The impact of job loss on political ideology


What happens to the political preferences of citizens when they are faced with economic difficulties? This long-standing issue has recently gained renewed attention in the wake of the Great Recession. Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered. For example, what types of preferences are affected? Are we mainly talking about views on concrete political issues and politicians’ approval ratings, or are deeper beliefs such as political ideology also influenced? And are all people equally affected by experiences of economic hardship, or do such events elicit a greater response from some groups than others?

In a recently published study, we apply these questions to the data. We use Dutch panel data over the period 2007-2016 to study whether people adjust their left-right ideology in response to job loss and unemployment. Using the LISS panel, we follow the labor market conditions and political ideologies of over 7,000 people, whom we observe on average five times each.

Our focus on job loss and unemployment reflects that these are disruptive life events that are far-reaching enough to potentially evoke shifts in political preferences, while affecting large swathes of society. . The latter is particularly true over our study window (2007-2016), which included a recession characterized by several years of negative growth and a tripling of the unemployment rate.

Whether people adjust their left-right ideology when they lose their jobs is by no means obvious. After all, political ideology is often described as being deeply rooted in the processes of socialization early in life. According to this school of thought, ideological attachments are largely immune to changes in economic circumstances later in life. Yet others insist that ideological convictions remain “malleable” into adulthood. If we follow this argument and take into account the centrality of work in people’s lives, job loss may well cause people to reconsider their ideological beliefs.

But even then, it’s still unclear whether people would become more to the left or more to the right by losing their jobs. Standard logic of political economy postulates that job loss changes what people gain from redistribution and social protection as advocated by the political left. However, the loss of jobs can also generate other forces. For example, it is well documented that economic adversity can intensify hostility towards immigrants – a sentiment that is generally associated with the political right. Indeed, as far as the Netherlands is concerned, the success of Geert Wilders’ right-wing populist party is regularly linked to the economic turmoil of the past 15 years.

To complete the context of our study, Figure 1 illustrates the left-right ideological positioning of political parties in the Netherlands, as well as their views on redistribution and immigration. As can be seen, the views of the parties on these themes are closely linked to their left-right ideology. This makes the left-right distinctions clearly visible to Dutch citizens. In line with this argument, recent evidence confirms that the Dutch are very accustomed to thinking in terms of left and right when it comes to politics. All this shows that the left-right distinctions remain very relevant in the Netherlands.

Figure 1. Left-right positions of parties and their views on redistribution and immigration

Note: Data is from Chapel Hill Expert Survey. The circles represent the average scores over the period 2006-2014, their size corresponding to the average share of votes of each party in the general elections of 2006, 2010 and 2012.

What do we find? Overall, our analyzes highlight that left-right ideologies are very resilient, exhibiting a high degree of stability over time, even when people are exposed to hard-hitting events like job loss. However, it would be wrong to conclude that political ideologies remain entirely “frozen” when people lose their jobs. Instead, we find that people tend to revise their ideology – at least in the short term – slightly to the left when they lose their jobs.

To the extent that there are forces at play that push job losers to the right of the ideological spectrum, these forces seem overshadowed by other pressures that pull job losers to the left. Indeed, while we observe many people who revise their ideology to the right during our study window, these shifts to the right do not appear to be directly motivated by experiences of job loss. This result aligns well with other recent work suggesting that the success of right-wing populist parties is primarily fueled by fears economic hardship, as opposed to reality experiences economic hardship. On the contrary, the real difficulties seem first and foremost to trigger an ideological shift to the left.

While this shift to the left is small (0.2 points on a left-to-right scale of 0-10) and eventually dissipates over time, it masks a large variation in how people respond to loss. employment. For many people, job loss has virtually no impact on their ideology, but for significant minorities, job loss is followed by substantial ideological adjustments. These divergent responses are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Variation in the effect of job loss on left-right ideology

Note: These graphs show predicted left-right scores based on regression models that allow the influence of different labor market transitions to vary from individual to individual. Whiskers represent 95% confidence intervals.

Figure 2 shows that job loss triggers a larger shift to the left when it represents a more disruptive life event. That is, when people who lose their jobs have to swallow a greater dose of economic hardship (panel A), when they have fewer financial resources to cushion the shock (panel C) and when they are more cynical about their economic outlook (panel D). There is also some evidence that job loss has a greater ideological impact when it is more surprising (panel B), but this factor appears to be less important. Either way, Figure 2 reveals a significant variation in the way people politically digest economic shocks.

To put our results into perspective, it should be noted that the ideological effects of job loss that we observe are not reflected in an increased likelihood of voting for left-wing parties – at least not during our study window. The potential reasons for this are manifold. On the one hand, the vote is ultimately only partially motivated by ideology and perhaps also heavily influenced by who is currently in power. Moreover, in addition to its impact on political preferences, economic hardship can have important additional effects, such as removing people from politics or removing them from public life more generally.

In the future, it will be fruitful to jointly study these effects. That said, political ideology also remains interesting on its own, as a thermometer of the undercurrents in the electorate that can end up shaping the political landscape in the longer term.



Dingeman Wiertz is Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at University College London. His research interests include civic engagement, interethnic relations, economic hardship, and residential segregation.

Toni Rodon is a postdoctoral researcher at LSE. His research interests include political behavior, comparative politics, political geography, and historical political economy.


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