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How States Create Electoral Cleavages: Government Policies and Ethnic Cleavage Formation


(invited to revise and resubmit to Cambridge University Press)

In recent years, new identity groups have played a consequential role in party competition in consolidated party systems in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. Why would voters form new coalitions based on identities that have not been previously mobilized?

My book manuscript offers an explanation that highlights the impact of government policies on the political relevance of identities in party competition. Government policies that divide society into winners and losers politicize social identities and create incentives for the aggrieved voters to coordinate their voting behavior against the policies. When the aggrieved voters begin to look for candidates or parties that represent their interests, their actions inform political entrepreneurs of a new emerging voter coalition. In response, entrepreneurs organize around the new coalition, developing an electoral platform against the policies and mobilizing voters. The successful opposition to the policies is then codified in a new political party that changes the structure of the party system.

I use a range of methods to test this explanation, including regression analysis of new datasets, process-tracing, and matched comparisons of case studies within and across five countries: 19th century Prussia, Baden, and Bavaria, mid-20th century Belgium, and late 20th century Israel, spanning linguistic, cultural, and religious identities. In the majority of the case studies, the policies are plausibly exogenous and were not meant to initiate a new electoral cleavage nor were they based on a pre-existing electoral cleavage. Across these case studies, voters began to act together based on a shared identity only when aggrieved by government policies. And in response to the policies, the aggrieved social groups became more organizationally cohesive and dense, and formed new identity-based parties.

The manuscript, which grew out of a dissertation that won the Ernst B. Haas award from the European Politics and Society section of APSA, provides a new way of thinking of cleavage formation as a policy feedback effect, where government policies shape mass preferences and eventually change the structure of party systems. Prior theories of ethnic politics focus on the strategic behavior of political elites and entrepreneurs, while scholars of electoral cleavages assume that voters choose between party alternatives based on set of pre-existing salient identities. In light of recent changes to the structure of party systems, it is important to consider how new identities become relevant in party competition.

  • Read my short post about the book in the historical political economy blog Broadstreet here

Chapter Overview

In chapter 1, I discuss the puzzle of cleavage formation, summarize my argument, and discuss the identification strategy, motivating my mixed-methods research design and selection of case studies. Chapter 2 draws on social identity theory and develops a new theory of voter responses to government policies where policies generate group-based policy preferences. After that, it poses the question of how voters can solve the collective action problem and develops a theory of entrepreneur responses to voters, taking into account uncertainty in electoral competition, the institutional context, and entrepreneurs’ coalition-building considerations. Finally, the chapter ends with a theory of party system change in response to government policies.

Chapter 3 focuses primarily on the formation, decline, and reemergence of a religious dimension in Prussian electoral politics between 1848 and 1874.  Prussia provides an excellent case to test the hypothesis that voters are responding to policies, not entrepreneurs, because of the hierarchical nature of Prussian politics and society and because the ethnic cleavage in Prussia emerged, decline, and re-emerged in a very short period of time, during which social-structural and economic conditions remained fairly static.
The majority of this chapter was published in a World Politics article and can be accessed

In chapter 4, I examine how austerity policies issued by the Belgian government in 1960 led to the formation of a language-based cleavage. After 1945, Belgians understood language as a regional and ethnic identity, yet the electoral cleavage emerged only in 1960. I use this empirical puzzle to test the hypothesis about the types of policies that are likely to generate a new identity-based cleavage. I create a new database of all government policies enacted in Belgium from 1945 to 1960 and assess their expected implications for two sub-groups of voters: low-skilled workers and communities who experienced dramatic economic decline.
Chapter 5 tests the hypothesis that shared grievances from policies can create a new identity group composed of a collection of individuals who otherwise have different occupational backgrounds and cultural practices. This chapter investigates how Jews who emigrated from the for
mer Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s formed a new ethnic group, commonly named “Russians,” based on the language they spoke and their shared grievances. I show that voters who were the least insulated from the negative impact of the policies and had weak positions on the main dimension of party competition supported the main opposition party that claimed to represent their interests. The evidence in this chapter also illustrates the dilemmas voters face in supporting ethnic parties.    


The concluding chapter reviews the main findings along with the implication for understanding identity-based cleavage formation and party system change. In the book, I argue that we cannot understand how identity-based cleavages emerge without explaining why and how identities become relevant in party competition. Government policies shape the political context in which voters develop their political preferences and create incentives for voters to form electoral coalitions. The book offers a policy-centric theory of cleavage formation that moves existing research away from explanations that are based on methodological individualism. Instead, it explains the emergence of an identity-based dimension of party competition as the result of voters’ tactical responses to government policies and the responses of entrepreneurs to the preferences of voters.

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