Democracy of the better off

Democracy of the better off

The trend is clear: as the social differences in society deepen, so do the differences in voting behavior. Image: Bertelsmann Foundation

According to a Bertelsmann study, there is a growing trend for entire classes and districts to distance themselves permanently from the democratic process and for the state to become a democracy of the upper and middle classes

If the Grand Coalition comes into being, the CDU/CSU and SPD will dominate the Bundestag with an overwhelming majority, but they will represent only half of the electorate. The Union, which had achieved almost an absolute parliamentary majority, represented only one third of the electorate, of which only 71.5 percent voted anyway. 6.8 million second votes that went to parties that failed the 5 percent hurdle were also not taken into account – and 18 million people did not vote (More than 15 percent of second votes are forfeited).

Moreover, the composition of parliament is not representative of the population strata, because the non-voters mainly include people from the lower strata, as now confirmed by the Bertelsmann study Precarious Elections – Milieus and Social Selectivity of Voter Turnout in the 2013 Bundestag Elections.

The parliament is dominated by deputies who come from the upper social strata, i.e. from those who have higher incomes. As voter turnout falls and the gap between rich and poor widens, the balance of parliamentary power shifts in favor of the richer classes, who are naturally concerned with preserving their prosperity, while the interests of the lower classes are neglected because their members cut themselves off from democratic processes and thus, to a certain extent, reinforce their loser status.

"Socially precar" the authors of the study call the Bundestag election: "The social gap in turnout was enormous: the difference between the voting districts with the highest and lowest turnout was 29.5 percentage points." Armin Schafer of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies and the opinion research institute infratest-dimap analyzed voter turnout in 28 large cities and 640 constituencies that are representative of Germany. The poorer the population of a district or constituency, the less it participates in elections.

Plutocracy thus takes place at first glance through self-exclusion. While the difference in turnout between constituencies was 15.7 percent, it was as high as 30 percent in constituencies where the population is even more homogeneous.

Behind the increasing inequality of voter turnout lies a social division of the electorate. Germany has long since become a socially divided democracy of the upper two-thirds of our society. Democracy is becoming an exclusive event for people from the middle and upper social milieus of society, while the socially precarious milieus remain clearly underrepresented.

Precarious elections

In Berlin, Marzahn-Hellersdorf was the district with the lowest voter turnout (65.1%). And the background: "More than half of the resident households belong to the economically weaker milieus. The precarious milieu represents the largest single group, accounting for about a quarter of total households. The percentage of people without a high school diploma is above average in the district (almost 15 percent), while at the same time the percentage of potential graduates is very low (20 percent)." In Steglitz-Zehlendorf, the district with the highest purchasing power, on the other hand, almost 80 percent went to the polls.

Democracy of the better-off

It is striking how clearly the level of schooling, in this case the proportion of people with a high school diploma in a district, is correlated with voter turnout. Image: Bertelsmann Foundation

In Munich, 14 percent fewer eligible voters cast ballots in Milbertshofen-Am Hart than in Pasing-Obermenzing. Higher unemployment, lower education levels, less purchasing power, more renters and high-rise dwellers, fewer one- to two-family dwellers are key factors that correlate with lower voter turnout.

Above all, the study makes it clear that this has not always been the case, but that there is a growing trend for entire strata of society to distance themselves permanently from the democratic process and for the state to become a democracy of the upper and middle classes. Since 1972, the difference between the constituencies with the highest and lowest voter turnout has almost tripled. While the difference in voter turnout between the 10 percent of all electoral trips with the highest and the 10 percent with the lowest voter turnout was still 5.4 percent, it grew to 15.3 percent in 2013.

Higher unemployment and lower education (high school graduation rate) have the greatest impact on voting behavior. The development of a neighborhood and purchasing power have – even if applies: "The higher the purchasing power in a neighborhood, the higher the voter turnout" – a smaller influence, somewhat more the milieus. Unemployment and low education hurt democracy, study concludes.

To identify social strata, the study combines factors such as income, education and unemployment with profiles of values and attitudes to characterize 10 geo-milieus. The bottom three milieus associated with low voter turnout include the

  • "Traditional milieu: The war/post-war generation that loves security and order and is rooted in the old world of small towns and/or traditional working-class culture.
  • Precarious milieu: The lower class striving for orientation and participation with strong fears of the future and resentment, in which social disadvantages and few prospects for advancement have created a reactive basic attitude.
  • Hedonistic milieu: The fun and experience-oriented modern lower class/lower middle class, for whom only the here and now is decisive and who reject the conventions and behavioral expectations of the meritocracy."

The hedonistic milieu and the traditional milieu each account for 15 percent of the population, while the precarious milieu accounts for 9 percent. Voter turnout among hedonists is the lowest, while among liberal intellectuals ("The enlightened educated elite, characterized by a liberal attitude, the desire for a self-determined life and diverse intellectual interests.") and the conservative-establishment ("The classic establishment, which is characterized by its ethics of responsibility and success, and which sets itself apart in the consciousness of its own status.") is the highest.

Although socioeconomic factors have a stronger influence on voter turnout than the different milieus, they are not the only factors; lifestyles also play a role: "While traditional basic orientations and values truncate voter turnout, individualistic basic attitudes and those experimentally aimed at reorientation tended to lead to lower voter turnout." So it’s not just the lower classes that are saying goodbye to participation in the elections.

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