University of Zurich

Currently, I am conducting two research projects:

1) Inequality in the mind. Perceptions of economic inequality and their political consequences (SNF grant 2018-2022)

Economic inequality is on the rise and has gained momentum in the political debate. However, despite heavy political rhetoric, i.e. Obama calling inequality “the defining challenge of our time”, little political action has been taken to counter the trend and the general public displays little appetite for more redistribution. This is insofar puzzling as the political economy models would predict otherwise.
In this project, I propose to focus on the perception of inequality and to analyse the effects of these perceptions on political preferences and behaviour. Understanding this link is of utmost importance because the political impact of inequality is mediated by how people perceive and appraise this phenomenon. Importantly, to get at the core of the puzzle, it is crucial to focus on two potential sources of the mismatch: Citizens and political elites. For citizens, the perception of economic inequality influences not only their demand for redistribution but impacts also their political behaviour, i.e. their vote choice later on. For political elites, the perception of inequality is crucial in determining the political action they might take against it.
The project argues that the link between inequality perceptions and political action is more complex than previously thought and established the causal chain in detail. The (more or less correct) perception of inequality is followed by a judgment phase where citizen decide whether to see inequality as justified and fair or not. Only after making an attribution, i.e. linking inequality and political actors comes the implication phase where political action is at stake. A similar chain is theorized for elites where also a judgment phase comes before political action can be expected. The central notion of this project is that people are not only uninformed about the current level of inequality but that their perceptions are systematically distorted and that these biases are based on partisan preferences and ideology. In consequence, political outcomes could be different with more correct perceptions of inequality.
Three research pillars are proposed to tackle the questions at hand. First, cross-national surveys (ISSP and ESS) are harnessed to get a first glimpse at how politically coloured perceptions of inequality are and how they are linked to political preferences. Second, an online survey will be carried out in five countries to get more detailed information about perceptions, judgments and attribution of inequality as well as about party preferences, ideological positioning and political participation. With the help of experimental treatments (information, accountability and system justification) the main mechanisms are teased out. In a third research pillar the political elites, in particular public officials, are studied with the help of an online survey, again in 5 countries. We are interested in their perceptions and their judgment of inequality as well as their information-seeking strategies, tested again with the help of experimental treatments.
In sum, the project is pioneering as it sheds light on the fundamental role of (mis-)perceptions for political decision-making and how distortions impact political beliefs and actions. The findings of the project have implications not only for our understanding of the politics of inequality but also for the way we see the role of citizens and political elites in the political process.

2) New Relations between Voters and Representatives in the Age of Social Media
(SNF grant 2018-2020, with Stefanie Bailer)

This project aims to lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the relation between voters and elected representatives in the age of social media. Social media platforms like Twitter carry the potential to transform democracies as they allow for direct contact between politicians and voters and thus for more personalized contact between representatives and represented. Academic work on this topic, however, has so far remained highly descriptive and has focussed on the frequency or volume of social media usage by politicians and not so much on the content of their messages. As a result, we lack knowledge about the information politicians portray in social media activity, as well as what the effect of this communication is, e.g. how voters perceive it. The two studies presented in this proposal intend to target this important research gap and to analyse the micro-processes of the content of online communication and how voters perceive it.
Study 1 (‘What Do Politicians Tweet When? New Quantitative Insight Into the Strategic Use of Personality Traits and Policy Positions’) is an observational study that investigates the tweets of a sample of Swiss and German politicians with the help of machine-learning to find out more about the motivations of politicians to tweet. We focus on Twitter as direct and individualized behaviour is best captured with this platform. Following key ideas in the representation and personalisation literature, we focus specifically on the distinction between personal or policy focussed content and investigate whether the content of the tweets depends on variables such as the incentive to cultivate a personal vote, professionalization of parties and parliament, or career stage in comparative perspective – information that is already available from the SNF project on “Parliamentary careers in comparison”  Study 2 (‘What do voters want: Policy or Person’) is a two country survey including an experiment that investigates how voters use social media for political purposes and which information they seek in these platforms. A short survey experiment focuses on how feelings of representation and voting intentions of voters are affected by the content of the twitter message that politicians share via social media and whether voters rather appreciate personal appeals about the politicians or information about policy positions and activities communicated via Twitter. Using an innovative survey design, we first extract the demographic personal profile and policy preferences of the participants. We then use this information to present subjects with candidate profiles and Tweets from politicians that are (dis)similar to them on these key dimensions. As such we contribute to the question whether voters appreciate politicians similar or dissimilar to their own personal profile (desire for descriptive representation) and feel better represented by politicians who are like them or who act on their behalf (desire for substantive representation).
The conduct of these studies in Switzerland and Germany allows for a first insight on variation on relevant influencing variables such as the election system, the importance of parties and the professionalization of the parliamentary system. Importantly, this project forms the base for a larger research agenda that we aim to develop in the next years and where we want to further explore the potential of social media in fostering closer linkages between voters and politicians.