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How politicians’ class roots matter to voters

Nick W. Vivyan

9 mins - 16 de Noviembre de 2021, 18:06

Does social class still matter for politics? In many Western European countries, the answer might at first glance appear to be not very much given the decline in the once strong relationship between being working class and voting for left parties. However, recent studies by political scientists, carried out in several different countries, suggest that class does still matter for politics. Voters still often define themselves and others in terms of class. Voters from different social classes still tend to differ in terms of political ideology, even if the electoral effects of these differences have declined as mainstream parties have offered more similar ideological platforms to voters. 
There is also increasing evidence that politicians’ own social class matters to voters. Some research shows that working class voters are less likely to vote for left parties when those parties recruit fewer politicians who have working class career backgroundsOther research shows that, while voters in general are no more or less likely to support a political candidate with a working class career background compared to one with a middle class career background, working class voters are more likely to support the candidate with the working class career. 

In recently published research, we use survey experiments to provide new evidence as to how voters care about the class background of a politician. In particular, we focus on voter reactions to the class roots of a politician (i.e., the occupational class of the household in which they grew up). This is a less immediate class marker than the type of job a politician did just before entering politics. If it too affects voter’s evaluations of a politician, this further underlines the relevance of class considerations in contemporary politics. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that politicians’ class roots may matter to voters. Politicians often emphasise a humble, working class background to voters, and clearly think this will play well. Existing research also shows that voters use the class background of a politician to make more informed guesses about the likely ideology of that politician. 

In a first set of experiments, we set out to test whether, beyond using class roots to guess about a politicians’ ideology, voters’ are generally more favourable to politicians with certain types of class roots. We surveyed representative samples of voters in three Western European countries: Britain, Germany and Austria. In each country, we presented respondents with pairs of hypothetical Members of Parliament and asked them to record how happy they would be to be represented by each MP on a 1-7 scale. By randomly varying the class roots of the politicians that respondent saw we were able to assess how different types of class roots affected respondent evaluations of those politicians. Specifically, we varied the occupations of a politician’s mother and father, which could either be working class (e.g., factory worker or shop assistant), lower-middle class (e.g., secretary or sales agent) or upper-middle class (e.g., medical doctor, business owner).

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In addition to this we varied the occupation of the politician immediately prior to becoming an MP. We restricted these to middle class occupations so that these were typical of contemporary MPs in the countries under study. We also independently varied several other characteristics of the politicians that respondents saw, including party affiliation, ideological position within party, gender, regional background, national versus local focus, and willingness to dissent from their political party. This allowed us to better gauge how large the effects of class roots are compared to these other characteristics. Providing respondents with explicit information about politician party and ideology also reduces the possibility that the effects of politician class roots on voter evaluations simply reflect voter guesses about politician ideology. 

This first round of experiments revealed differences in voters’ reactions to politician class roots across the three countries we studied. For Austria, we found no clear evidence that voters evaluated politicians differently depending on their class roots. However, in Britain and Germany we found strong evidence that voters care about politician class roots and tend on average to prefer politicians with more humble roots. In both countries, voters rated politicians significantly higher when those politicians had working class parents compared to when they had upper-middle class parents. The size of the difference in average ratings given to politicians with working versus middle class roots was somewhat smaller than differences by party affiliation, but was much larger than average differences by politician gender, and similar in size to the average difference in ratings for a politician with a local background and one who has recently moved to the voter’s area. 

What explains British and German voters’ average preference for politicians with more humble roots? To begin to answer this question, we fielded a second round of experiments to representative samples of voters in both countries. These experiments were designed to disentangle a number of different potential explanations. First, that voters in these countries don’t care about a politician’s class roots directly, but rather use that information to make guesses about the talent or quality of the politician. For example, they may assume that a person’s ability to climb the social ladder from humble, working class roots to a middle class career indicates their competence, a trait which many voters desire in their representatives. We call this the social mobility account. Alternatively, voters may hold a more direct bias toward candidates with certain class roots. This may reflect a general baseline class bias across voters toward politicians with working class roots, perhaps because they are seen as more likely to understand the needs of everyday voters or because most voters have an instinctive prejudice against people from more privileged backgrounds. Or it may reflect 'class affinity biases', where voters with different class identities tend to favour politicians who are more clearly from their class in-group, and where this effect is particularly pronounced among voters with a working class identity. 

To unpick these different explanations, our second round of experiments presented respondents with hypothetical candidates for parliament. We again randomly varied a number of politician characteristics and again asked respondents to rate each one on a 1-7 scale. This time, however, rather than simply varying class roots, we randomly varied the ‘class trajectory’ of each candidate—i.e., the difference between their current occupational class and that of their parents. Candidates could either have working class roots and a working class current occupation (‘working class stayers’), working class roots and a middle-class current occupation (‘class climber’) or middle class roots and a middle-class current occupation (‘middle class stayer’). If the social mobility account is correct—so that British and German voters use politician class roots alongside politician’s current class status to guess politician quality—we should see that voters react more positively to those politicians who are ‘class climbers’ rather than ‘working class stayers’, since the latter have not demonstrated clear social mobility. 

The results from these experiments speak against the social mobility account. In both countries we find little evidence that voters’ assign ‘class climbers’ a higher average rating than ‘working class stayers’. At the same time, consistent with the findings in our initial experiments, voters in both countries again assigned politicians with working class roots and middle class current jobs (‘class climbers’) a higher average rating than politicians with middle class roots and middle class current jobs (‘middle class stayers’). Furthermore, consistent with the class affinity explanation, when we break down respondents into groups based on their self-reported class identity, we find that working class respondents tend to be the ones who react more positively to politicians with more working class markers

Overall, our results demonstrate that, at least in some Western European democracies, voters do care about the class roots of their political representatives and tend to favour politicians from more humble, working class backgrounds. Our results also suggest that this is driven by class affinity biases (where voters prefer politicians from their own class in-group) not simply by processes where voters assume that politicians from working class backgrounds have certain types of ideology, or are more talented. 

Our findings add to a growing body of evidence that class still matters for politics in Europe, and that politician class markers beyond immediate career background can make a difference. But they also raise interesting questions as to why politician class roots seem to matter in some of the countries that we studied (Britain and Germany) but have less clear effects in others (Austria). Given existing evidence that class identities tend to be more polarized in more unequal societies, it is perhaps unsurprising that class roots effects are apparent in the most unequal country that we studied, Britain. However, the similar levels of economic inequality in Germany and Austria leave a puzzle as to why we find class roots effects are clearly present in one but not the other. This highlights the need for further research in a broader range of countries to better understand how political and social context shapes voter attitudes toward politician social class.
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