CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Among the various criticisms levelled at the concept of public opinion, one of the most prominent is certainly Bourdieu’s contention that social groups hold competing interests. [1] Divergent interests would therefore logically lead different groups to adopt attitudes that were not only distinct, but also likely to evolve in different ways over time. Determining whether the trends observed at the aggregate level are uniformly reflected among different segments of the population has therefore been a powerful driver of research in sociology and political science. Examining the broad policy preferences of Americans, Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro [2] were the first to demonstrate that social groups could exhibit response profiles that evolved in unison over time. As a result, they developed the theory of “parallel publics”: social groups that modify their opinions at the same time, in the same direction, to the same extent, and for the same reasons.

2In the United States, the data compiled by the General Social Survey and the National Election Studies series have proven the validity of this theory several times over. [3] In Europe, however, despite numerous comparative studies devoted to welfare attitudes, none have specifically analysed the issue of parallel opinion shifts. Most of the empirical research conducted has used large-scale international social surveys to explore differences between social groups; however, such studies have generally limited their analysis to a single survey wave. Some studies have adopted a more longitudinal approach, and examined the long-term evolution of opinions concerning the state or social policies. Nonetheless, they have primarily concentrated on trends that were identifiable at the aggregate level, without examining their possible variations across different publics. [4] The rare few studies comparing the long-term evolution of socio-economic preferences between social groups have hitherto concerned a very limited number of countries. [5] Consequently, the existing research does not reveal whether the hypothesis of parallel publics can be confirmed in Europe.

3Although the parallel publics hypothesis is more of a theorem than a theory, and can therefore be tested empirically independently of the cultural context in which it was elaborated, several factors cast doubt on its transposability to Europe. First of all, a long tradition of research has emphasised American exceptionalism, especially with regard to economic attitudes. Some have attributed this exceptionalism to a political culture that prioritises individualism. [6] Others have emphasised institutional characteristics, for example explaining Americans’ mistrust of government in terms of the fragmentation and ineffectiveness of political power. [7] Both institutionalist approaches and power resource theorists have likewise stressed that the norms and values of which social groups are the custodians are significantly different in Europe and in the United States, notably in regard to state intervention and redistributive policies. [8] The notion that public opinion could behave similarly in the United States and in Europe is thus far from obvious. Institutionalist approaches have also shown that the birth and development of European welfare was due to a set of highly specific national configurations. Today, the various reforms [9] being implemented in most European countries are taking very different forms in different countries, in accordance with specific legal, economic, and cultural frameworks. [10] Neither, therefore, is it self-evident that public opinion follows parallel evolutions within Europe itself.

4This article seeks to address an empirical gap in comparative research on attitudes towards the welfare state by examining whether the hypothesis of parallel publics can be verified in Europe. Using survey data on the values of Europeans, I shall first and foremost illustrate how the socio-economic preferences of European Union (EU) citizens have evolved between 1990 and 2008. I shall then deconstruct these preferences in order to address attitudes towards the welfare state more specifically. Thirdly, I shall analyse the movements of different social groups with regard to this topic, in order to demonstrate whether publics have shifted in parallel, or not, since the 1990s. I shall likewise evaluate to what extent global trends in public opinion are led by certain groups that are perhaps more reactive to transformations in their environment than others.

5In conclusion, I shall discuss the relationship between social change and European attitudes towards the welfare state, in particular emphasising the question of state legitimacy in times of economic crisis. How is national public opinion shifting in various countries, given that the European social model is currently viewed as becoming less and less sustainable? Is public opinion generally demanding a smaller state, in harmony with the structural constraints that limit public intervention? Or, on the contrary, are national publics demanding more government protection in order to maintain a certain level of social cohesion? Or, third possibility, have national public opinion trends remained stable, thereby revealing a lack of reactivity to circumstantial changes?

Theoretical and empirical perspectives on socio-economic preferences and their evolution

How attitudes towards the welfare state are formed

6In both political science and sociology, the issue of national preferences in terms of political, economic, and social issues has been studied from two different perspectives. One line of research has concentrated on analysing the underlying social determinants of these preferences. At the same time, another avenue of study has instead focused on how national preferences are established, and how they are likely to evolve over time. The first section of this article describing the existing literature will engage with both of these perspectives, while the two subsequent sections will empirically test several conclusions which emerge from the literature.

7The social determinants of attitudes towards major political and economic issues are usually addressed using one of two very different theoretical approaches. In the neo-classical economic paradigm, individuals are exclusively guided by self-interest. They develop preferences that are congruent with their material interests, elaborating a cost-benefit analysis to decide on the best options available, given the situation. For example, individuals are thought to evaluate positively the aspects of the welfare state from which they can personally benefit, and rate negatively those aspects from which they cannot benefit. [11] The concepts of public interest or collective solidarity are, in this paradigm, ex post rationalisations that mask the reality of individual motivations.

8Social and political psychology has developed a competing theoretical corpus to account for the fact that individual preferences are also strongly influenced by values and beliefs. It has likewise been shown that deep-seated symbolic attitudes shape attitudes and behaviours by means of predispositions acquired during primary socialisation. [12] A number of studies have gone so far as to highlight that these symbolic attitudes can have a greater influence than material factors on individual preferences, [13] and that they can in fact neutralise the weight of self-interest under certain conditions. [14]

9Comparative literature on welfare attitudes has demonstrated that these two perspectives can help to explain the attitudes of Europeans towards the welfare state. On the one hand, individual preferences have been shown to be intricately linked to levels of socio-economic vulnerability: the most disadvantaged groups are those that most support a large welfare state, as well as social policies designed with their protection in mind. [15] A similar observation was recorded with regard to the middle class, generally viewed as a major consumer of public services. [16] But on the other hand, attitudes towards the welfare state are also strongly correlated with norms and values, in particular with regard to social justice, solidarity, and altruism. [17] In the same fashion, several studies have shown that individuals on the left of the political spectrum are more likely to support a strong state with regard to social and economic issues. [18] A significant portion of the existing literature likewise underscores the combined effects of interest and ideology on support for the welfare state. Nonetheless, the manner in which these two factors interact has hitherto been little studied in Europe. [19] The interaction between ideology and self-interest also remains to be analysed with longitudinal data over the long term.

10How attitudes towards the state develop is a much more controversial question. One of two different perspectives is usually adopted when discussing opinion formation. According to the “minimalist” paradigm, [20] ordinary citizens are not very interested in politics or the state of the economy. They do not have the skills to make informed judgements on economic and social issues, or to position themselves with regard to complex political options. Their attitudes are consequently unstable, weakly structured, and can be called “pseudo-opinions” or “non-attitudes”. [21]

11Countering this paradigm, some political scientists have argued that ordinary citizens do not necessarily have a single, “true” attitude towards a given subject. On the contrary, individuals are likely to adopt several possible, and sometimes contradictory, attitudes. Consequently, even though citizens are often “ambivalent” towards the welfare state, [22] the majority of individuals are nonetheless capable of thinking about their preferences, and in particular of observing the conflicting values underpinning their attitudes. [23] From this point of view, preferences are at least partly determined by individuals’ deep-seated symbolic attitudes. But they also depend on a number of different considerations that are in their mind at the point when they express an opinion. [24] Attitudes towards the welfare state can therefore be influenced by internal factors (such as political awareness), [25] more contextual considerations (such as the evolution of ideological cleavages), [26] or the extent to which the discourse of political leaders matches up with their experience of current social and economic issues. [27]

Why social groups should shift together (or not)

