ORA (Round 5)The Nature of Political Representation in Times of Dealignment

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: The Policy Institute


The growing psychological detachment of West European electorates from political parties provides one background of the proposed research. This trend is indicated by a number of specific developments such as decreasing levels of party identification, dwindling numbers of voters who continuously vote for one and the same party, and also decreasing trust in political parties (Dalton and Wattenberg 2000; Dalton 2016; Mair 2013). These developments progressively accumulate to a situation in which political representation is no longer structured through long-term stable attachments between distinct national political parties and distinct national coalitions of voters. The rise of non-partisan electorates raises pressing questions about ways to sustain responsive democratic governance in future decades. As partisanship was a key mechanism linking citizens and the state throughout the 20th century in Western Europe we must question how responsive democratic government be sustained in the 21st century in the absence of it.

Theories of individualized (dyadic) political representation provide a second background to the proposed research. Conceptual work on this issue pictures individual MPs as a potential mechanism for connecting citizens and the state. It portrays individualized forms of representation as a key alternative to European style collectivist representation. While the latter ideally is assumed to pair national coalitions of voters with national disciplined parties, the former has been characterized as a dyadic relationship between distinct constituents and individual representatives that might significantly affect voter satisfaction with the democratic process (Esaiasson et al. 2017; Karvonen 2010; Colomer 2011). Empirical work on this issue stresses related evidence on non-European systems such as the US-American case, in which individual legislators indeed structure the representative process to significant degrees, in which direct interactions between individual legislators and constituents are expected and frequent, and in which most politics is said to be local (Powell 2004; Uslaner and Zittel 2006).

Advancing from these two backgrounds, the proposed research asks about the extent to which dyadic representation provides a viable supplement to partisan mechanisms of representation in European contexts.

Planned Impact

The proposed project contributes to a substantial literature in the electoral studies that focuses on the direct effects of candidate-centered electoral institutions on the behaviors of legislators (Cain et al. 1987; Carey and Shugart 1995; André et al. 2014; André et al. 2015; Heitshusen et al. 2005; Rudolph and Däubler 2016; Bowler and Farrell 2011). In this literature, we see two gaps that we aim to contribute to. First, how MPs respond to demands from individual voters, that they formally are accountable to, remains a relatively unexplored issue in the electoral studies literature. This is partly a result of data shortage in survey driven research. Standard survey research that focuses on national samples provides little evidence about the demands of geographic or social sub-constituencies and how these interact with the behaviors of 'their' MP that is supposed to be representing them (Hanretty et al. 2017). This is unfortunate for one particular reason. We see a need to better understand the conditionality of electoral system effects amidst changing electoral markets. For example, increasing demands for dyadic representation could contradict incentives that result from party-centered systems and render their assumed behavioral effects innocuous. Second, in the electoral studies literature, the behaviors of MPs frequently take a back seat against the interest to chart out electoral system structures and deduct behavioral patterns from it. Supplementing this approach, we consider it key to more closely explore the behavioral patterns of MPs that result from electoral contexts and also to understand better the assumed causal mechanisms. Especially with regard to the aim to explore causal mechanisms in greater depth, we consider the proposed experimental approach an especially viable and useful strategy. Experimental research on legislators is a most recent development in political science research (e.g. Broockman 2013; 2014; Butler and Broockman 2011; Broockman and Ryan 2014). The proposed project contributes to this development in threefold ways. First, past experimental research predominantly focuses on US-Congress and thus on one distinct electoral context. This raises question of the general nature of its results and what we can learn from it about democratic responsiveness in European democracies. Consequently, our project takes this research to a number of European contexts. This provides us with greater variance at the electoral system level and allows us to draw more robust conclusions on the interactions between constituency demands and electoral institutions.

Second, the available research on US-Congress stresses social homophily as an important source of legislators' responsiveness. Broockman (2013; 2014), and Butler and Broockman (2011), for example, show that the ethnic background of both constituents and legislators matters for the probability of the latter responding to citizen-initiated requests. According to these findings, African American politicians are more intrinsically motivated to advance African American interests and to answer their requests than are their counterparts (for a comprehensive review on the role of minority legislators for representation, see Griffin, 2014). In our proposed research, we supplement this concern with the important question of how political homophily (partisanship) constraints the interactions between legislators and constituents. This is of special importance in European politics. In this vein, our research is related to recent work of Ohberg and Naurin (2016), who have shown that Swedish officials are more likely to respond to citizen initiated request when their position does not contradict the position of the party of the addressee, and thus when constituents communicate signals of shared partisanship. This underscores the general arguments made on the crucial role of party in linking citizens and legislators in European democracies (Powell, 2004; Thomassen, 1994)


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