Working Papers

Curious about my current research projects? Below, I’ve listed some of my ongoing research papers. If you’d like to access the latest versions of any of these papers or if you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

False Consensus Beliefs and Populist Attitudes

Nils D. Steiner, Claudia Landwehr & Philipp Harms

Abstract: A well-established finding from social psychology is that people tend to hold “false consensus beliefs”, that is, they regularly overestimate how many others agree with their own opinions. The consequences of such beliefs on how citizens assess democratic legitimacy have been left largely unexplored, however. We reason that false consensus beliefs may give citizens the erroneous impression that their political preferences are shared by most fellow citizens while political elites fail to follow this apparent will of the majority. False consensus beliefs might therefore play a central role in the development of populist attitudes to politics. Using original panel survey data from Germany, we document a robust relationship between false consensus beliefs and populist attitudes. As an indication of broader negative consequences for perceived legitimacy, we also find that individuals who hold false consensus beliefs score lower on external efficacy and political trust. Our findings suggest a novel cause of populist attitudes, rooted in humans’ tendency to project own views onto others—a tendency that may be exacerbated by today’s high-choice media environments. [LINK]

Perceptions of Policy Responsiveness: The Effects of Egocentric and Sociotropic Congruence

Sven Hillen, Nils D. Steiner & Claudia Landwehr

Abstract: While policy responsiveness is a central criterion for successful democratic representation, we know little about citizens’ perceptions of policy responsiveness. This study asks how citizens’ perceptions of whether governments are responsive to citizen preferences are affected by egocentric and sociotropic congruence, that is, how distant the government is from their own and the median citizen’s position. Studying this question with cross-national European data, we find that citizens consistently perceive governments that are close to their own positions as more responsive. In contrast, a significant effect of sociotropic congruence emerges only for the left-right scale but not for specific policy issues. Moreover, citizens react negatively to the government being distant from the median left-right position only when they themselves are also distant from the government. Overall, our results indicate that citizens’ perceptions of policy responsiveness crucially hinge on whether they are personally well represented by government policy.

Sympathies for Putin Within the German Public: A Consequence of Political Alienation?

Lucca Hoffeller & Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Why do individuals in democratic nations sympathize with autocratic leaders from abroad? In this article, we address this general question with regard to Germans’ attitudes towards Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Building on the intuition that “an enemy of an enemy is a friend” and its formalization in balance theory, our study focuses on the role of political alienation at home. To study this role comprehensively, we consider several facets of political alienation: a lack of trust in political institutions, low support for democracy as a regime, a sense of estrangement from public discourse, and an inclination towards conspiracy thinking. Using longitudinal analyses on data from the GLES panel, we provide empirical evidence consistent with our argument that political alienation—particularly in terms of low political trust and a proclivity for conspiracy thinking—drives sympathies for Putin and his regime. Against the backdrop of mounting attempts by Russia and other autocratic powers to influence discourses in Western societies via some segments of society, our findings illuminate one important source of sympathy for Putin and, potentially, foreign autocrats more broadly. [LINK]

Wählerwanderungen von und zu der AfD in der COVID-19-Pandemie

Manuskript für einen Beitrag zum Blauen Band “Wahlen und Wähler: Analysen aus Anlass der Bundestagswahl 2021”, hrsg. von Harald Schoen und Bernhard Weßels. Vorab-Version vom 20.12.2022.

Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Dieses Kapitel betrachtet Wählerwanderungen weg von der AfD und hin zur AfD zwischen den Bundestagswahlen 2017 und 2021 vor dem Hintergrund der COVID-19-Pandemie. Im Mittelpunkt steht die Frage, wie sich die Einstellung zu den COVID-19-Schutzmaßnahmen auf die Wahrscheinlichkeit ausgewirkt hat, bei der Bundestagswahl 2021 wieder bzw. neu die AfD zu wählen. Die Analysen auf Basis des GLES Panels 2017-2021 dokumentieren einen erheblichen Wählerabfluss von der AfD – auch zu den etablierten Parteien. Die Abwanderung von früheren AfD-Wählern hängt dabei stark von deren Zustimmung zu den COVID-19-Schutzmaßnahmen ab. Ebenso steht die AfD-Wahl unter Personen, die sie 2017 noch nicht gewählt haben, in einem engen Zusammenhang mit der Ablehnung der COVID-19-Maßnahmen. Die Ergebnisse der Paneldatenanalyse tragen zu Forschungsdebatten zu den elektoralen Konsequenzen der COVID-19-Pandemie, zum Wandel des AfD-Elektorats und zur Rückgewinnbarkeit der Wähler von radikal-rechten Parteien bei. [PDF]

Rising Inequality and Public Support for Redistribution

Sven Hillen & Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Seminal models in political economy imply that rising economic inequality should lead to growing public demand for redistribution. Yet, existing empirical evidence on this link is both limited and inconclusive—and scholars regularly doubt it exists at all. In this research note, we turn to data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP)’s Social Inequality surveys, now spanning the period from 1987 to 2019, to reassess the effect of rising inequality on support for redistribution. Covering a longer time series than previous studies, we obtain robust evidence that when income inequality rises in a country, public support for income redistribution tends to go up. Examining the reaction across income groups to adjudicate between different models of how rising inequality matters in a second step, we find that rising inequality increases support for redistribution within all income groups, with a marginally stronger effect among the well-off. Our results imply that insufficient policy responses to rising inequality may be less about absent demand but more about a failure to turn demand into policy, and that scholars should devote more attention to the latter.

Income Inequality and Populist Attitudes: Evidence from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems V

Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Economic inequality figures prominently among the factors that have been discussed as drivers of the success of populist parties. One plausible underlying mechanism is that economic inequality increases populist sentiment among voters which in turn leads to higher support for populist parties. Yet, we lack evidence on whether populist attitudes are more widespread where economic inequality is higher. In this study, I use data on 40 elections from the 5th Module of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES)—the first large cross-national survey dataset containing a measure of populist attitudes—to contribute such evidence. The analysis uncovers a substantively strong and robust positive cross-country correlation between income inequality and populist attitudes. Yet contrary to expectations, economic inequality does not make a larger difference for populist attitudes among those with lower socio-economic status. These findings add to evidence pointing to a connection between inequality and populism—but suggest that higher inequality contexts provide conditions conducive to populist sentiment among broad segments of the population.