12The instability of individual responses to survey questions does not, however, prevent us from establishing the consistency of attitudes from a more global standpoint. Drawing on the conclusions reached in studies on opinion formation, Page and Shapiro put forth the following hypothesis: even if ordinary citizens are not very interested in a topic, and hold a number of ideas concerning it that are only partially compatible with each other, public opinion can be seen as rational at the aggregate level. Page and Shapiro have thus demonstrated that global opinion trends are coherently correlated with major political and economic events. But how do the preferences of individuals or groups come together to form aggregates that are capable of behaving in a rational manner? Even though their opinions vary widely on a certain number of topics, individuals do not differ fundamentally with regard to how they respond to the messages that they receive from their environment and how they update their attitudes and behaviours accordingly. Under such circumstances, all publics react in concert to external stimuli. As a result, it may seem that public opinion shifts as a homogenous whole. [28]

13The theory of parallel publics has increasingly been confirmed by American studies. The pioneering work of Page and Shapiro on the General Social Survey data highlighted opinion trends on economic issues, which evolved in similar fashion across different income groups from 1972 to 1988. Using the same data over a longer period of time (1973-1996), Erikson, MacKuen and Stimson [29] then showed that preferences regarding state intervention exhibited analogous shifts across segments of the American population with varying education levels. Enns and Kellstedt [30] probed these results further and discovered that both the most and the least educated individuals altered their economic opinions in the same manner. Looking more specifically at preferences regarding public spending and social issues, Ura and Ellis likewise observed similarities in how opinions shifted across different income groups. [31] Soroka and Wlezien [32] reached the same conclusion for the period 1973-2004: attitudes towards social spending evolved in parallel for different income groups, ideological segments, and education levels.

14More recently, Kelly and Enns [33] have examined the relationship between demand for state intervention and income inequality. They demonstrated that both the lower and higher ends of the income spectrum tended to respond in the same fashion to growing inequality, by lessening their support for the state. Replicating Stimson’s policy mood with disaggregated data at the individual level, Enns and Wlezien analysed opinion shifts from the perspective of policy responsiveness. They emphasised that changes in demand for state intervention were almost identical across income groups and education levels during 1956-2006; therefore, the attitudes of the groups in question did not become polarised. In general, Enns and Wlezien conclude that the concept of parallel publics “appears to be the norm” when analysing sub-group opinions in the United States. [34]

15Very few empirical studies in Europe have adopted this perspective, however. Although Svallfors has compared the evolution of attitudes towards the state in different social classes, [35] he focuses on proving that attitude cleavages are marked identically in all types of regimes, rather than on examining to what extent opinion shifts in concert across different social classes. Soroka and Wlezien identified similar opinion shifts regarding government spending in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. [36] The validation of the parallel publics hypothesis remains geographically limited, however. Strictly speaking, it only applies to liberal, Western-style countries where attitudes towards the welfare state are highly specific. The question of whether publics shift in parallel thus remains unanswered for the rest of Europe.

16We can likewise imagine a series of counter-arguments in support of the opposite hypothesis that publics are not likely to move in parallel fashion. Research on partisan polarisation in the United States, for example, has draw attention to the growing influence and power of the most active political elites and the electoral hard core of the most mobilised voters. It has thus been observed that these transformations have led political parties to send clearer – and often more extreme – ideological signals since the 1970s. [37] And although the partisan conflicts that divide the elites are not necessarily replicated in an identical fashion in how ordinary citizens comprehend social and political issues, several American political scientists have observed very different shifts between ideological groups. For example, Enns and Wlezien [38] noted that the opinions of Democrats and Republicans on government intervention had in fact begun to be polarised during the Clinton presidency. Even more recently, Brooks and Manza [39] looked at how support for public action had been affected by the Great Recession. They showed that between 2007 and 2009, the opinions of Democratic supporters were very stable, while support for government intervention dropped off markedly among Republicans and Independents.

17To what extent can this tendency towards mass polarisation be applied to Europe? Some of the numerous comparative studies suggest that partisan differences regarding the welfare state are lessening in Europe, at the level of both general public opinion and the political elite. First of all, the major European political parties seem less likely to ideologically oppose one another over the role of the welfare state than to form wide government coalitions allowing for the creation of a “liberal consensus” on the reforms designed to implement the state’s divestiture of the welfare state. [40]

18Studies on new political cleavages have led to similar conclusions. We can indeed expect that public opinion will become less and less polarised regarding the “old politics”, as ideological cleavages begin to shift from socio-economic values to cultural values tied to immigration and European integration. [41] Neo-institutionalist studies have made an analogous observation: [42] as the welfare state enjoys widespread public support in general and among several special interest groups, it is likewise to be expected that publics as a whole will behave similarly and react in a consensual fashion to major changes in public policy. Overall, European public opinion may be much less ideologically polarised with regard to the welfare state than American public opinion – and it could even be becoming less polarised by the day.

19Finally, in research on welfare regimes, several arguments have been put forth suggesting that social groups respond in different ways to economic and social changes. For advocates of power resource theory, different kinds of welfare states have given rise to different coalitions across social classes. [43] Today, several factors are threatening traditional coalitions. First of all, the globalisation of trade and the internationalisation of economies are challenging the redistributive capacities of European welfare states. While the effects of increasing international competition vary significantly from one country to another, they all reduce the amount of leeway that European governments have to satisfy citizens’ expectations in terms of employment, social security, and equality. [44] The supranational constraints imposed by the EU also limit the autonomy of member states. And even though the pressure to adapt to European norms can be sidestepped by individual nations, [45] increased EU intervention is transforming how social policies are elaborated and negotiated. [46]

20All of these factors have led to the reconsideration of how class interests structure political conflicts concerning the redistribution of wealth. [47] Certain scholars [48] have suggested that a conservative shift is taking place: they argue that the middle and upper classes display a growing aversion to the welfare state, as well as increased hostility towards its beneficiaries, when they no longer feel that they are benefiting directly from public intervention. Others [49] have, on the contrary, defended the hypothesis that the middle class remains the main consumer of public services: it should therefore continue to defend its self-interest and reject any reduction in government involvement.

21Empirical analyses contextualising reforms of the welfare state and the transformation of attitudinal cleavages between social groups have produced highly nuanced results. On one hand, some studies have shown that in times of economic crisis, [50] the lower classes and the least educated tend to show less solidarity with immigrants and other marginalised groups, whom they perceive as being undeserving of state support because they do not contribute sufficiently to the national economy. [51] On the other hand, comparisons between social classes do not reveal significantly different evolutions in attitudes towards the welfare state since the 1990s. As we have seen, support for social policies is stronger among the more disadvantaged segments of the population. At the same time, however, this support remains relatively stable over time for all social classes. [52]

22Overall, the question of whether parallel publics truly exist remains unanswered for Europe. Some of the research suggests that reductions in state intervention could lead to increased competition between social groups, and thus to the formation of divergent attitudes. However, other factors invite us to observe the presence of more permanent attitudes towards the welfare state, as well as more uniform dynamics of public opinion.

Demand for state intervention in the European Union: data, methods, and preliminary results

Europeans are increasingly statist, without becoming ideologues

23How is support for the welfare state evolving in Europe? Are different publics evolving in parallel? Before answering these questions, we must examine how expectations regarding the welfare state vary by country. My analysis is based on the data presented by the European Values Survey (EVS), conducted every nine years and in a growing number of countries since 1980. In order to cover a sufficient number of countries as well as a relatively homogenous political, cultural, and institutional context, I make comparisons using the 23 EU countries included in the last three waves of the survey. [53]

24Since the second EVS in 1990, Europeans have been asked to describe their socio-economic preferences by positioning themselves along a series of 10-point scales. These scales all combine a form of social orientation with a form of liberal (economic) orientation. For each question, Figure 1 presents a “liberal preference index”. This index corresponds to the ratio between the respondents who express a liberal (economic) preference and those who state a social preference. [54] If the index is equal to 1, liberal and social preferences are equally strong (or weak). When it is greater than 1, liberal preferences are more important than social preferences, and vice-versa. Figure 1 highlights the fact that public support for the main tenets of economic liberalism (competition, private ownership of the means of production, and individual effort) has significantly declined since the beginning of the 1990s. The same is true of the value of freedom, which was almost on par with the value of equality in 2008. The questions concerning individual responsibility and constraints to be imposed on those receiving unemployment assistance are more stable and relatively well supported. [55] Figure 1 thus gives us a somewhat paradoxical view of Europeans: public opinion seems to combine growing demand for state intervention with fairly strong preferences for certain aspects of economic liberalism.

