PSR INTERVIEWS #12: The Electoral Connection Revisited – Corentin Poyet and Mihail Chiru

Personalization, usually defined as an increased relevance of individual politicians at the expense of parties over time, manifests itself at institutional, media and behavioural levels” – claim Corentin Poyet and Michail Chiru in their PSR Article. Learn about this intriguing political phenomenon and its influence on electoral systems, candidate selection and party leadership selection processes, behavioural as well as media personalization. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in the PSR article: The Electoral Connection Revisited: Introduction to the Special Issue

PSR: How would you define the personalization of politics?

Mihail Chiru, Corentin Poyet: The literature has given various definitions of the personalization of politics, depending also on the level at which this phenomenon has been theorized. We adhere to an understanding of personalization as an increased relevance of individual politicians at the expense of parties over time, acknowledging that this can manifest itself in behavioural patterns of politicians and voters, through reforms of political institutions or at the level of the media. This phenomenon goes hand in hand with the crisis of collective representation and the decline of trust in parties, being also enabled by technological changes. In the special issue, we concentrate on understanding better one dimension of decentralized personalization, that is personalization focused on regular politicians, not party leaders. We do so by examining the institutional and contextual correlates of Members of Parliament (MPs) engagement in cultivating a personal vote, and by assessing whether such efforts are rewarded by voters in very diverse settings.

You focused on five European countries: Finland, France, Romania, Italy and Hungary. What has determined your selection?

The literature on the topic is mainly country-specific, and the few comparative works rarely include cases from Central and Eastern Europe. With our selection, we wanted to assess the correlates and electoral consequences of behavioural personalization in countries that have very different institutional designs and party systems, have achieved different levels of democratic consolidation and in which electoral system reforms went in opposite directions regarding the levels of personalization (e.g. Italy and Romania). The case selection also enabled us to show that legislators’ efforts aimed at personal vote-seeking happen sometimes even in the absence of electoral system incentives (the case of Italy), or in the context of legislatures highly controlled by parties (the case of France).

What are the key factors in the three major strategies for cultivating a personal vote: position-taking, credit claiming and advertising?

The three major strategies are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Position-taking refers to the use of parliamentary instruments (speeches, questions, legislative motions, roll-call votes etc.) by MPs to express a personal position that usually mirrors the perceived preferences of the constituents. The critical element here is that these positions can be different from or even contradict the positions of the legislator’s party and thus jeopardize the unity and goals of the party.

Credit claiming has the aim of making constituents believe that the MP is responsible for a positive outcome, i.e. an increase in the welfare of the district or the adoption of a popular policy. This can be achieved in various ways and it does not necessarily imply the presence of tangible benefits. For example, parliamentary questions – that are studied in four papers of the special issue, rarely result in immediate policy changes or allocation of funds towards districts but MPs can still claim credit for having put the issue on the agenda and contributed towards solving the problem.

Finally, advertising is about actions that MPs take to increase their name recognition and create a favourable image. Here, the content of the message is less critical, but it usually has to do with the personal characteristics of the MPs that are appealing to the constituents and facilitate name recall such as their experience, their ties with the district or their socio-economic background.  

The articles in the special issue show that the adoption of these strategies depends both on the characteristics of the legislators and their districts and on features of their parties (e.g. government-opposition status, type of candidate selection).

In the special issue, we concentrate on understanding better one dimension of decentralized personalization, that is personalization focused on regular politicians, not party leaders.

You asked whether personal vote-seeking efforts get noticed and rewarded by voters? What do your findings show?

This is a question widely discussed in the literature, but evidence for a personal vote is rare. Two of the articles in the Special Issue are relevant for this discussion. Zsofia Papp shows that Hungarian voters from rural districts reward interpellations that deal with agriculture, when this policy area has great salience, and during times of high governmental unpopularity. Conversely, she finds that MPs can lose a significant number of votes by asking agricultural interpellations when they represent an urban area. David Arter draws on the case of Finland to show that even in institutional contexts generally perceived as conducive to intra-party competition (open list PR under a high party magnitude), candidates gain most of their votes from their home municipality, a finding which can be interpreted as evidence for voters rewarding local ties.

