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Prof. Dr. Sven-Oliver Proksch

Rebels in Representative Democracy: The Appeal and Consequences of Political Defection in Europe


This project studies why citizens like political rebels. Oftentimes, voters seem enamoured with maverick politicians. And many politicians take actions to separate themselves from their party while entire parties seek to distance themselves from the political system. They do so for political gain, and often at the expense of the party or the system as a whole. Clearly, politicians believe that there are political points to be scored in voting against their party or casting their movement as upending the political status quo. And there is, indeed, evidence that voters tend to like these “rebels.” But rebellion of this sort can have severe political consequences. It may undermine the viability of political parties, which is essential to stable democratic governance, and reduce levels of trust in the political system and democracy. Political scientists have spent much effort examining intraparty party politics and populism. And recent research suggests that rebellion and anti-system rhetoric can indeed drive up support for individual politicians and parties, often at the expense of parties or the system as a whole. But we lack a solid understanding of when and why voters actually like rebels -- those politicians willing to attack their party or the political system for personal gain. The project investigates political rebellion using cross-national survey experiments and social media analysis.

Part 1: Survey experiments
Our survey experiments tease out the impact of different theoretical causal mechanisms that could explain why voters like politicians who show independence from their party or the system as a whole. Do voters like rebels because they truly value their “independence?” Do they value rebels only when they perceive that rebellion pulls policy in an ideological direction they prefer? Do they truly value behaviour that undermines the system? And are there differences across different voters and countries? In answering these questions, the project will provide a deeper understanding of why voters support rebellious behaviour and why politicians engage in it.

Part 2: Twitter data analysis
Our Twitter analysis combining Twitter and roll call data will elicit how people react to rebellious MPs in non-experimental settings and how MPs defend or explain their rebellion. Do MPs differ in the way in which they announce or explain their rebellion in Parliament and on Twitter? Do MPs adapt their rebelliousness if followers on Twitter react positively or negatively to MPs’ Tweets? When do MPs not only speak out against their party’s position but decide to additionally vote against it? Do MPs defect from the party line on Twitter in other circumstances than in Parliament? Answering these questions will increase our knowledge about why MPs rebel and whether they rebel because their voters like it.

Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Sven-Oliver Proksch
Doctoral researcher: Lea Kaftan
Contributing researchers: Prof. Dr. Jonathan Slapin, Dr. Dominik Duell, Dr. Christopher Wratil

The project is funded by the Fritz Thyssen foundation.

Project duration