25Figure 2 uses a statistical indicator – Cronbach’s alpha – to nuance this interpretation, illustrating the degree of correlation between the items presented in Figure 1. For the year 2008, the overall correlation was fairly weak across the 27 EU countries. [56] This result, which is consistent with existing research on the ambivalence of attitudes, reveals that Europeans express highly different, and at times opposing, socio-economic preferences. This result also supports the argument that public opinion as a whole is not made up of “ideologues” as defined by Converse, insomuch as individuals do not primarily structure their attitudes around a dichotomy between liberalism and socialism. Nonetheless, it should be noted that socio-economic preferences are more consistent in Scandinavian and Northern European countries, likely because the tension between the market and the state has taken on a more institutional character in those contexts.

26In order to evaluate to what extent political awareness influences the consistency of attitudes, an additional index was elaborated from the EVS questions concerning the respondents’ expressed interest in politics, the importance of politics in their daily lives, the frequency of political discussions with their friends, and the attention they paid to political events. [57] Figure 2 confirms existing research on attitudinal consistency by demonstrating that the most politically minded Europeans (who correspond here to the top quartile) combine their preferences in terms of economic and social issues in a much more systematic manner than their peers. These individuals are even more “ideological” when they are university graduates. Some Eastern European countries are exceptions to the trend, however. In Estonia, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, higher than average education levels appear to mitigate the impact of interest in politics on the consistency of socio-economic preferences. It thus seems that in those countries, the tension between the market and the state was an issue of much greater concern for the most educated segments of the population.

Figure 1

Evolution of the liberal preference index from 1990 to 2008 in the EU (23 countries)

Figure 1

Evolution of the liberal preference index from 1990 to 2008 in the EU (23 countries)

27In short, even though Europeans are often contrasted with Americans and presented as statists, egalitarian, and hostile to capitalism and the market economy, preliminary results suggest that their socio-economic preferences are not as homogenous as one might think. Even though social expectations and mistrust of the market are on the rise since the 1990s, Europeans appear to combine social economic values with more liberal economic values. These results are particularly interesting since they disprove the theories of both American and European exceptionalism. Consequently, they broadly support research demonstrating that Americans adhere to liberal ideals (“philosophical conservatism”), while in practice maintaining more social expectations (“operational liberalism”). [58]

Figure 2

Consistency of socio-economic preferences of Europeans in 2008 (27 countries)

Figure 2

Consistency of socio-economic preferences of Europeans in 2008 (27 countries)

Deconstructing socio-economic preferences and charting their evolution

28Preliminary results suggest that the socio-economic preferences of Europeans display composite logic, likely to evolve in different ways depending on the country in question. In fact, studies on welfare attitudes have recently emphasised the multi-dimensionality of attitudes towards the welfare state in Europe. [59] In order to test the theory of parallel publics, we must therefore first identify the main dimensions shaping European socio-economic preferences. [60] Different statistical techniques can be used to identify the latent structure of a set of quantitative variables. Here, I used principal component analysis (PCA) in order to rank the rationales behind European responses. Varimax orthogonal rotation enabled me to isolate two dimensions (Table 1). The first dimension is by far the strongest and the simplest to interpret. It accounts for 30 per cent of the total variance and encompasses questions on state control of the economy. [61] This dimension can therefore be seen as expressing the intensity of European social expectations and demand for state intervention. [62] This dimension will constitute the variable to be explained by the analysis which follows.

29In international comparisons, it is particularly important to ensure that the different items that make up an attitude scale have equivalent statistical association profiles in all the countries involved. [63] I controlled the validity of the attitude structure obtained by conducting different principal component analyses for each combination of countries and survey waves. Among the 23 countries examined here, the ranking of dimensions, the items correlated with them, and the percentage of variance that they represent barely changed between 1990, 1999, and 2008. The conclusion drawn from these analyses is therefore that the overall attitude structure is very stable over time and across space. [64] The demand for state intervention is therefore a clear and lasting dimension of European socio-economic preferences.

Table 1

Principal component analysis of economic preferences in the EU (23 countries, 1999-2008)

Table 1
Demand for state Demand action for equality The state should take more responsibility for meeting everyone’s needs 0.70 0.05 Businesses and industries should be further nationalised 0.64 0.26 Competition is dangerous 0.64 0.19 Unemployed persons should have the right to refuse a job that does not satisfy them 0.60 -0.42 Incomes should be more equally distributed 0.02 0.76 Equality is more important than freedom 0.23 0.59 Percentage of variance explained 30 19

Principal component analysis of economic preferences in the EU (23 countries, 1999-2008)

The correlations of active variables with the factors are shown here. The KMO statistic (0.671) and the Bartlett test (χ2 = 17244.42; p < 0.001) indicate an acceptable correlation between the items.

30In order to better account for variations in the demand for state involvement between European countries, and to analyse how these variations combine with individual characteristics, each respondent’s coordinates on the first dimension were isolated by the PCA and then extracted. For ease of interpretation, these factorial scores were adjusted to a scale of 0 to 1. Finally, different multi-level models were tested through the regression of the dependent variable thus established. Multi-level analysis is particularly useful here, as individuals are nested into different geographical and temporal units. The main goal of this kind of analysis is to explain variations of the dependent variable at the individual level, while controlling the average level variation of this same dependent variable between different aggregated units. [65]

31While there exist multi-level models specifically designed to analyse panellised data (growth models, for instance), their application to longitudinal datasets in particular is not yet completely stable. [66] The approach used here is one that is frequently employed for longitudinal analyses of international survey datasets. This approach consists of ranking variations across levels. Schematically, individuals, survey waves, and countries are separated, treating the first as level 1 units, the second as level 2 (meso) units, and the third as level 3 (macro) aggregate units. A three-level model is thus established, which has the advantage of being able to disentangle variations in the demand for state intervention that are attributable to evolutions over time and differences across countries.

32Table 2 presents several models charting the influence of different individual level characteristics on the demand for state intervention. Model 1 corresponds to what is sometimes called an “empty” model, with no explanatory variable. Similar to a random effects analysis of variance (ANOVA) model, it allows us to compare the share of variance of the dependent variable that is explained by the different levels. This share of variance is provided by the intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC), whose value is 0.016 for the macro level and 0.056 for the meso level. The coefficient shows that 1.7% of the variance in demand for state action is explained by country differences and that 5.6% of it can be explained by differences between survey waves (the rest is explained by level 1 differences). Although they are weak, the variations attributable to differences in countries and survey waves are statistically significant. The most striking result is therefore that expectations of the state are more influenced by differences between individual Europeans than between national differences or survey waves. This kind of result, frequent in literature on welfare attitudes, [67] merely highlights that there are greater differences between individuals than there are between countries. It also demonstrates the more substantial value of contradicting culturalist interpretations, which often argue that national characteristics are homogenous and that countries differ more greatly than individuals. [68]

Material interests and political values simultaneously influence the demand for state intervention

33In order to understand how publics move in parallel (or not), we must determine, in a two-stage analysis, to what extent they are driven by self-interest and/or political orientation. First, in order to evaluate the influence of self-interest, employment status and household income are introduced into the analysis (model 2). Household income is divided into quartiles, with the individuals living in the wealthiest households serving as reference. A dummy variable combining the respondents who did not provide information regarding their income was added (DKNA income), in order to be able to compare this sizeable segment, which accounts for 17 per cent of the aggregated dataset.

