Literature Review: Does Class Shape Legislators’ Approaches to Inequality and Economic Policy?

Photo Credit: Gerd Altmann/

Hemingway, Alexander (2020). Does Class Shape Legislators’ Approaches to Inequality and Economic Policy? A Comparative View. In Government and Opposition.
Doi: 10.1017/gov.2020.27.

In his latest publication in Government and Opposition Alexander Hemingway examines the relationship between legislators’ former occupations and their position on the economic dimension of political conflict. The author answers the question to what extent parliamentarians’ class backgrounds predict their attitudes and self-reported behavior concerning economic policies and inequality. The author expects that representatives originating from working class occupations are more leftist on the economic dimension of political conflict compared to their counterparts from business. Since ordinal workers cannot hedge themselves against risks associated with the market economy while being dependent on their labor, they seek protection by the government, asking for market intervention and redistribution. Scholars expect this pattern to persist once they enter the political domain as legislators. The author is the first to study this relationship in a cross-country comparison including over 2000 MPs from 15 different European countries and 73 national and sub-national parliaments. The research design takes multiple indicators for parliamentarians’ degree of leftism into account: Firstly, attitudinal measures and, secondly, self-reported actions. This allows to assess whether legislators’ attitudes translate into behavior. MPs were asked to state their opinion about income inequality and the size of the government role in the economy. The behavioral variable quantifies contact with trade unions and other workers’ organizations. Another unique feature of the study is the use of occupations (i.e. business, worker, service-based professionals, farmers, and others) rather than income or other personal characteristics to group the representatives into classes. Through controlling for party ideology some of the individual class effect is already taken into account by the left party coefficient. Since legislators choose a party according to their own ideological conviction the estimator for the respective class is rather conservative. The results show that politicians originating from the business class assign a lower importance to problems related to income inequality and favor a small government role in the economy compared to MPs with working class background and service-based professionals. Furthermore, they are not as likely to consult trade unions and other workers’ organizations. Overall, the empirical analyses provide solid evidence that individual characteristics predict attitudes and behavior regarding inequality and economic policy in between the pressuring demands of party and constituency.

Reading this inspiring inquiry, I have started to wonder whether it would be possible to extend this research in a way that addresses the intersection of gender and class in the future. Workers and women are both underrepresented groups presumably holding more leftist preferences regarding inequality and redistribution. How this combination effects attitudes has received little scholarly attention so far. On the one hand, it might be that their degrees of leftism are merely additive. In that case women workers’ attitudes would be the sum of women’s and workers’ preferences on the economic dimension. On the other hand, it might be that multiple biases intersect and produce a surplus of additional wishes of female laborers. Multidimensional injustice in terms of gender and occupation would then unveil a degree of leftism that is more to the left than women or workers because neither group captures preferences arising from overlapping forms of inequality. If that is the case, it has to be doubted if all women regardless of class hold similar preferences and can be represented by the same legislator. Learning more about the way class and gender jointly shape parliamentarians’ economic preferences and actions would further supplement our knowledge about the relationship of descriptive underrepresentation and consequences for the substantive representation of the most vulnerable in society.

By Paula Reppmann in February 2021

Paula Reppmann is a PhD student at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Greifswald. Her research interests include the political representation of marginalized groups, i.e. women and the poor, as well as structures of inequality in political representation. 

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