared to men. This wasn’t always the case: decades ago, when female suffrage was introduced in many European countries, women were more likely to vote for conservative parties, which is generally attributed to stronger religiosity. However, since around the 70s this started to reverse, leading to the pattern we see today. I have not seen evidence that this difference is getting smaller.

Women are less likely to support far right parties. Why?

The general left-wing orientation makes women less likely to vote for parties on the right, whether they are mainstream right or far right. However, the ‘gender gap’ on the far right is larger than for other right-wing parties, which means there must be more to it. There are probably multiple reasons. The first is that the far right reaches voters with a profile that applies (somewhat) less often to women: lower educated voters with insecure occupations. Second, far right parties tend to be very controversial, or even stigmatized. There is evidence that this controversial image deters women more than men. Third, it does not seem to matter which stance far right parties take on gender issues (which is not central to their voters, male or female) for their ‘gender gap’.

far right parties appeal to voters who experience relative status decline. This can apply to many men who see that women are catching up in society on all fronts.

Still, in a more general sense far right parties appeal to voters who experience relative status decline: people whose position in the world suddenly seems to be valued less. This can apply to many men who see that women are catching up in society on all fronts.

Do the far-right parties try to decrease the gender gap and attract more female voters?

We have little insight in what the parties try to do to decrease the gender gap, but the gap appears to be shrinking somewhat (although the pattern isn’t clear-cut). It could be that the gap shrinks because of things that the party does to increase its appeal in general; that is also likely to involve more female voters. The most important thing is probably for parties to get a more “normal” and de-stigmatized image. Marine le Pen calls this de-demonization. As parties de-stigmatize, they can grow larger, which also sends a cue of acceptability, etcetera. Indeed it seems that parties that are less controversial have smaller gender gaps. Of course, the image parties have is partly beyond their own control, but they can sever links to more militant extreme right groups, which some parties do more than others (like AfD).

The most important thing is probably for parties to get a more “normal” and de-stigmatized image. Marine le Pen calls this de-demonization.

How does elite polarization influence voters behaviour?

This is a good question. One the one hand, voters pick up the worldview of the politicians they support, so if parties polarize voters can polarize too. On the other hand it is not uncommon to see different trends in polarization among voters and elites. For instance, in the United States many voters are more centrist than their politicians.

Why voters stay moderate (according to YouGov-Cambridge Globalism survey), while elite polarization is growing at the EU?

The fact that most voters are moderate, and indeed stay so, is well established in many studies of public opinion, both in the US and Europe. I think it is important to distinguish two types of polarization: ideological and affective. Ideological polarization is about actual disagreement: strong polarization means more extreme views. Affective polarization is about hostility between political camps: people disliking each other because of their views. Interestingly, these two do not correlate much. It is well possible for voters to dislike each other even if their views are quite similar and moderate. This is the case, in an extreme way, in the US. If voters strongly dislike the other camp, having polarized politicians is appealing, even if that comes with views that are more extreme than their own.

It is well possible for voters to dislike each other even if their views are quite similar and moderate.

Why did affective polarization take place at the EU? Or maybe it is a worldwide trend.

Affective polarization seems to be a worldwide trend, although not every country experiences it to the same extent. We know little for sure about the reasons, but there are some likely causes. The first is social sorting and ‘echo chambers’: citizens are likely to talk to and be around very similar people, and can read things that confirm their worldview online and on social media. All of this makes political ‘outgroups’ also outgroups in other sense (education, city vs countryside, etcetera). The second reason might be a general moralization of politics that comes with cultural issues around identity (immigration, EU, national identity, gender). They speak more closely to our moral intuitions and are harder to compromise on. Finally, the rise of populist actors who moralize politics as well (being against the immoral mainstream) and are disliked and stigmatized in return (for crossing social and legal norms about prejudice) might leave everybody more angry about their political opponents.

What are the consequences of affective polarization? Is it an exclusively negative phenomenon?

I think a bit of affective polarization is necessary and the ‘oxygen’ of democracy: caring about a cause makes people want to go into politics, vote, inform themselves, canvas, etcetera. However, if it grows out of proportion, it can be dangerous for democracy. It can create deadlock in politics: people are less likely to compromise, create coalitions, work together, etcetera. People are less likely to talk to, deliberate with, and learn from people with different views. It divides citizens and harms social cohesion. On the long run it can harm democratic norms, because if political opponents are evil enemies, why should you allow them to win the elections? In the US, about 1/5th already states in surveys that violence might be necessary in case the other party wins the elections. I don’t think the situation in Europe is as far, but these are potentially dangerous consequences.

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