Have you spotted any particularly interesting country-specific trends of party decline and political personalization?

Declining rates of party membership, growing dissatisfaction with democracy and electoral volatility have become distinctive features of European political systems in the past decades, and in this respect, we see an unwelcome convergence of Western and Central and Eastern European democracies. One route politicians have followed to try to address these issues was to give voters and rank and file party members a stronger say in who gets nominated or elected for public or party office. This was done via institutional personalization reforms that have adopted more candidate-centred electoral systems or have made candidate selection and/or party leadership selection processes more inclusive through the introduction of primaries.

Interestingly, the special issue shows not only that behavioural personalization can be facilitated by institutional personalization reforms, but also that personal vote-seeking behaviours survive even when the electoral incentives for them vanish. The cases studies analyzing the determinants of constituency service in Romania and Italy following electoral reforms that have gone in opposite directions are revealing in this respect.

In Romania, the personalization of the electoral system has increased the incentives for MPs to cater to territorial interests and engage more in constituency service. Mihail Chiru’s analyses show that the 2008 electoral reform has led to a substantial increase in the share of parliamentary questions inspired by allocation responsiveness. On the other hand, in Italy, the 2005 electoral reform abolished single-member districts and introduced the most party-centred electoral system possible: closed list Proportional Representation. In his article, Federico Russo is able to illustrate that despite the absence of electoral system incentives, Italian MPs still devote considerable time to constituency service and this is driven mostly by personal motivations rooted in past local political experience and biographical ties with the constituency.

Interestingly, the special issue shows not only that behavioural personalization can be facilitated by institutional personalization reforms, but also that personal vote-seeking behaviours survive even when the electoral incentives for them vanish

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

A critical contribution of the special issue is its ability to illustrate that personal vote seeking behaviors are not an exception in European legislatures but a rather common feature, regardless of the institutional settings in which the legislators operate and of the levels of democratic experience of their polities. In doing so, the articles in the collection also empahsize the relevance of factors which have been largerly disregarded by the continental legislative studies literature, such as the role of district features.

A second key contribution of the special issue is to show that, although behavioural personalization is frequently perceived as a potentially disruptive and destabilizing factor, in all the five cases analyzed, parties managed to maintain a key role in the way individual responsiveness works and in how individual voter-politician linkages are concretely established. David Arter’s article illustrates that in the Finish case, parties not only organize how personal vote-seeking and personalized campaigning is conducted, but they deliberately select local candidates to ensure proper geographical coverage and maximize personal votes. Moreover, as Corentin Poyet’s article shows, the salience parties assign to issues that matter locally can reinforce the MPs’ district responsiveness.

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Article: Chiru, Michail, Corentin Poyet (2021), The Electoral Connection Revisited: Introduction to the Special Issue, Political Studies Review 19(3) 327–333.

ABOUT

Corentin Poyet is an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University. His research interests include parliamentary studies, electoral systems and public policy. His work has been published in The Journal of Legislative Studies, Legislative Studies Quarterly and Parliamentary Affairs, among others.

Mihail Chiru

is a Lecturer at the Russian and East European Studies Department, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. His main academic interests include legislative behavior and legislative organization, party politics, and electoral studies. His recent work was published in Journal of European Integration, Journal of European Public Policy and Journal of Common Market Studies.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR Interviews #11: Rethinking Identity in Political Science – an interview with Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum

We can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists” – say Scott Weiner and Dillon Stone Tatum. Learn about identity, identity politics and its meaning for political science. A fuller analysis of these topics can be found in the PSR article: Rethinking Identity in Political Science.

PSR: What is the most precise definition of identity? And what are its specifics in the field of political science?

Scott Weiner, Dillon Stone Tatum: Identity is essentially our “address” in the social and political world. That’s not a bad definition but it’s vague. In fact, it’s really hard to say exactly what identity is, and that’s why we wrote this piece. This paper found ten different definitions of identity in major political science scholarship over just a 25 year period. And that’s only in political science, not the rest of social science. Different kinds of political science each have great scholarship on identity (we discuss three in the piece), but each kind of identity works totally differently. We can explain precisely why a Prius, a Porsche, and a Model T are all cars, but we can’t say precisely why these three frameworks are all identities. Given how central identity is to political science, that’s a big problem. We’re trying to understand how identity mediates power without knowing what identity is.

