The impact of cleavages

In my PhD thesis I studied the impact of cleavages on electoral choice in Switzerland. Cleavage voting is a well-studied and comparatively old research area. Hence, the aim of my thesis was to analyse cleavages using a more modern approach and using three different perspectives. In a first longitudinal part, the development of the salient Swiss cleavages (religion, social class, rural-urban and language) is examined from 1971 until the national elections in 2011. The vast amount of literature and international evidence about the development of cleavage voting points to a decreasing impact, however strongly depends on the country examined and method/data used. A first research question thus asks how cleavage voting has evolved over the last decades in Switzerland. The results confirm the internationally reported decreasing trend, particularly strong for religion and rural-urban. Additionally I analysed the underlying reasons for this development, which are mainly behavioural changes and less so changes in the size of social groups, e.g. the reduction in groups like the working class or religious persons.

The second, contextual perspective analyses the current impact of cleavages in more detail using both individual and contextual factors. Whereas most studies concentrate on individual effects to explain voting behaviour, in recent years a revival of contextual analysis could have been observed. The respective research question asks to what extent cleavage voting is due to individual factors, contextual characteristics or a joint effect of both. The conducted multilevel analysis first proves the continuing effect of individual factors when controlling for contextual effects. In contrast, direct effects from the context on voting behaviour are weaker than expected. Interacting both individual and contextual variables leads to some interesting and significant effects, but again less strong and less systematic than expected.

In a final part of the thesis, both perspectives are combined to see whether the impact of cleavages has harmonised across contexts (cantons) over time. Significant changes in the Swiss national party system suggest such a harmonisation trend starting in the 1990s. Indeed, the results, especially regarding religious and class voting, point towards a harmonisation of voting behaviour. However, contrary to the expectation this harmonisation occurred already before the dramatic changes in the Swiss party system. The argument may thus be the other way around that the weakening of cleavages first enabled the changes in the party system by loosening the former straitjacket of cleavage voting.

Goldberg, A.C. (2017). The Impact of Cleavages on Swiss Voting Behaviour: A Modern Research Approach. Cham: Springer.

Goldberg, A.C. (2015). The impact of cleavages in a longitudinal and contextual perspective. Dissertation (SDS 23): University of Geneva.

Goldberg, A.C. (2014). The Impact of Religion on Voting Behaviour – A Multilevel Approach for Switzerland. Swiss Political Science Review 20(2): 305-329.

Having focussed on Switzerland in my PhD thesis, I aimed to put some of the results into an international and comparative perspective. The aim of a follow-up study was to examine the longitudinal development of cleavage voting while analysing three different types of dealignment: structural (changes in size of social groups), behavioural (changes in voting behaviour of groups) and political (collective abstention of certain social groups). I tested the three forms of dealignment for the cleavages of social class and religion over the last 40–60 years using longitudinal post‐election data. In addition to Switzerland I examined three other Western countries, namely Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States. The analysis proves a strong presence of political dealignment and increasing turnout gaps regarding both the class and religious cleavage. Furthermore, whenever a decline in cleavage voting is present, it is mainly caused by changes in the social groups’ behaviour and less by changing social structures in a country, i.e. confirming the results of my PhD thesis.

Goldberg, A.C. (2020). The evolution of cleavage voting in four Western countries: Structural, behavioural or political dealignment? European Journal of Political Research 59(1): 68-90.

In another, unrelated paper, together with P. Sciarini we analysed the so-called new class cleavage in more detail. One strand of literature suggests a transformation of the old (vertical) class divide into a new – or reformulated – class cleavage (also horizontal). However, there is still little empirical evidence about the circumstances under which this new divide may become important. One possibility is that electoral competition conditions the strength of the new class cleavage. A comparative analysis across Swiss cantons shows that the impact of the new class cleavage on electoral choice varies according to party system polarization. The proportionality of the electoral system, by contrast, does not have a clear conditional effect.

Goldberg, A.C. and P. Sciarini (2014). Electoral Competition and the New Class Cleavage. Swiss Political Science Review 20(4): 573-589.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