In a Global Economy, What Happens to Elections?


When battling for votes and popular support, political parties across the globe have often chosen to focus on economic issues. But as countries become more and more integrated into a larger, global economy, does this remain true? Or, do non-economic issues like immigration, the environment, and social justice become more prominent? In a recent paper, graduate student Dalston Ward, along with two of his classmates and political scientist Margit Tavits, examined the role of globalization in how political parties have changed strategies over time. 



Claire Navarro: Hello and thanks for listening to Hold That Thought! If you’ve tuned in to the news recently, you know that economics, globalization, and elections are all hot topics lately. In a recent paper, political scientist Margit Tavits and graduate student Dalston Ward from Washington University in St. Louis brought all of these topics together. For the paper, Tavits and a group of graduate students looked at a big question: In any given election around the world, why do political parties focus on certain issues more than others? More specifically, why do parties choose to primarily focus on the economy, or not? Here’s Dr. Tavits.

Margit Tavits: We are accustomed to thinking economic issues are the most important issues in elections, that parties mostly compete on economic left and right on issues such as do you prefer more or less food distribution, more or less state intervention in the economy. But if you look across European counties and different parties in elections don’t always compete on the economy.

CN: Sometimes, parties choose to focus their campaigns more on things like immigration, or the environment, or regional autonomy, or a huge range of other non-economic issues. But why? One possible explanation related to globalization.

Dalston Ward: I think we are interested in how globalization in the changing structure of the economy has altered the way the economy is talked about in elections as a central issue.

CN: That was Dalston Ward. By globalization, Tavits and Ward are talking about economic integration – when, by choosing to cooperate more with other countries in areas like business and trade, individual governments give up some of their power to create their own distinct economic policies. One big example of this happening is in the European Union.

MT: European integration would be a special or intense case of globalization or economic integration where member states have specifically given up some power to make economic monitoring policy at home.

CN: So let’s say it’s election time in a country in the European Union. Typically, parties might battle it out over economic issues. But once they’re part of the EU, the game changes somewhat.

DW: Parties are interested in making credible promises to voters. When they say we are going to do something, they want to actually be able to do. Because there are less things they can credible promise to do economically in a very globalized environment, there is less incentive for them to campaign on these issues.

CN: Instead, Ward and Dalston found that parties spend more time focusing on non-economic issues. And in many ways, this trend changes the entire political landscape.

MT: In addition to existing parties changing their message, new parties are emerging and primarily competing on non-economic issues, as well.

CN: In some cases, these non-economic views are quite extreme. For example, in Europe, some radical right-wing parties that focus on things like nationalism or being anti immigration are gaining popularity. But the general trend isn’t confined to new parties or conservative parties or really any type of party at all. It’s happening all over the place.

MT: We really do find that this is a general phenomenon. It doesn’t depend on the size of the party or whether the party is in government or in opposition. We also find that the party ideology doesn’t matter. This seems to be a phenomenon that happens across the ideology spectrum.

DW: And it is not only just left and right, but it is also advanced democracies and newer democracies. We see strong ethnic parties are a feature of eastern European countries. In Slovakia, one of the main parties is a Hungarian minority party, for example.

CN: Tavits and Ward are able to make statements like this because for the paper, they and their coauthors looked at a lot of data – they examined 49 countries in all.

DW: We looked at a really broad, cross-national data set. We have observations going back all the way to 1961, and our most recent observations are 2010. That is really necessary to get this variation in globalization.

CN: Now it seems possible that there could be other explanations for this lessened focus on economic issues. Maybe Tavits and Ward simply witnessed a global cultural trend, and social issues are becoming more important to voters over time. To test against this possibility, they looked closely at the European Union in 2004. That year, 10 new countries joined. If their theory were right, these newly admitted countries—places like Poland, Latvia and Estonia—would experience rapid changes in the way their parties approached elections. So, Ward and his co-authors examined 8 of these 10 countries for clues.

MT: And when we do our analyses, we do see a dramatic jump. Compared to the comparison group, our 8 countries that joined actually do show the trend that corresponds to our theoretical expectation that if integration matters, parties in these countries should pay much more attention to non-economic issues than parties in countries that never joined the EU. That is our more conclusive test that it is a result of integration and not just some general slow moving trend over time that causes parties to pay attention to non-economic issues more than in the past.

CN: We mentioned that data for this study came from nearly 50 countries across many years. But it seems like it would be really difficult to figure out what exact issues a political party focuses on in any systematic way that you can compare one country in one year against another country in another year. Luckily, heading into elections, many parties are very straightforward about their views and what they want voters to know – in fact, they write it all down.

DW: The way political scientists do this, especially for European parties, is they look at their manifestos, which are written documents that parties release at the start of the campaign that really outline the parties positions and what they will do if elected. Political scientists have coded all the sentences in these manifestos and then said, oh, this sentence corresponds to this issue. We use these codings, and what we find is that for a hundred page manifesto that in a highly globalized environment there is going to be almost ten pages less dedicated less to economic issues.

CN: You can fit a lot into 10 pages of text, and on average, countries that are highly integrated into the global economy spend 10 fewer pages talking about economics, and instead devote those pages to other issues.

DW: That is not to say that economic issues disappear entirely. They are still a crucial part, but they are just a much less crucial part than they were before hand.

CN: Many thanks to Dalston Ward and Margit Tavits for joining Hold That Thought. For many more ideas to explore, please visit us online at You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, PRX, iTunes, and Stitcher. Thanks for listening.



Flickr: Tristam Sparks