Social Structure and Electoral Behavior in Comparative Perspective: The Decline of Social Cleavages in Western Europe Revisited
Elff, Martin. 2007. “Social Structure and Electoral Behavior in Comparative Perspective: The Decline of Social Cleavages in Western Europe Revisited”. Perspectives on Politics 5(2): 277-294.
A new conventional wisdom characterizes the comparative study of electoral politics. Social cleavages, once a stabilizing factor of electoral behavior in Western Europe, are on the wane. Voting decisions have become individualized and old social cleavages have been superseded by new value-related cleavages. This article challenges that view as an exaggeration. Social cleavages have not disappeared and are not in universal decline, as demonstrated by an examination of data from seven countries from 1975 to 2002. Religious–secular voting is mostly stable, while class voting shows an unambiguous decline in only some of the countries under study. Further, neither rising levels of cognitive mobilization nor a dissemination of postmaterialist value priorities can account for these changes in class voting. The exaggeration of limited changes to general trends seems to rest on a disregard of the effects of party competition on patterns of electoral behavior. I suggest that further research should focus on the effects of parties’ electoral strategies on the electoral relevance of social cleavages.
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