(Not Much) Political Polarization in Europe

by Larry Bartels on August 22, 2013 · 4 comments

in Comparative Politics,Political Parties,Public opinion

A few weeks ago, in the course of describing a new article by Simon Munzert and Paul Bauer on political depolarization in Germany, Andy mentioned that the topic of polarization outside the U.S. “seems very much worth studying.” Always eager to be of service, I sat right down and wrote an APSA paper on polarization in 21 European countries over the past two decades.

The data for my study are derived from a distillation of 30 items from European Values Study surveys into broad indices of economic values and cultural values. In each domain, I consider two distinct types of polarization: societal polarization, reflected by an increase in the overall standard deviation of economic or cultural values in a given national population, and partisan polarization, reflected by an increase in the multiple correlation between party support and values.

The distinction between societal polarization and partisan polarization looms large in the scholarly literature on American party politics, since the past few decades seem to have produced a good deal of the latter but very little of the former. However, anyone used to thinking solely about the U.S. may be surprised to learn that neither form of polarization is widespread elsewhere—at least not in Europe.

The average level of social dissensus regarding cultural values in my 21 European countries increased slightly between 1990 and 2008 (from 14.0 to 14.1 on a 100-point scale), but the average level of social dissensus regarding economic values decreased slightly (from 12.1 to 11.9). Meanwhile, the multiple correlation between party support and economic values increased slightly (from .336 in 1990 to .339 in 2008), while the multiple correlation between party support and cultural values declined (from .298 to .249). Only one of the 21 countries (Bulgaria) experienced both societal polarization and partisan polarization in both the economic and cultural domains, while seven (Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Romania) experienced net societal and partisan depolarization in both domains.

Notwithstanding the apparent disconnect between partisan polarization and societal polarization in the U.S., European systems with greater social dissensus also tend to have higher levels of partisan sorting (that is, partisan attachments are more strongly correlated with economic and cultural values). However, partisan sorting is even more strongly related to conservatism: in the most progressive European systems (as measured by average economic and cultural values), party support tends to be strongly related to values, while conservative countries tend to have much more disorganized party systems.


One obvious virtue of the European Values Study for work of this sort is that it facilitates systematic comparison across a variety of political systems. Another, less obvious, is that the longitudinal structure of the project (with comparable survey data in each country from 1990, 1999, and 2008) provides leverage for studying dynamic interconnections between different kinds of political change. For example, my paper includes statistical analyses relating changing levels of conservatism, social dissensus and partisan sorting between 1999 and 2008 to previous changes in economic and cultural values, dissensus and partisan sorting in the 1990s. The results suggest, among other things, that systems experiencing significant partisan polarization in the 1990s experienced much more societal polarization in the 2000s, other things being equal.

If that European pattern of spill-over holds in the U.S., we may soon be experiencing substantial increases in social dissensus after all.


Andrew Gelman August 23, 2013 at 6:21 am

Hey, thanks!

Nikos C August 24, 2013 at 4:07 am

Is 1990 – a year after the fall of communism- perhaps not the best starting point for this comparison? Communist parties didn’t garner that much a percentage of the vote, but nevertheless, the existence of the Soviet Union along with its values provided inspiration or perhaps a counterweight to many people of the left.

As a Greek, I can say that the year which displayed the greater degree of polarization was 1985 when objectively, the two large parties got their grandest total share of the vote. Subjectively, I remember 1985 as the year where partisan loyalties and hatred held the largest sway than before or since.

Beyond that, my memory -subject to bias to be sure- tells me that the late 80s and early 90s were the time when socialist and socialdemocratic parties made a point of moderating their positions. I can think of this being the case with the British Labour Party, the French Socialists and Italian communists. That is to say, that 1990 marked a time where parties converged and narrowed the range of what policies were considered acceptable and/or realistic. This is in contrast to the great divisions of the 70s and 80s.

I don’t want to press this argument too much since my personal recollection is biased and anecdotal recall doesn’t have the same rigor as proper statistical analysis, but I thought I d throw it out there.

Larry Bartels August 24, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Thanks for this. The choice of 1990 as a starting point is a concession to the availability of data; if we had comparable surveys from the 70s and 80s I would certainly want to use them. I’ve made some allowances for the peculiarities of the post-communist systems, but much more could be done to explore how the age and historical context of party systems matters.

There are, of course, various attempts to measure systematically shifts (and thus convergence or divergence) in party platforms. I don’t make use of those in my analysis–my measure of partisan polarization is based on the broad economic and cultural values expressed by party supporters in surveys. How those values reflect (or not) the efforts of party elites to define “what policies were considered acceptable and/or realistic” is another very interesting question.

Fabio Franchino September 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I’m a bit confused with this paper. What do you mean by economic conservatism and economic liberalism? Are both meant to mean less involvement on the state in the economy? Or by ‘economically liberal’ you mean its American interpretation of actually greater state intervention? In Europe, being a liberal on the economic dimension means the opposite. Thanks. Fabio

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: