In 1978, Spain had just begun its democratic path and was getting rid of some legacies of the Franco dictatorship, among them, the criminal prosecution of adultery and contraceptives. In this year, the Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) conducted a national survey in which 63% of Spaniards wanted to decriminalize adultery and contraceptives. However, if we look closely at these results, we realize that only 47% of respondents with lower levels of education supported this measure while 85% of those with higher levels of education were in favour. In late 1978, Congress repealed these laws.
Almost 10 years later, in 1989, the CIS asked Spaniards about the right to self-determination in the Basque Country and Catalonia. This question fit within a very particular political context in which ETA was still active and the algiers talks between the government and the terrorist group. Only 39% of those surveyed with the highest economic levels were in favor of the right to self-determination through a referendum, compared to a majority of Spaniards with low economic levels who were against it. However, no Spanish government has accepted a reform in this regard.
In 1997, the member countries of the European Union considered the entry of the euro as current currency. The CIS again asked the opinion of the public, finding majority support among Spaniards with high economic levels and little approval among those with fewer resources. The following year, parliament approved the change from the peseta to the euro.
These examples suggest a pattern. When approving public policies in Spain, the preferences of people with higher economic levels seem to influence the result more than the preferences of Spaniards with lower economic levels. Such political inequality would go against a fundamental principle of democratic systems: that citizens should all be equal, that the votes and preferences of no group should have more weight in the political process than those of another group.
In Spain, the sensation that politicians do not listen to citizens in their demands. And it is not something recent. Since the very beginning of democracy, voters have criticized the lack of response from political elites in the Spanish political context. But are these examples isolated cases, or is political inequality rather a systematic pattern in Spanish politics?
a broader look
To answer that question, we reviewed all the public opinion data that is available in the CIS database, from 1976 to 2016. In that period, the CIS asked the Spanish public more than 200 times for their opinion on certain public policies that were being considered. arguing in political discourse and in parliament. These include economic measures, constitutional reforms, measures against terrorism, foreign affairs such as the European Union, and cultural issues such as homosexual marriage or gender policies, among others. For each question asked by the CIS, we calculated the percentage of respondents who are in favor or against each proposal, divided by socioeconomic level according to their level of education and occupation. Then we investigate what happened to those policies: whether or not they were approved by the government within a few years.
The idea is to see what happens to a political project when it has the support of one socioeconomic group and not another. The examples we started with suggest that when groups differ in their preferences, politicians tend to respond to the preferences of wealthy citizens.
Our study find that it is indeed so. Graph 1 shows the probability that a policy will be approved according to the gap between the preferences of citizens with higher socioeconomic levels and the preferences of those with lower socioeconomic levels. When lower-class citizens support a proposal more than upper-class citizens (the gap is negative), the proposal has little chance of being approved. When both support it equally (the gap is zero), the probability is close to 50%. But when upper-class Spaniards support it much more than lower-class Spaniards (the gap is positive), the probability that it will pass rises dramatically. We can measure those socioeconomic levels using the respondent’s education or occupation, but the result is always the same.
Graph 1: Predicted probabilities of approval of public policies according to the preference gap between the highest and lowest social classes
Spaniards with a higher social class influence substantially more the process of adopting public policies. Thus, when preferences between groups collide, it is the citizens with a higher social class who end up getting what they want, even going against the demands of the lower social groups. And the opposite is also true. Public policies that are strongly supported by lower social classes, but encounter much resistance from higher social classes, are less likely to be adopted.
Why is there political inequality?
Why does this happen? Why are politicians more likely to adopt the measures preferred by wealthier citizens? One possibility is that it has to do with the color of the government in power. If governments respond to their supporters, then perhaps right-wing governments respond to high socioeconomic sectors and left-wing governments to lower ones. Our database does not cover so many different governments to be able to test this decisively, but it does cover governments of the PSOE and the PP in these forty years of democracy that we can compare. And there we do not see any difference between governments of different ideologies. The inequality of response in favor of the higher social classes occurs equally under PSOE governments as well as under those of the PP, regardless of the legislature or the president.
Other possible explanations also exist. One is that the preferences of the upper sectors are more represented by the interest groups and that they have a certain influence in the process of elaborating public policies. Another is that it has to do with the politicians’ own preferences. They themselves tend to belong to higher social classes and it may be that for this reason they are more aware of the concerns and preferences of these groups. In fact, there are studies that show that this is precisely what happens in others countries.
We do not know which of these is the explanation. Many more studies are needed to reach a definitive answer. But the first step is to recognize that political inequality has been a systematic feature of the Spanish democratic context for the last four decades. And if many citizens feel that politicians do not listen to them, it is because they are right.