By Simon Bornschier, Lukas Haffert, Silja Häusermann, Marco Steenbergen and Delia ZollingerAbstract:
Western Europe is experiencing growing levels of political polarization between parties of the New Left and the Far Right. In many countries, the socio-structural foundations of this divide (class, education, residence) are by now so clear that many interpret this divide as a fully mobilized new electoral cleavage. At the same time, observers have highlighted a growing fragmentation of party systems and the proliferation of new competitors. We suggest to make sense of these contradic- tory developments by focusing on the shared group identities that constitute the “glue” of cleavage formation translating grievances into political antagonisms. Our contribution relies on data from an original online survey fielded in France, Germany, the UK and Switzerland. Respondents an- swered questions on their sense of belonging to a series of social groups, electoral preferences and socio-demographics. On this basis, we are able to show – observationally – that socio-structural categories relate to both socio-economically (e.g. class) and socio-culturally (e.g. cosmopolitanism, lifestyle) connoted group identities, which divide New Left and Far Right voters in surprisingly similar ways across contexts. We then study the extent of social closure and political mobilization at the extremes of the new divide through the analysis of social networks, perceived group align- ments, and perceived representation. Our findings suggest that the new conflict is firmly rooted in socio-economic categories and at the societal level. Its political mobilization happens mostly via culturally connoted identities. What is more, social realignments and closure are highly similar across the four countries. This underscores that party competition remains rooted in structural an- tagonisms even as support for individual parties becomes more volatile. To detect this underlying similarity and stability, it is necessary to focus on voter alignments to ideological party blocs, rather than individual parties.