Table 2

Multi-level analyses of the demand for state action in the EU (1990-2008)

Table 2
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Coefficient t-value Coefficient t-value Coefficient t-value Woman 0.026*** 21.14 0.024*** 19.88 Age (std) -0.0003 -0.4 0.0006 0.96 Education level (std) -0.009*** -12.99 -0.009*** -13.11 Income --(ref. ++) 0.054*** 23.69 0.048*** 21.62 Income - 0.041*** 19.43 0.037*** 17.97 Income + 0.023*** 10.7 0.020*** 9.6 DKNA Income 0.02*** 8.44 0.017*** 7.48 Employed (ref. self-employed) 0.046*** 16.32 0.041*** 14.92 Unemployed 0.092*** 24.65 0.085*** 23.24 Retired or not working 0.044*** 14.94 0.040*** 13.91 DKNA employment status 0.051*** 8.2 0.046*** 7.66 Left (ref. right) 0.099*** 52.47 Centre 0.046*** 27.61 DKNA political orientation 0.058*** 28.56 Interest in politics -(ref. --) -0.003 -1.84 Interest in politics + -0.006** -3.22 Interest in politics ++ -0.005* -2.28 DKNA interest in politics 0.014*** 3.69 Constant 0.398*** 67.5 0.307*** 50.31 0.267*** 43.42 Variance of the constants (individual level) Regression variance (wave level) Regression variance (country level) Coefficient 0.0251 0.001 0.0004 Std. Err. 0.0001 0.0002 0.0002 Coefficient 0.0243 0.0012 0.0002 Std. Err. 0.0001 0.0003 0.0002 Coefficient 0.0232 0.0012 0.0002 Std. Err. 0.0001 0.0003 0.0002 N (individual level) 65,856 65,856 65,856 N (wave level) 69 69 69 N (country level) 23 23 23 ICC (wave level%) 0.056 0.056 0.055 ICC (country level%) 0.017 0.009 0.008 AIC -55,311.91 -57,629.62 -60,399.29 BIC -55,275.53 -57,493.19 -60,199.2

Multi-level analyses of the demand for state action in the EU (1990-2008)

std = standardised; * p < 0.05 ** p < 0.01 *** p < 0.001.

34Next the impact of ideology is plotted, on the one hand to appreciate the scope of European partisan polarisation, and on the other to see if ideology mitigates the influence of self-interest or not (model 3). Two canonical variables are used here. Political orientation is derived from subjective positioning on a standard 10-point scale. Four categories are specified: left (1 –4), centre (5 –6), right (7 –10), used as the reference point; plus a category termed DKNA political orientation for those respondents who did not position themselves on the scale (about 24% of the dataset). In order to understand the effect of political awareness and orientation, an additive index (presented in Figure 2) was likewise introduced. Those individuals least interested in politics provided the reference point. A dummy variable was added to include respondents for whom the index could not be calculated, due to insufficient observations (11.5% of the dataset). Age, sex, and education level (i.e., the age at which respondents left school) were introduced as control variables. Age and education level were standardised to obtain comparable parameters.

35The results produced by model 2 are entirely congruent with research on the determinants of welfare attitudes: that is, different publics seem to follow their respective self-interests. As a result, the impact of income is highly linear: the higher their household income, the fewer social expectations respondents express. The same holds true for employment status. Compared to the self-employed, all socio-professional groups are more likely to support an interventionist state. This is especially true for the unemployed, the retired, and those who are not engaged in active employment, who all depend more directly on social transfers. The same is true for women, which tends to support the argument that women are often more dependent on the state, but also that they are more attentive than men to issues of equality and redistribution. [69]

36The effects of education are less clear-cut. On the one hand, we might expect that higher education levels would make individuals more open, tolerant, and drawn to altruism and solidarity. Socialisation to democratic values, measured by number of years of study, would thus lead to a more marked preference for social rights. On the other hand, the sociology of school experience in relation to feelings concerning fairness has shown that high education levels often lead to increased belief in personal merit. We might therefore expect that the most educated individuals will reject the egalitarian norms enshrined by the welfare state; this tendency would only be exacerbated by the fact that higher education levels generally lead to higher income levels and consequently to less objective personal interest in social action. This second hypothesis is largely validated here, congruent with the results of several empirical studies. [70] As for age, it does not appear to be significantly linked to demand for state action, which is also a result supported by existing research on welfare attitudes. [71]

37Moreover, model 3 confirms the value of an approach based on symbolic politics. In fact, it can be observed that ideology has a very clear influence on attitudes towards the welfare state. If we compare the magnitude of the coefficients, left-right positioning on the political spectrum has a greater impact on support for state action than being unemployed or having a low household income. Interest in politics displays a negative correlation, albeit less markedly, with social expectations: the more an individual is politically aware, the less s/he is likely to support interventionist policies. Individuals who did not position themselves on this index (and who are perhaps the least politically active) were however significantly more statist in their responses than the most politicised respondents. Nonetheless, introducing ideological variables in model 3 left the socio-economic variables’ coefficients virtually unchanged. It would appear that self-interest and political values simultaneously influence the demand for state action. [72] Later on, we shall examine how these two elements interact.

The dynamics of support for the welfare state in the European Union

Public cleavages evolving in parallel

38The multi-level models reveal that the demand for state intervention is on the whole significantly different from one public to another, and from one survey wave to another. However, the models do not reveal the direction in which the expectations of social groups are evolving. In order to have a more precise idea of these shifts, the values predicted by model 3 were calculated for different publics and for each of the survey waves. Technically, these are “adjusted” values, which add up the values predicted by the fixed effects part of the model with specific contributions based on the random effects predicted by the same model. Figure 3 gives a more intuitive visual picture of this situation, in the form of a series of regression lines illustrating the data point clusters formed by the individual predictions.

39The two panels of Figure 3 depict strikingly similar shifts for different publics. Between 1990 and 2008, all the social groups represented developed greater expectations in terms of state engagement. This was true for both men and women, across all age groups and education levels. Income and employment status were the most polarised, especially for the unemployed and the self-employed, whose respective expectations were separated by about 0.11 points on a scale ranging from 0 to 1. However, these groups still evolved in parallel. Ideological groups followed the same trend. Although Europeans close to the right side of the political spectrum are much less likely to support the welfare state than Europeans on the left (with a deviation of 0.1), they all shifted in unison and became more interventionist between 1990 and 2008. [73]

40The publics that make up European public opinion thus evolve in parallel, while remaining quite divided as to the extent of their social expectations. This strong result only partially confirms the existing research focusing on class conflict and growing competition surrounding state redistribution. Significant cleavages do exist between social groups, likely reflecting the fact that individuals have very different levels of expectation with regard to state action. At the same time, however, while a rise in anti-state preferences could have been expected among the wealthiest social groups, on the contrary these groups became more interventionist too. In short, all European citizens seem to be demanding more state intervention.

Who wants a bigger state?

