University of Zurich

Inequality in the mind. Perceptions of economic inequality and their political consequences

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.

Inequality and political representation in Europe

In democratic theory, the equality of all citizens is an important democratic principle besides representation. However, while we have quite good knowledge of the overall quality of representation in Europe, evidence of how equal citizens are represented is largely absent. This is different for the US case where a lively literature documents for example that citizens with low income are worse represented than the rich.
My work, originally conducted within the REPCONG project and co-authored with Julian Bernauer und Jan Rosset examines inequalities in the representation of European citizens. Currently, my research focuses mainly on low income citizens but also women as a second societal group that is likely to suffer from lower levels of representation are studied. Importantly, we concentrate on policy representation by political parties and thus give political parties as crucial actors in the process of representation the attention that is warranted theoretically.
Beyond mere documenting inequalities and I asks how we can explain these discrepancies in the political representation of societal groups. Individual level factors such as lower participation rates together with institutional factors such as electoral rules are equally examined. Europe with its large cultural, social and institutional variety constitutes an ideal test case for such an endeavor. In a last step then I want to focus also on the consequences of unequal levels of representation or in other words on the question whether unequal representation makes citizens also more alienated from the political system and less satisfied with the way representation and ultimately democracy works on their country.

The Politics of Family Policy Expansion

Founded by the Swiss National Science Foundation under the Ambizione Scheme

The field of family policy saw a dramatic turn-over during the last decades and expanded its scope and generosity against the current trend of retrenchment in contemporary welfare states. This makes an interesting area to study whether incumbent politicians use reforms strategically to gain votes. In a nutshell, we argue that expanding employment-centered family policy brings electoral rewards to incumbent politicians.
Applying a quantitative comparative approach three research questions are tackled in three research steps. First, adopting a macro-perspective we ask whether incumbent parties gain from expanding family policy in a cross-national, over time perspective. An affirmatory answer to this question allows speculation of the motives for governments to enact such policies. Second, delving deeper into the micro-mechanisms and thus moving to a micro-perspective, we inquire whether citizens appreciate expansionary policies and how that relates to their partisan choices. This step will inform us not only about the structure of family policy attitudes across nations but also provide answers as to how parties are restricted or pushed for action by their electorates. In the third step, getting even closer to the micro-mechanisms, we examine whether voters indeed reward (or punish) the government for family policy reforms and whether this issue does lead to attitude or even behavior change.
This project advances our understanding of the politics behind the expansion of family policies drastically as it takes a different perspective than the current research and focuses on the (partisan) politics surrounding concrete family policy proposals. Giving the citizens, their attitudes and perceptions more weight sheds not only light on the electoral motivations underlying reforms but also more generally informs our understanding of the interplay between incumbent parties and citizens’ behavior in numerous ways.

Gender effects in personalized electoral systems

Personalized electoral systems allow voters do discriminate against individual candidates. We are specifically interested how this affects the support for female candidates. Currently, we (collaboration with Zoe Lefkofridi, Anne Maria Holli and Hanna Wass) are examining the case of Finland where original survey material allows integrating the effects of gender stereotypes to this question. Future work uses an experimental approach to the study of candidate evaluations and will expand the geographical scope of the work.
citizens’ behavior in numerous ways.