You claim that “political scientists lack a common framework for addressing questions about what identity is, how it relates agents with social and political structures, and how it changes over time”. Would a common framework or toolbox benefit social and political science?

Yes, because identity is a central concept of political science. For the most part, our discipline studies why, when, and how some entities get power while others don’t. One way to do that is to look at identities like ethnicity, gender, or nation and see whether being part of one group is a good prediction of getting power or not. But if we can’t even say what identity is, we can’t truly understand why it’s having an effect on the mediation of power. We often want to make causal arguments in political science, so this gap is a real problem. Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists. It would also help us create better and more respectful ways of having discussions with and about members of society whose identity is outside of the norm in some way.

In your article, you focused on three dimensions of identity: ethnicity, gender and national identity. Do you consider these three to be the most important dimensions of identity? If so, why?

Ethnicity, gender, and nation are three highly developed subfields of political science with which readers are likely to have familiarity. We picked these three so it would be easier to make our key point that they all work differently, using examples that readers know and to which they can relate. We also are both really fascinated by these particular identities. This paper actually started out as a series of online chat messages about our research, and we realized that our conversations spoke to a larger issue in political science. Our paper is based off a discussion of these three identities but we don’t claim that they’re necessarily the most important. They are, however, very different in how they conceptualize identity, so they happen to be excellent examples of the point we’re making in this paper.

Having a better framework for talking about identity would help us have smarter discussions about it as political scientists

Could you briefly elaborate on your model of elements of identity? How can studying changes and shifts within recognition, visibility and conceptualisation benefit political science?

In considering identity as a political phenomenon, we focused on three elements of identity. First, we focused on recognition—to what degree are one’s identity claims recognized as legitimate by a political community? Second, we looked at visibility—to what degree are attributes associated with one’s identity (i.e., markers of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) visible and recognizable to others? Third, we considered the issue of conceptualization—to what extent is the identity conceptualized(able) by a socio-political group. The ability to even have debate about terms like “transracialism” are limited, in a sense, by the way we can express identity frames in language in the first place.

Studying shifts is important for understanding the ways that political movements are able to change (or not) social attitudes. The internet’s role, for example, in allowing asexual people to gain more recognition and stronger conceptualization of their identity has implications for LGBTQ+ politics.

You claim that identity is the way we orient ourselves in a given community on the basis of recognizable attributes. What about the identities with dark visibility or low recognition such as in the case of Rachel Dolezal you highlight? Where is the boundary of this debate?

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility. There are two things that the unrecognizable or invisible forms of identity highlight for us: (1) The continuing struggle that some groups and individuals experience in having their lives affirmed by society. It has only been since the 1970s, for instance, that homosexuality was de-pathologized as a psychological diagnosis. Recognition is not a given—it is a site of contentious politics; (2) It allows us to interrogate the why question in regards to non-recognition—in thinking about cases like Rachel Dolezal’s, we were less interested in commenting on the claims she was making than by the conflict that ensued as her identity claims were rejected.

Identity is inherently social and relational—in other words, identity is not just something we can claim about ourselves, it’s something that depends on recognition and visibility.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

The biggest contribution we hope to bring to the field is to create a common frame of reference for diverse research agendas to talk about identity. While identity is a central feature of political research, we found that there were deep sub-disciplinary boundaries that foreclosed dialogue. We want to poke holes in those boundaries, and expand the frontiers of what we can do with a more comprehensive framework.

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Article: Weiner S, Dillon S T (2020), Rethinking Identity in Political Science, Political Studies Review 2021, Vol. 19(3), 464–481.

ABOUT

Scott Weiner is a professorial lecturer in political science at George Washington University. His research focuses on identity politics in the Middle East with a focus on state building, kinship, and gender politics on the Arabian Peninsula. From 2013-2014, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the American University of Kuwait.

Dillon Stone Tatum is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Francis Marion University. His research focuses on liberalism and world politics, critical security studies, and international political theory.

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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