Today people’s economic and social interest are grouped in either the ‘Left’ or the ‘Right’ spectrum of politics. Traditionally, in a materialist political environment, people were primarily concerned with voting regarding their economic interests. These were mainly about keeping inflation low, avoiding high taxation and maintaining economic order. However, as the world makes a palpable shift to a ‘post-materialist’ era, people’s interests and their voting preferences have transformed. More leverage and attention is given to social aspects such as self-expression, environment, women rights and a de-emphasis on economic growth.1 Expectedly this has changed the way people perceive Left and Right parties and consequently how they vote for them. It is difficult to determine what interests people prioritize and consider when voting for a Left or Right party, especially when these interests and the meaning of Left and Right varies from country to country. For example, in Germany, the Left would mean environment protection and multiculturalism for a student but social welfare policies for a blue-collar worker.2 With a multitude of upcoming diverse interests, such as LGBT rights and abortion, it is difficult to assert whether economic interests remain as the main determinants of voter preferences. With social interests garnering attention from a growing voter demographic along with the desire to have appropriate political representation of one’s social identity, the monopoly of economic interests defining voting preferences has subsided. The social and economic interests have become interlinked with one another, as voters now consider both, if not one over the other, when considering who to vote for. Hence, we are left with a situation where it is difficult to determine if economic factors primarily manipulate Left-Right preferences.
Economic interests have historically been the main factor (if not only) which voters consider when deciding who to vote for. Change in an individual’s economic circumstances can easily change who they vote for. Powdthavee and Oswald proves this in their research regarding how winning the lottery, thus acquiring more wealth, makes people more Right-wing in their political beliefs.3 The winners tended to shift from the Left to Right, becoming less pro-egalitarian. This reflects that people are not only driven by economic self-interest, but that they vote for what they think is the public good and their perspective of public goods is altered by their financial situation. Furthermore, this seemed to be especially true for male winners who not only won more than women, but their Left to Right shift was even more dramatic. This correlates with the fact that men tend to be more concerned about economic interests (namely taxes) whereas women tend to be more concerned about their social interests (namely health benefits).4 The question of public spending and how economic crisis, for example The Great Recession 2008, alters voter preferences was explored by Yotam Margalit who determined that changes in household income, level of employment and job security influenced individuals Left-Right preferences and their response to welfare policies. Job security and the dominant fear of losing their job had the greatest impact. With greater job insecurity or being unemployed, support for welfare policy rose to between 22 to 28 percent. This was 2.5 times greater support than their co-partisans who remain safely employed. 5 Moreover, interestingly the research also proved that the level of support changed when job security level returned to normal with newly re-employed individuals not significantly likely to continue supporting welfare policies. This highlights that change in economic fortunes could provide ‘new calculus as to where one’s self interest lies’. 6
However, in order to grasp why voters behave on account of self-interest, it is important consider the social reasoning that predicates it. Support for welfare is ‘short-lived’ and this could be potentially because while unemployed, people learn weaknesses of the welfare system that make people lazy and binge on tax benefits. However, more importantly, “people’s prior ideological commitment is not thrown to the wayside” and a temporary shift in their Left-Right stance due to a temporary crisis is not enough to make them revert from their original interests and views.7 This logic underlines the importance of other factors- particularly social interests- that play a critical role in determining voter preferences.
Elias Dinas acclaimed research about the effects of early politicization of children through their parents and how it forms their ideology offers substantial perspective. Parental partisanship is passed onto the children and assists their early political knowledge and makes them more politically aware and sensitive later in life. Any unique political event in their early adulthood, such as the Arab Springs 2011 or Vietnam War, will trigger their level of political engagement. During the Vietnam War, many adults abandoned their parent’s political beliefs and became anti-war, thus becoming increasingly pro-Democratic. Hence, evidently belonging to politicized households not only makes one prone to shift away from their parent’s beliefs but also makes them attentive to political cues and have greater political sensitivities. This has the capacity to make voters more charged about specific social movements that they feel can be aligned to their social interests and political preferences. For example, members of the Black Lives Matter movement are unlikely to vote for a candidate who they feel is a discriminatory individual and opposes their movement. In recent years such movements have played a defining role in politics and people’s voting preferences.