41These results tend to confirm the hypothesis of parallel publics in Europe. One question remains, however: although all publics shift in the same direction, do they all shift to the same extent? In other words, if all social groups called for more state intervention in 2008 than they did in 1999, is this the result of certain groups developing greater expectations over time? In studies on opinion dynamics, asking the question “who shifts when public opinion shifts” is generally a way to examine the influence of elites versus that of ordinary citizens. We can thus wonder to what extent global opinion shifts are produced by minorities of well-informed individuals, who may be more sophisticated or educated than others. It is assumed that these individuals are more sensitive to changes in their social, political or economic environments, since they process more information and are thus in a position to adequately evaluate the transformations around them. [74]

Figure 3

Evolution of the demand for state action among different social groups

Figure 3

Evolution of the demand for state action among different social groups

42We can begin to answer this question by comparing shifts in the demand for state intervention for different social groups. Overall, social expectations grew about 10% [75] – a rather modest, albeit significant, growth rate for a period of almost twenty years, both statistically speaking and from the traditional perspective that emphasises the stability of European values and attitudes. [76] This rate largely conceals the varying shifts of different publics (Figure 4). These shifts are the most marked among Europeans living in the wealthiest households (respectively +17% and +13% for the two top quartiles), among Europeans on the right side of the political spectrum (+14%) and among the most educated Europeans (+13% for those who those who studied until they were at least 22 years old, and +19% for those who completed their studies between 19 and 21 years old). Similar trends have already been observed. [77] They attest to the fact that the most well-off individuals (both in terms of economic and educational capital) react more strongly to changes in their environment. On the other hand, the publics with the most stable social expectations are the most uninvolved with politics (+8% for those least interested in politics, as well as for those without any stated political orientation) and the most distant from the jobs market (+8% for individuals who are retired or not engaged in active employment), which might explain why they are less reactive than other Europeans.

Figure 4

Growth rate of the demand for state action across different social groups (1990-2008)

Figure 4

Growth rate of the demand for state action across different social groups (1990-2008)

43Even though there is a threefold percentage difference between the most labile publics and the least labile publics (5% versus 17%), most of the social groups exhibit variations that are close to the average (10%). Under these conditions, it is possible to argue that no public truly emerges as being solely responsible for the increased demand for state intervention in Europe, or even as contributing to this demand much more significantly than other groups. [78] These results confirm existing studies demonstrating that individuals are equally reactive across the board, as they assimilate the information to which they are exposed in the same fashion and similarly update their opinions based on that information. [79] In general, while the most well-off Europeans, both economically and educationally, are also the most reactive citizens, it is nonetheless also true that all citizens are reacting to transformations in their social environment by demanding greater state intervention.

Significant partisan cleavages, but no ideological polarisation

44We can nuance the analysis of partisan polarisation by looking at how the influence of ideology and that of self-interest interact over the long term. To do so, I estimated a model similar to model 3, to which were added the effects of interaction between political orientation and household income. The objective was to determine whether income had a different effect on the social expectations of Europeans on the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

45Figure 5 presents the values predicted for 1990, 1999, and 2008, respectively. The linear predictions were calculated for the fixed effects part of the model. In addition to visually confirming that ideological groups have shifted in parallel, the upper portion of Figure 5 illustrates that income has had a very different impact on the left and right sides of the political spectrum. While right-leaning Europeans are more likely to favour their self-interest and are less likely to support the welfare state, especially the richer they become, left-leaning Europeans are just as statist when they are poor as when they are rich. In other words, political values mitigate the influence of self-interest, but only for those on the left side of the political spectrum. As a result, it is among the right side of the spectrum that the attitude gap between the rich and the poor will be the most significant: poor right-wing Europeans are markedly less averse to the welfare state than their rich counterparts.

46This differential effect caused by income is very stable over time, and leads to similar observations in 1990, 1999, and 2008. It stands in stark opposition to the American theory of partisan polarisation, but also to the theory that the liberal consensus of political elites would have weakened ideological cleavages in Europe. When looking at income groups (which are particularly interesting because they are publics whose social expectations exhibit the greatest cleavages), it emerges that neither ideological polarisation nor convergence has occurred between the rich and the poor between 1990 and 2008. Rather, a kind of consensus of public opinion regarding growing state intervention seems to be emerging. However, as has been demonstrated for France specifically, the fact remains that this consensus appears to be more solid among left-leaning Europeans. [80] On the right side of the spectrum, support for state action appears to fluctuate much more in terms of wealth. Typically, the gap between the poor on the right and the rich on the right is almost as great as the difference between the poor on the right and the poor on the left.

47In order to determine whether political awareness influences expectations towards the state for different ideological groups, a final model was created with interaction effects allowing for interest in politics to vary in accordance with political orientation. The lower portion of Figure 5 shows that left- and right-leaning Europeans express increasingly different attitudes towards the state as they declare more interest in politics. In other words, the attitudinal distance between left- and right-wing Europeans is greater among the most politicised segments of the European population. And this distance narrows as interest in politics declines.

Figure 5

Demand for state action across ideological groups according to income and interest in politics (values predicted with confidence intervals at 95%)

Figure 5

Demand for state action across ideological groups according to income and interest in politics (values predicted with confidence intervals at 95%)

48While political competence shapes expectations towards the state by helping individuals to translate their symbolic predispositions and political values into more or less statist attitudes, ideological groups are nevertheless no more polarised in 2008 than they were in 1990. Regardless of the survey wave, the most politicised Europeans seem, both on the left and the right, to align themselves equally with pro- and anti-statist positions, while the least politicised citizens are developing expectations that edge closer to the average. This final result reminds us that even if ordinary citizens all react to transformations in their environment, they are not all equally susceptible to the latent ideological cleavages behind their social preferences.

49* * *

50A large corpus of empirical studies has examined the socio-economic preferences of Americans since the 1970s. This body of work, with no equivalent in Europe, has identified several key factors to account for attitudes towards the welfare state and their evolution over time. Drawing on longitudinal survey data covering 23 EU countries, the results presented here highlight several opinion trends that are very similar to those identified by American researchers.

51First of all, my research confirms studies on the parallelism of changes in public opinion. Between 1990 and 2008, Europeans as a whole became more favourable to state intervention in economic and social matters. Moreover, their social expectations globally evolved in similar proportions. Nonetheless, there are important cleavages in attitudes towards the state. One of the most striking cleavages relates to political orientation, pitting the statist preferences of left-wing Europeans against those of right-wing Europeans. This fault line is exacerbated by other factors: left- and right-wing Europeans develop increasingly different social expectations as they earn more money or become more interested in politics.

52Ultimately, however, these cleavages seem stable over time and can be observed for each survey wave, merely moving upwards from 1990 to 2008. Contrary to the common sense argument that ideological oppositions are gradually disappearing in Old Europe, one of the conclusions drawn here is that ideology remains a very divisive factor with regard to European socio-economic preferences, and in particular with attitudes towards the welfare state. Running counter to the theory of partisan polarisation, these results show that political orientation does not divide Europeans with regard to state intervention more in 2008 than it did in 1990. In short, “old politics” continue to divide Europeans, but no more so today than yesterday.

53It is tempting to view Europeans’ growing demand for state intervention as the response of ordinary citizens to what has sometimes been identified as a turning point or a liberal consensus among political elites. While social expectations have grown significantly since the 1990s, we must not forget that European public opinion remains very ambivalent on the subject. Its statist preferences are combined with much more conservative economic preferences. Parallel publics demanding a larger welfare state are thus far from constituting a homogenous majority. As a result, the goal for policy makers is perhaps not merely to satisfy the expectations of public opinion, but more specifically to satisfy them without also frustrating more economically liberal expectations.

54The theory of parallel publics stems from the premise that different social groups similarly interpret the political and economic signs and stimuli that they receive from the outside. Consequently, these publics can react analogously and shift in unison. The data provided by the EVS tends to support this theory in Europe. However, we should not misconstrue the nature of this theory’s empirical value. The fact that different publics can shift in the same direction in Europe and the fact that parallel shifts can also be observed elsewhere does not necessarily mean that these shifts are guided by the same reasons. The empirical validity of the mechanism underpinning the parallel publics theory is one thing: opinions shift in the same direction because they respond to the same contextual information. The more substantial content accompanying this mechanism is another: opinions can in fact shift in the same direction, but for very different reasons.

