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  • Publication
    The Inequalities That Divide – A Theory of Left-Right Politics
    (University College Dublin. School of Politics and International Relations, 2022) ;
    0000-0002-5600-6220
    The left-right dimension of politics is a dominant political divide in numerous societies around the world, and the corresponding left-right terminology describing this dimension is commonly used by voters, political elites, and scholars alike to make sense of various political landscapes. Yet, what makes political phenomena left- or right-wing is not fully understood, neither in the academic community, nor in broader society. Building on previous literature, this thesis proposes a novel version of acceptance of inequality theory to explain what makes political phenomena left- or right-wing. I argue that there are many potential inequality dimensions (e.g., divisions along class, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.) that can become politically divisive. This means that different societies can be divided along different inequality dimensions. When one of these inequality dimensions is preponderant, many voters and political actors decide their left-right orientation based on their acceptance (or rejection) of this particular inequality. This means that left-right competition will comprise different coalitions in one context compared to another, as different inequalities divide voters and political actors in different settings. This theory is compared to several competing explanations, including that the underlying difference between the Left and the Right is attitudes towards change, government intervention in the economy, religion, and the idea that there is no context-independent distinguishing feature. My novel version of acceptance of inequality theory as well as the alternative explanations are examined in four empirical research papers. The aim of these papers is to examine acceptance of inequality theory in instances of left-right competition that the theory has previously been unable to explain, as well as instances that remain understudied overall. In the first paper, multilevel regression models demonstrate that contrary to previous research, acceptance of inequality predicts right-wing self-placements of individuals in both Eastern and Western Europe. Importantly, this paper demonstrates that whether attitudes towards a specific inequality predict left-right self-placements in a country is dependent on the country-level salience of that inequality dimension. The second paper analyses open-ended survey answers describing what the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean using topic modelling. This paper provides evidence for acceptance of inequality theory, as well as partial evidence for two other explanations of the left-right dimension, namely that resistance to change or attitudes towards government intervention in the economy separate left- from right-wing politics. Conversely, using data from the World Values Survey, the third paper finds that attitudes towards different inequalities better predict left-right self-placements around the world compared to attitudes towards both economic statism and change. An additional analysis of the Netherlands shows that the proposed moderating effect of personal issue salience on the relationship between issue attitudes and left-right self-placements (an observable implication of the proposed causal relationship) is only present for acceptance of inequality, but not for attitudes towards economic statism. The fourth paper examines different instances of left-right competition around the world, with a focus on exploiting variation and finding rare instances that would be able to challenge the reach of acceptance of inequality theory. This paper finds that equality–inequality theory is the only prominent explanation that can consistently explain the left-right dimension in the reviewed cases, as well as in three case studies (of Indonesia, Moldova, and Israel). Overall, this thesis provides substantial evidence for a theory of the left-right dimension that can help social scientists and voters alike make sense of historical, contemporary, and future left-right politics.
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