Furthermore, interestingly Andrew J Oswald’s research proves that even the number of daughters one has can affect their Left-Right preference. For every extra daughter one has, there is a 2 percent increased chance of them voting for the Left. This is primarily because it makes parents, especially men, more sensitive to the social problems many women face in terms of healthcare and wage discrimination.8 In fact, another accompanying research proved that Congressmen in the USA vote more liberally on reproductive rights, tax free education and healthcare benefits depending on the number of daughters they have. 9 In addition to this, media biases and portrayal has a significant role to play in how people vote, especially in countries with relatively weaker democratic institutions. Ruben Enikolopov research proves that television has mass persuasion power especially in weaker democracies. NTV (one of the most watched state owned channels in Russia) had the capacity to change voting patterns altogether, even in the short run. Even a month before the election, due to NTV aired propaganda, upto 41 percent of the voter swayed their vote in favour for the OVR party.10 Fox News in the USA has a similar effect, especially in smaller rural towns. Towns that aired Fox News for the first time saw a significant change in the Republican vote between 1996 and 2000 elections. According to Steffano Dellavigna, 3 to 8 percent of Non- Republican voters were now easily convinced to vote Republican, with overall persuasion effects being as large as 28 percent.11 It is important to note however that, media does not necessarily only alter your social/economic interest or political ideology, but rather helps mobilize voters who had difficulty identifying their interests being represented in politics.
Having these continuously expanding social and economic interests along with pre-existing ideological commitment impacts one’s Left-Right preferences. People could be voting for a party because it aligns itself to their economically ‘Right’ interests, such as limited welfare benefits, and then subsequently find themselves agreeing to its environmental and religious policies, despite only actually supporting their economic policies. Similarly, people might find themselves voting for a party that represents their social interest yet an opposing party representing their economic interests. Such increased polarization between parties had widened the gap between the Left and Right and made voters more attuned to identifying their social and economic interest and voting accordingly. A lighter example of the extreme polarization between parties is that of the 10 Downing street cat that resided during Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s governments. A poll revealed distinct biases in the publics approval of the cat depending on the party they supported, despite it being the same cat. 12 This reveals the impact of prior ideological commitment on preferences unrelated to politics.
Overall, increased polarization has greatly affected voting choices and Left-Right preferences. Each country has its context dependant Left and Right parties, and with a greater diversity in choice of party’s, voters may find more than one party aligned to their ideological, economic and social interests. In every country, different factors drive different people to the polling booths. Privatizations and deregulation (economic policies) concerns may heighten economic interests in voters in communist countries, but immigration (social policy) may be the key social concern for many in European countries such as Italy and Greece. 13The type of policy given importance to reveals the type of interest people primarily consider when they vote, and this vastly differs in every country. Hence it is clear that economic interests alone are not the primary determinants of voter preferences. Social interests, especially ones that are integral to one’s own social identity such as LGBTQ+ rights and women rights, have their own defining role in voter preferences. People’s own political ideology which is dependent on how they were politicized while growing up and what policies are closer to their developing interests, is what truly determines who they will vote for. No set of factors is wholly a priority over another, and it is near impossible to claim that economic factors overpower others. Rather it depends on the individuals own interests and their countries political environment, the one they were raised in that instituted their fundamental ideology and the one at the time of voting, that truly determine who they will cast their vote for.
1 Generational Replacement and Value Change in Eight West European Societies, Paul R. Abramson and Ronald Inglehart, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr., 1992), pp. 183-228
2 Left–Right Orientations, Context, and Voting Choices, Russell J. Dalton (2010) DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199599233.003.0005
3 Powdthavee, N & A Oswald. Does money make people right-wing and inegalitarian: A longitudinal study of lottery winners, p. 22.
4 Andrew J. Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee, DAUGHTERS AND LEFT-WING VOTING, The Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2010, 92(2): 213–227
5 Margalit, Yotam M. ‘Explaining Social Policy Preferences: Evidence from the Great Recession.’ The American Political Science Review 107.1 (2013):98-99
6 Margalit, Yotam M. ‘Explaining Social Policy Preferences: Evidence from the Great Recession.’ The American Political Science Review 107.1 (2013)
7 Margalit, Yotam M. ‘Explaining Social Policy Preferences: Evidence from the Great Recession.’ The American Political Science Review 107.1 (2013)
8 Andrew J. Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee, DAUGHTERS AND LEFT-WING VOTING, The Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2010, 92(2): 213–227
9 Washington (2004)
10 Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya Media and Political Persuasion: Evidence from Russia, The American Economic Review, Vol. 101, No. 7 (DECEMBER 2011), pp. 3253-3285
11 DellaVigna, Stefano, and Ethan Kaplan. “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 122, no. 3, 2007, pp. 1187–1234.
12 ‘Of Mousers and Men; Maggie’s Moggy and Tony’s Tabby.’ The Economist Dec 06 (2014): p. 69.
13 Benoit, Kenneth;Laver, Michael. (2006). Party Policy in Modern Democracies. Routledge.