55Consequently, although Europeans seem to react identically to changes in their environment by calling for greater state intervention, their social expectations are no less likely to stem from very different attitudes towards public action from one public to another, or one country to another. Typically, left-wing Europeans and right-wing Europeans may not envision the same forms of state action to mitigate social inequality. In the same fashion, the growing demand for state action expressed by the most economically fortunate Europeans is quite likely of a different nature than that expressed by less well-off households. A more qualitative approach could help to clarify how publics view state responsibility and its forms of intervention in times of economic crisis. In-depth interviews could also help to understand which social policies and forms of redistribution Europeans mean when they demand greater state intervention.

56While, in the absence of qualitative data, it is difficult to imagine the content of these social expectations, they likely contain both potential for legitimacy and potential for dissent that should be of interest to policy makers. The potential to legitimise public action: Europeans’ growing demand for state involvement could represent a counterweight to what is often presented as a crisis of faith in public institutions or of the legitimacy of the welfare state in general. But they may also provide potential for dissent: there is nothing to guarantee that left- and right-wing Europeans would agree on how to implement new forms of state intervention. Parallel opinions do not, therefore, preclude social conflict.


  • [1]
    Pierre Bourdieu, “L’opinion publique n’existe pas”, Les temps modernes, 318, 1973, 1292-309.
  • [2]
    Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public. Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  • [3]
    Robert S. Erikson, Michael MacKuen, James A. Stimson, The Macro Polity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Peter K. Enns, Christopher Wlezien, “Group opinion and the study of representation”, in Peter K. Enns, Christopher Wlezien (eds), Who Gets Represented? (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2009), 1-26.
  • [4]
    Randolph T. Stevenson, “The economy and policy mood: a fundamental dynamic of democratic politics?”, American Journal of Political Science, 45 (3), 2001, 620-33; Morten Blekesaune, Jill Quadagno, “Public attitudes toward welfare state policies: a comparative analysis of 24 nations”, European Sociological Review, 19(5), 2003, 415-27; Clem Brooks, Jeff Manza, Why Welfare States Persist. The Importance of Public Opinion in Democracies (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  • [5]
    Stefan Svallfors, The Moral Economy of Class. Class and Attitudes in Comparative Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006); Stuart N. Soroka, Christopher Wlezien, Degrees of Democracy. Politics, Public Opinion, and Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  • [6]
    Lloyd A. Free, Hadley Cantril, The Political Beliefs of Americans. A Study of Public Opinion (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967); Jennifer Hochschild, What’s Fair? American Beliefs about Distributive Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); Herbert McClosky, John Zaller, The American Ethos. Public Attitudes Toward Capitalism and Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984); Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism. A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
  • [7]
    Cf., for example, Sven Steinmo, “American exceptionalism reconsidered: culture or institutions?”, in Lawrence C. Dodd, Calvin Jillson (eds), The Dynamics of American Politics. Approaches and Interpretations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 106-11.
  • [8]
    Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), and Social Foundations of Post-Industrial Economies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Walter Korpi, Joakim Palme, “The paradox of redistribution and strategies of equality: welfare state institutions, inequality, and poverty in the Western countries”, American Sociological Review, 63(5), 1998, 661-87.Online
  • [9]
    Bruno Palier (ed.), A Long Goodbye to Bismarck? The Politics of Welfare Reform in Continental Europe (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010).
  • [10]
    Paul Pierson, for example, illustrated this very clearly in “The new politics of the welfare state”, World Politics, 48(2), 1996, 143-79.Online
  • [11]
    The expression used in the original French article is “État providence” (literally, “providential State”). However, the French expression is a poor translation of its international equivalents, such as the English “welfare state” or the German “Sozialstaat”, and does not convey the broader notion of a social state as the latter is enshrined in many constitutions as a foundational element of national legal order. Cf. for example François-Xavier Merrien, Raphaël Parchet, Antoine Kernen, L’État social. Une perspective internationale (Paris: Armand Colin, 2005); Alain Supiot, Grandeur et misère de l’État social (Paris: Fayard, 2013). Robert Castel and Pierre Rosanvallon have likewise emphasised that the expression “État providence” has a highly divisive connotation, and does not sufficiently account for the state’s regulatory role. Robert Castel, Les métamorphoses de la question sociale. Une chronique du salariat (Paris: Fayard, 1995), 280-3; Pierre Rosanvallon, La crise de l’État-providence (Paris: Seuil, 1981).
  • [12]
    David O. Sears, Carolyn L. Funk, “The role of self-interest in social and political attitudes”, in Mark P. Zanna (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Orlando: Academic Press, 1991), 1-91.
  • [13]
    David O. Sears, Carolyn L. Funk, “The limited effect of economic self-interest on the political attitudes of the mass public”, Journal of Behavioral Economics, 19(3), 1990, 247-71.Online
  • [14]
    Dennis Chong, Jack Citrin, Patricia Conley, “When self-interest matters”, Political Psychology, 22(3), 2001, 541-70; Richard R. Lau, Caroline Heldman, “Self-interest, symbolic attitudes, and support for public policy: a multilevel analysis”, Political Psychology, 30(4), 2009, 513-37.Online
  • [15]
    Elim Papadakis, Clive Bean, “Popular support for the welfare state: a comparison between institutional regimes”, Journal of Public Policy, 13(3), 1993, 227-54; Stefan Svallfors, “Worlds of welfare and attitudes to redistribution: a comparison of eight Western nations”, European Sociological Review, 13(3), 1997, 283-304; Hans-Jürgen Andreß, Thorsten Heien, “Four worlds of welfare state attitudes? A comparison of Germany, Norway, and the United States”, European Sociological Review, 17(4), 2001, 337-56; Wil Arts, John Gelissen, “Welfare states, solidarity and justice principles: does the type really matter?”, Acta Sociologica, 44(4), 2001, 283-99; M. Blekesaune, J. Quadagno, “Public attitudes…”; Katerina Linos, Martin West, “Self-interest, social beliefs, and attitudes to redistribution: re-addressing the issue of crossnational variation”, European Sociological Review, 19(4), 2003, 393-409.Online
  • [16]
    Peter Baldwin, The Politics of Social Solidarity. Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Elim Papadakis, “Class interests, class politics and welfare state regime”, The British Journal of Sociology, 44(2), 1993, 249-70; Stefan Svallfors, The Moral Economy of Class. Class and Attitudes in Comparative Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
  • [17]
    Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, “Reciprocity, self-interest and the welfare state”, Nordic Journal of Political Economy, 26, 2000, 33-53; John Gelissen, “Popular support for institutionalised solidarity: a comparison between European welfare states”, International Journal of Social Welfare, 9(4), 2000, 285-300; Tim Reeskens, Wim van Oorschot, “Equity, equality, or need? A study of popular preferences for welfare redistribution principles across 24 European countries”, Journal of European Public Policy, 20(8), 2013, 1174-95.
  • [18]
    Mads Meier Jæger, “Does left-right orientation have a causal effect on support for redistribution? Causal analysis with cross-sectional data using instrumental variables”, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 20(3), 2008, 363-74; Wim Van Oorschot, Tim Reeskens, Bart Meuleman, “Public perceptions of the economic, moral, social and migration consequences of the welfare state: an empirical analysis of welfare state legitimacy”, Journal of European Social Policy, 20(1), 2010, 19-31.Online
  • [19]
    J. Gelissen, “Popular support…”. The interactions between self-interest and values have received more attention in American research. Carolyn L. Funk has shown generally that the most altruistic and egalitarian respondents were less likely to rely on self-interest to evaluate their government (“The dual influence of self-interest and societal interest in public opinion”, Political Research Quarterly, 53(1), 2000, 37-62).Online
  • [20]
    Paul Sniderman, “Les nouvelles perspectives de la recherche sur l’opinion publique”, Politix, 11(41), 1998, 123-75.
  • [21]
    Philip E. Converse, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics – 1964”, Critical Review, 18(1-3), 2006, 1-74.
  • [22]
    Ambivalence exists in the sense that the same individuals can view the same attitudinal object both positively and negatively at the same time. Cf. Jason Gainous, Michael D. Martinez, Stephen C. Craig, “The multiple causes of citizen ambivalence: attitudes about social welfare policy”, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties, 20(3), 335-56; Achim Goerres, Katrin Prinzen, “Can we improve the measurement of attitudes towards the welfare state? A constructive critique of survey instruments with evidence from focus groups”, Social Indicators Research, 109(3), 2012, 515-34.
  • [23]
    Stanley Feldman, John Zaller, “The political culture of ambivalence: ideological responses to the welfare state”, American Journal of Political Science, 36(1), 1992, 268-307.
  • [24]
    John Zaller, Stanley Feldman, “A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences”, American Journal of Political Science, 36(3), 1992, 579-616; John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • [25]
    Even though political awareness is seen as increasing the consistency of attitudes towards the state, empirical results in American studies remain highly nuanced on the matter. S. Feldman and J. Zaller (“A simple theory…”) have shown that individuals with more political awareness do not display any greater consistency in their opinions. Gainous has also shown that ambivalence towards social policies tends to increase as the level of political awareness rises. Jason Gainous, “Who’s ambivalent and who’s not? Social welfare ambivalence across ideology”, American Politics Research, 36(2), 210-35.
  • [26]
    Stephen Earl Bennett, “Consistency among the public’s social welfare policy attitudes in the 1960s”, American Journal of Political Science, 17(3), 1973, 544-70.
  • [27]
    Saundra K. Schneider, William G. Jacoby, “Elite discourse and American public opinion. The case of welfare spending”, Political Research Quarterly, 58(3), 2005, 367-79.
  • [28]
    B. I. Page, R. Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public…, 117-71.
  • [29]
    R. S. Erikson, M. MacKuen, J. A. Stimson, The Macro Polity….
  • [30]
    Peter K. Enns, Paul M. Kellstedt, “Policy mood and political sophistication: why everybody moves mood”, British Journal of Political Science, 38(3), 2008, 433-54.
  • [31]
    Joseph D. Ura, Christopher R. Ellis, “Income, preferences, and the dynamics of policy responsiveness”, PS. Political Science & Politics, 41(4), 2008, 785-94.
  • [32]
    Stuart N. Soroka, Christopher Wlezien, “On the limits to inequality in representation”, PS. Political Science & Politics, 41(2), 2008, 319-27.
  • [33]
    Nathan J. Kelly, Peter K. Enns, “Inequality and the dynamics of public opinion: the self-reinforcing link between economic inequality and mass preferences”, American Journal of Political Science, 54(4), 2010, 855-70.
  • [34]
    P. K. Enns, C. Wlezien, Who Gets Represented?, 4.
  • [35]
