Working Papers

Interested in what I am currently working on? Below I list some of my current research papers. If you are interested in obtaining the most up-to-date version of one of these papers or have any questions or comments, feel invited to contact me.

Left behind and united by populism? Populism’s multiple roots in feelings of lacking societal recognition

Nils D. Steiner & Christian H. Schimpf & Alexander Wuttke

Abstract: A prominent but underspecified explanation for the rise of populism points to individuals’ feelings of being “left behind” by the development of society. At its core lies the claim that support for populism is driven by the feeling of lacking the societal recognition one deserves. Our contribution builds on the insight that individuals can feel to lack recognition in different ways and for different reasons. We argue that—due to this multifaceted character—the common perception of being neglected societal recognition unites otherwise heterogeneous segments of the population in their support for populism. Relying on data from the GLES Pre-Election Cross-Section 2021, our pre-registered study investigated the multiple roots of populist attitudes in feelings of lacking societal recognition in two steps. First, our results indicate that, from rural residents to socio-cultural conservatives or low-income citizens, seemingly unrelated segments of society harbor feelings of lacking recognition—but for distinct reasons. Second, as anticipated, each of the distinct feelings of lacking recognition are associated with populist attitudes. These findings underscore the relevance of seemingly unpolitical factors that are deeply ingrained in the human psyche for understanding current populist sentiment. Overall, by integrating previously disparate perspectives on the rise of populism, the study offers a novel conceptualization of “feeling left behind” and explains how populism can give rise to unusual alliances that cut across traditional cleavages. [LINK]

Subjective Losers of Globalization

Nils D. Steiner, Matthias Mader & Harald Schoen

Abstract: One of the most important theories about contemporary political developments in established democracies is that a new cleavage is emerging between the winners and losers of globalization. Proponents of this theory often argue that individuals view themselves as winners or losers of globalization, and that these self-categorizations play a neuralgic role in the formation of the new cleavage. Surprisingly, this has never been tested. We do so for the first time in this article, with a focus on self-categorized losers, who have been seen as a catalyst for political change. Based on survey data from Germany, we find that one in five citizens self-categorize as globalization losers. These subjective losers of globalization hold distinct positions on globalization-related issues—such as trade, immigration and European integration—and disproportionately often support the radical right AfD. To a certain extent, the subjective losers have objective reason to see themselves as such, for example because they hold lower levels of formal education, have a low income, or have jobs or are employed in sectors that suffer under globalization. At the same time, theories that identify losers of globalization on an objective basis prove insufficient to capture all who see themselves as globalization losers. Importantly, self-categorization proves to be political consequential in its own right. Our findings thus confirm important untested assumptions of previous research, but also indicate that self-categorizations are an independent, important phenomenon that is worthy of further research. “Winners” and “losers of globalization” seem to be politically relevant symbols that citizens can identify with and that political entrepreneurs can use to mobilize citizens and win them over to their cause. This study has important implications for our understanding of emerging cleavages, the political consequences of globalization, and support of the radical right.

Learning the Brexit Lesson? Shifting Support for Direct Democracy in Germany in the Aftermath of the Brexit Referendum

Nils D. Steiner & Claudia Landwehr

Abstract: The June 2016 Brexit referendum sent international shock waves—possibly causing adjustment in public opinion not only in the UK but also abroad. We suggest that these adjustments went beyond substantive attitudes on European integration and included procedural preferences towards direct democracy. Drawing on the insight that support for direct democracy can be instrumentally motivated, we argue that the outcome of the Brexit referendum led (politically informed) individuals to update their support for referendums based on their views towards European integration. Using panel data from Germany, we find that those in favor of European integration, especially those with high political involvement, turned more skeptical of the introduction of referendums in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Our study contributes to the understanding of preferences for direct democracy and documents a remarkable case of how—seemingly basic—procedural preferences can, in today’s internationalized information environment, be shaped by high-profile events abroad.

The Shifting Issue Content of Left-Right Identification: Cohort Differences in Western Europe

Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: What do citizens make of “left” and “right” when new contested issues emerge? This study extends previous single-country studies on the shifting issue content of citizens’ left-right positions in times of realignment to a cross-national European level. Drawing on theories of political socialization and the idea that left-right identities are sticky, I argue that the issue content of citizens’ left-right positions varies with the salience of and polarization around issues at the party level during their formative years. Analyzing ESS data for 12 Western European countries from 2002 to 2018, I find that environmental protection and immigration attitudes are more strongly associated with left-right positions among those born later. In contrast, attitudes towards redistribution are less relevant within more recent cohorts, suggesting a moderate crowding out of old issues. These general patterns are nuanced by differences across countries, in line with historical and persistent cleavage constellations. These findings have several important implications—for understanding the changing lines of political conflict in Europe and their future evolvement, for potential conflicts within the “left” and the “right”, and for the usage of the left-right scale in empirical research. [PDF]

Generational Change in Party Support in Germany: The Decline of the Volksparteien, the Rise of the Greens, and the Transformation of the Education Divide

Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Motivated by the eroding support for the old “Volksparteien” CDU/CSU and SPD, especially among younger voters, this study conducts an age-period-cohort analysis of vote choices in all twenty German elections, from 1949 to 2021. I study both generational differences in levels of party support and the changing effect of education on voting. The results, first, point to the importance of generational replacement in understanding party’s shifting fortunes, with the CDU/CSU and the SPD being weaker in more recent cohorts and the Greens stronger. Second, while high education divides voters of the old right (CDU/CSU and especially FDP) and left (SPD) in earlier cohorts, it increasingly divides voters of the new-left Greens and the radical-right AfD in more recent cohorts. This study enhances our understanding of the changing patterns of party support in the German electorate and, as a broader lesson, shows how electoral realignment is driven by generational replacement. [PDF]

Economic Inequality, Unfairness Perceptions, and Populist Attitudes

Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: One popular explanation for the rise of populism points to growing economic inequality. This explanation remains contested, however, not least because direct evidence on the link between economic inequality and support for populism is scarce. This contribution puts forth the simple argument that anti-elite populist sentiments flourish in contexts of high economic inequality, when and because individuals perceive income distributions to be unfair. To probe the different observable implications of this argument, several survey datasets are analyzed. First, German survey data indicate that individuals who think that differences in income are too large are much more inclined to hold populist attitudes. Second, international survey data from the ISSP show the trend towards growing income concentration to be reflected in a growing tendency of the public to view income differences as too large. Third, international survey data from the latest wave of the CSES suggest that populist attitudes are more widespread in countries with higher levels of economic inequality. Collectively, these findings point to the plausibility of a link between growing inequality and populism’s upsurge, thereby contributing to the ongoing debate. [PDF]

Majority Principle and Indeterminacy in German Elections

Salvatore Barbaro & Nils D. Steiner

Abstract: Out of the many possible voting schemes, the notoriously-used plurality rule is far from being the best. Previous research from France and the US reveals how plurality winners fall short of majority support. Therefore, eminent scholars advocate the simple-majority rule. The latter, however, faces the threat of indeterminacy due to cycling patterns. To contribute to the scarce evidence on the empirical occurrence of these phenomena, we used survey data from the 2017 German election to simulate preference orderings on district candidates. We find that violations of the majority principle are frequent. Conversely, we do not uncover any indeterminacy. [LINK]