How Come Germany is the Most Left-Leaning Country in Europe?

Casual observers might surmise that Scandinavian countries have the most left-leaning publics in Europe. Not so. Drawing on data from the most recent wave of the European Social Survey (ESS), we find that, maybe surprisingly, Germany is the country where respondents, on average, self-identify the strongest as “left”.

The ESS contains a question that tries to gauge ideological self-placement of respondents. To this end, the questionnaire contains an item where respondents are asked for their placement on a left right scale. Specifically, the question asked is: “In politics people sometimes talk of left and right. Where would you place yourself on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?” For the 16 countries considered here (see map and list below), the mean value for 2016 is 5.14. This is almost exactly in the middle of where you would expect the average citizen to fall if political preferences were normally or uniformly distributed.  

The 16 countries are Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Out of these, Germany has the most left-leaning average value (4.44), while Poland is the most right-leaning country with an average left-right self-placement value of 5.86.

Average values can tell us only so much. How about the distribution? The standard deviation between left-right self-placement in the 16 countries varies between 1.96 in Estonia and 3.68 in the Czech Republic. Political polarization in Germany, Poland and the Nordic countries is much lower, while France, Ireland and the UK are somewhere in the middle.

We can also look at attitudes towards redistribution. The ESS contains an item that  states “The government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels.” Respondents are asked whether they strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree. This yields a 1 to 5 scale with lower values indicating more support for redistribution. It turns out that the Sweden and Norway are less in favor of redistribution than, for example, Germany, Poland or France. Slovenia is the most pro-redistribution country in the sample with the Czech Republic coming out as the least redistribution-friendly country. It should be noted, however, that even there, the average value is 2.85 which means that, on average, even in the country that is most skeptical about redistribution, a majority supports the statement that the government should reduce income differences. Note that on the map below darker colors stand for less support for redistribution.

How does this compare to actual inequality? We can look at the Gini coefficient as a measure for income inequality. The Gini has a theoretical range from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (perfect inequality). Data for this variable comes from the Standardized World Income Inequality Database  (SWIID). We use income inequality post transfers and taxes, i.e. after the government has taken measures to change market outcomes. According to this measure, Norway is the most equitable country in the sample with a Gini of 22.92 , while the country with the most unequal income distribution is Estonia (Gini = 34.28).

Interestingly, none of these values are highly correlated. Leftist self-identification does not significantly translate into more support for redistribution. Higher support for redistribution is not strongly correlated with income inequality, neither positively or negatively. This means that respondents figure in more than just economic issues when answering the question of left-right self placement. It also means that actual levels of (post tax, post transfer) inequality do not reflect average preferences over redistribution.

On the map, you can visualize the data. Click on the countries or on the circles that show inequality for each country to see more information.

Oh, and as for the question in the title? Barring further analysis, our best guess is that the result for Germany is driven by social desirability bias that is particularly strong in Germany.