    Stefan Svallfors, Peter Taylor-Gooby (eds), The End of the Welfare State? Responses to State Retrenchment (Abingdon: Routledge, 1999); Stefan Svallfors, “Class, attitudes and the welfare state: Sweden in comparative perspective”, Social Policy & Administration, 38(2), 2004, 119-38, and The Moral Economy of Class…; Stefan Svallfors (ed.), The Political Sociology of the Welfare State. Institutions, Social Cleavages, and Orientations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • [36]
    S. N. Soroka, C. Wlezien, Degrees of Democracy….
  • [37]
    Morris P. Fiorina, Samuel J. Abrams, “Political polarization in the American public”, Annual Review of Political Science, 11(1), 2008, 563-88; Anne-Laure Beaussier, “L’assurance-maladie américaine à l’heure de la polarisation partisane”, Revue française de science politique, 64(3), 2014, 383-405.
  • [38]
    P. K. Enns, C. Wlezien, Who Gets Represented?
  • [39]
    Clem Brooks, Jeff Manza, “A broken public? Americans’ responses to the Great Recession”, American Sociological Review, 78(5), 2013, 727-48.
  • [40]
    Cf. in particular Bruno Jobert (ed.), Le tournant néo-libéral en Europe (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006); Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • [41]
    Cf., for example, Terry Nichols Clark, Vincent Hoffmann-Martinot (eds), La Nouvelle Culture Politique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003); Hanspeter Kriesi et al., West European Politics in the Age of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For a nuanced approach to the situation in France, see Vincent Tiberj, “La politique des deux axes: variables sociologiques, valeurs et votes en France (1988-2007)”, Revue française de sciences politique, 62(1), 2012, 71-108.
  • [42]
    Cf. especially Paul Pierson (ed.), The New Politics of the Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • [43]
    Walter Korpi, “Approaches to the study of poverty in the United States: critical notes from a European perspective”, in Vincent T. Covello (ed.), Poverty and Public Policy (Boston: Schenkman, 1980), 287-314.
  • [44]
    Fritz W. Scharpf, Vivien A. Schmidt (eds), Welfare and Work in the Open Economy. Vol. I. From Vulnerability to Competitiveness in Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); David Held, Anthony McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization. Beyond the Great Divide (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2nd edn, 2007).
  • [45]
    Sabine Saurugger, Théories et concepts de l’intégration européenne (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2010).
  • [46]
    Peter Taylor-Gooby (ed.), Making a European Welfare State. Convergences and Conflicts Over European Social Policy (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004); Peter Taylor-Gooby (ed.), Ideas and Welfare State Reform in Western Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Bruno Palier, “L’Europe et les États-providence”, Sociologie du travail, 51(4), October 2009, 518-35.
  • [47]
    Walter Korpi, Joakim Palme, “New politics and class politics in the context of austerity and globalization. Welfare state regress in 18 countries, 1975-95”, American Political Science Review, 97(3), 2003, 425-46.
  • [48]
    Harold L. Wilensky, The Welfare State and Equality. Structural and Ideological Roots of Public Expenditures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).
  • [49]
    Desmond S. King, “The state and the social structures of welfare in advanced industrial democracies”, Theory and Society, 16(6), 1987, 841-68.
  • [50]
    Several studies have demonstrated that public opinion in the United States also shifts in response to major economic cycles. Some have argued that periods of recession and high unemployment lead to greater support for state intervention (S. Erikson, M. MacKuen, J. A. Stimson, The Macro Polity). Others have made the opposite claim, arguing that favourable economic conditions lead to increased demand for state action (Robert H. Durr, “What moves policy sentiment?”, The American Political Science Review, 87(1), 1993, 158-70). This second hypothesis seems more relevant in Europe. In a comparative analysis of fourteen Western democracies, Randolph T. Stevenson demonstrates that aggregate preferences vary in accordance with economic performance. They tend to shift towards the left end of the political spectrum when employment and inflation are favourable; and vice-versa (R. T. Stevenson, “The economy…”). It should be noted, however, that two different interpretations of opinion reactions to economic changes does not necessarily signify that publics behave differently.
  • [51]
    Wim van Oorschot, “Making the difference in social Europe: deservingness perceptions among citizens of European welfare states”, Journal of European Social Policy, 16(1), 2006, 23-42; Wim van Oorschot, Wilfred Uunk, “Welfare spending and the public’s concern for immigrants: multilevel evidence for eighteen European countries”, Comparative Politics, 40(1), 2007, 63-82; Tim Reeskens, Wim van Oorschot, “Disentangling the ‘new liberal dilemma’: on the relation between general welfare redistribution preferences and welfare chauvinism”, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 53(2), 2012, 120-39; Stefan Svallfors (ed.), Contested Welfare States. Welfare Attitudes in Europe and Beyond (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).
  • [52]
    S. Svallfors, P. Taylor-Gooby, The End of the Welfare State?; S. Svallfors (ed.), The Political Sociology….
  • [53]
    Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg did not take part in the survey in 1990 and were consequently omitted. Malta was not included because its sample size was too small in 1990 (n = 393).
  • [54]
    Specifically, I divided the answers between 7 and 10 by those situated between 1 and 4. Concerning the question on the values of equality and freedom, I divided the egalitarian preferences by the liberal preferences.
  • [55]
    Cross tabulation by country reveals that the declining intensity of preferences for economic liberalism is uniform and exists in roughly the same proportion in all EU countries. There were greater differences with regard to the question of individual responsibility and the rights of the unemployed. Frédéric Gonthier, “La montée et les bases sociales de l’interventionnisme dans l’Union européenne: une analyse des attitudes économiques entre 1990 et 2008”, Revue française de sociologie, 56(1), 2015, 1-40.
  • [56]
    Cronbach’s alpha was 0.482 in 2008. Its value was similar for the two previous waves of the survey.
  • [57]
    These questions were strongly correlated, with an α of 0.75.
  • [58]
    For a recent analysis of this ambivalence, cf. Benjamin I. Page, Lawrence R. Jacobs, Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • [59]
    Wim van Oorschot, Bart Meuleman, “Welfarism and the multidimensionality of welfare state legitimacy: evidence from the Netherlands, 2006”, International Journal of Social Welfare, 21(1), 2012, 79-93; Femke Roosma, John Gelissen, Wim van Oorschot, “The multidimensionality of welfare state attitudes: a European cross-national study”, Social Indicators Research, 113(1), 2013, 235-55.Online
  • [60]
    The analyses were conducted on a database aggregating the 23 EU countries that participated in the European Values Survey in 1990, 1999 and 2008. In order to avoid biasing the factorial analyses by over-representing countries where the survey waves had more respondents, each country was included in the form of a sub-sample of about 1,000 individuals, randomly selected from each representative national sample for each of the survey waves.
  • [61]
    The items related to equality exhibit a stronger correlation in the second dimension, which accounts for 19 per cent of the total variance. This dimension is mainly structured by the opposition between those who state that income should be more evenly distributed, and those who want to encourage and promote individual effort. The question on the rights of the unemployed is negatively correlated with this dimension: respondents arguing that the unemployed should accept any job offer have the most egalitarian response profiles.
  • [62]
    Even though it stems from different questions and fewer data points, this first component is strikingly similar to the one discussed in James Stimson’s policy mood: Public Opinion in America. Moods, Cycles, and Swings (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999); and Tides of Consent. How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The demand for state intervention seems to be an equally sensitive attitudinal dimension in Europe and the United States.
  • [63]
    Several methods allow for control of the validity of an attitude scale. On this point, cf. Eldad Davidov, Peter Schmidt, Jaak B. Billiet, Cross-Cultural Analysis. Methods and Applications (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).
  • [64]
    A slightly different pattern of responses emerges in several Northern European countries. In Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the items correlated with the first dimension and those correlated with the second dimension are linked to a single factor. This indicates that the demand for state action and the demand for equality are strongly linked in these four countries.
  • [65]
    Multi-level analysis thus permits a complex specification of residuals, estimated at two or more levels. It has the advantage of replacing certain hypotheses of the traditional ordinary least squares model with more flexible hypotheses. Pascal Bressoux, Modélisation statistique appliquée aux sciences sociales (Brussels: De Boeck, 2008).
  • [66]
    Malcolm Fairbrother, “Two multilevel modeling techniques for analyzing comparative longitudinal survey data-sets”, Political Science Research and Methods, 2(1), 2014, 119-40.
  • [67]
    J. Gelissen, “Popular support…”; W. Arts, J. Gelissen, “Welfare states…”.
  • [68]
    S. Svallfors (ed.), Contested Welfare States….
  • [69]
    Diane Sainsbury, Gender, Equality and Welfare States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • [70]
    W. Arts, J. Gelissen, “Welfare states…”; M. M. Jæger, “Does left-right…?”.
  • [71]
    D. O. Sears, C. L. Funk, “The role..”, 40; M. Blekesaune, J. Quadagno, “Public attitudes…”.
  • [72]
    With regard to the evaluation of models 2 and 3 with standard statistical criteria (deviation, AIC, BIC), it appears that they fit the data better than the empty model. If we compare the parameters of the random effects, we can likewise calculate that models 2 and 3 allow us to simultaneously reduce the variance between individuals, the variance between survey waves, and the variance between countries.
  • [73]
    This parallel trend can also be observed when countries are analysed individually.
  • [74]
    Cf., for example, B. I. Page, R. S. Shapiro, The Rational Public….
  • [75]
    A simple growth rate from 1990 to 2008 was calculated based on the values for the demand for state action predicted by model 3 for each public.
  • [76]
    Pierre Bréchon, Frédéric Gonthier (eds), Les valeurs des Européens. Évolutions et clivages (Paris: Armand Colin, 2014).
  • [77]
    J. D. Ura, C. R. Ellis, “Income…”.
  • [78]
    Examining the differences between countries is outside the scope of this article. However, it can be noted that the demand for state action is on the rise in 19 of the 23 countries analysed: this increase is particularly striking in certain cases (+40% in Finland, +36% in the Czech Republic, +34% in Austria, +29% in Germany, +26% in Sweden, +20% in Estonia and in France). Where social expectations have weakened, the decline has been very moderate: -2% in Romania and in Portugal, -3% in Bulgaria. The outlier is clearly the United Kingdom, with -11%. Differences between countries are otherwise not only minor (as shown by the multi-level analysis), but, moreover, countries almost all shifted towards greater interventionism. National influence is therefore limited at best: variations and shifts in the demand for state intervention are very homogenous overall.
  • [79]
    Cf. especially P. K. Enns, P. M. Kellstedt, “Policy mood…”.
  • [80]
    Adrien Degeorges, Frédéric Gonthier, “‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. The evolution and the structure of attitudes toward economic liberalism in France between 1990 and 2008”, French Politics, 10(3), 2012, 233-68.

