Rethinking the Origins of Electoral Cleavages: How States Create Cleavages Through Policies


Where do electoral cleavages come from? My dissertation provides and tests a new theory that electoral cleavages emerge in response to government policies. Electoral cleavages, that is, the social attributes that predict how people vote, exist  in every country that holds legislative elections and have implications for change and stability in contemporary party systems around the world. Still, the debate about the origins of electoral cleavages is ongoing and existing theories of cleavage formation offer little analytic leverage in explaining how recent electoral cleavages emerged. The new policy-driven theory that I develop can be applied to explain how electoral cleavages emerge and persist in states that hold legislative elections and have the institutional capacity to implement policies.

My theory is that electoral cleavages emerge from the responses of voters and political entrepreneurs to government policies. I argue that decisions like how to distribute resources and who can have social mobility politicize social identities when they divide society into winners and losers based on those same identities. Government policies link the fates of individuals who lose from the policies and create powerful incentives for voters to coordinate around the politicized identities. Political entrepreneurs, who recognize the potential for a new coalition of voters, begin to organize around the same identities in order to win legislative seats and influence policymaking. Electoral cleavages, therefore, emerge from the coordination of both voters and entrepreneurs in response to the actions of the state.

The dissertation challenges the conventional wisdom about electoral cleavages, parties, and public policies and turns it on its head. I argue that electoral cleavages do not emerge from critical junctures or are crafted by entrepreneurial politicians; instead, electoral cleavages are created and sustained by government policies.

Testing this theory poses methodological challenges because government policies and policy preferences often affect each other. To control for reserve causality between government policies and policy preferences, I test the theory on rare cases of plausibly exogenous government policies in Prussia, Baden, Bavaria and Belgium that did not respond to domestic pressure, but rather to other forces. This allows me to analyze how voters and political entrepreneurs responded to the new policies. I substantiate my theory with both process-tracing based on sources in multiple languages and statistical analysis of new datasets with fine-grained election returns. My analysis establishes that in all of the case studies, the electoral cleavages emerged in response to government policies.

The temporal variation in the formation of the electoral cleavages across the German cases demonstrates that the cleavages emerged in response to domestic policies and were contained within each state.  The formation, decline, and re-emergence of the cleavages in Prussia and Belgium allow me to control for country-level variation and demonstrate that the cleavages emerged in response to government policies.

To complement the qualitative analysis, my research design exploits subnational variation in vulnerability to government policies. This analysis uses new datasets of election returns from Prussian state elections between 1863-1873 and Belgian national elections between 1946-1974 as well as indicators of the power of the Catholic Church in Prussia in 1864, legislative behavior between 1880-1912, and the location of industry between 1896-1963 in Belgium. My analysis finds that the cleavages emerged the most sharply in districts that bore, or expected to bear, the highest cost from the policies.

Overall, my findings provide strong empirical support to the hypothesis that the state shapes how cleavages emerge and persist. Despite the stark differences across the six case studies on key variables: the scope of the franchise, the autonomy of parliament, degree of political liberties, economic development, party system institutionalization, the historical period,  and the type of the cleavage, only government policies explain why the electoral cleavages emerged and persisted.