This article examines the evolution of public support for state intervention in the European Union between 1990 and 2008. Using pooled data from the European Values Study, I investigate whether opinion trends are mirrored among all strata of the European population. Confirming the “parallel publics” hypothesis, but in contrast with the literature concerning mass opinion polarization and increasing competition for public welfare resources, this article finds very uniform opinion shifts among various social groups. While some scholars posit that ordinary citizens are uninformed and unconcerned, these results suggest that they share a common understanding of messages originating from the surrounding environment. Thus, sub-publics can respond evenly by moving in the same direction, and by displaying a growing demand for state intervention.

Frédéric Gonthier
An associate professor in political science at Sciences Po Grenoble, Frédéric Gonthier also coordinates the research unit on “Grandes enquêtes sociales et politiques” (“Major social and political surveys”) at the PACTE-CNRS laboratory. With Pierre Bréchon, he recently edited Les valeurs des Européens. Évolutions et clivages (Paris: Armand Colin, 2014), and l’Atlas des Européens (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013). He has also published “La montée et les bases sociales de l’interventionnisme dans l’Union européenne: une analyse des attitudes économiques entre 1990 et 2008”, Revue française de sociologie, 56(1), 2015, 1-40; and (with Adrien Degeorges) “‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’: the evolution and the structure of attitudes toward economic liberalism in France between 1990 and 2008”, French Politics, 10(3), 2012, 233-68. His current research focuses on attitudes towards the state and economic liberalism in France and Europe (Sciences Po Grenoble, 1030 avenue Centrale, Domaine universitaire, 38400 Saint-Martin-D’Hères).
Translated from French by
Sarah-Louise Raillard
Uploaded on on 16/02/2016
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait