This dissertation investigates parties' signalling strategies from various angles. It analyses how language and positioning of political actors affect electoral dynamics and voter decisions. By looking at how different language and positioning patterns interact, it aims to show how populist and non-populist parties and their members behave. Further, it aims to show how these actors can attract voters through different signalling strategies. Setting this in the broader scope of deliberative democracy and the current challenge posed to this system by populism, this thesis also aims to contribute to the discussion of what effect populist actors have on representative democracy. As such, this thesis is comprised of three empirical chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion. As simple language is discussed as one main element of populist discourse, this thesis, first, aims to show whether populist politicians actually use simpler language than their mainstream competitors in parliament. By applying different quantitative measures of language complexity, the thesis shows that language complexity is context and speaker dependent rather than related to populism. To further detect what drives the populist vote choice the thesis then turns towards the voter side. By analysing the interplay of language complexity, blame attributive language and people-centristic rhetoric, the thesis shows through a survey experiment that voters on average respond rather negatively to simpler language. Also, it shows that blame attribution is the most decisive driver of vote choice, especially for populist voters. Surprisingly, the thesis also shows that a "neutral" form of blame attribution attracts all voter groups. Finally, the thesis takes a wider perspective on parties’ signalling strategies. By looking at parties’ strategic positions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the thesis focuses on intra-party dynamics in the federal system of Germany.
The thesis shows that elections, as well as the same government/opposition status, lead to cohesion between sub-national party branches and their national parent party. Coalitions consisting of partners with diverse positions, on the other hand, lead sub-national party branches to deviate more from their national parent party. External factors such as Covid-19 cases seem not to affect intra-party cohesion across levels. Concluding with the main findings, the thesis presents normative evaluations and suggestions for the results. It argues that an overall more simplified language in politics can lead to more inclusion among various voter groups which may strengthen representative democracy as more people are able to take part in deliberative democracy. By contrast, it also points out that people’s appreciation of party messages that blame politicians can lead to distrust in politicians’ work. Ultimately, the trends towards the popularity of blame attribution are an alarming signal for the functioning of representative democracies as people seem to trust their representatives less and less.
Rebecca Kittel is a PhD researcher at the Department of Social and Political Sciences. She holds a BSc and MA from the University of Cologne. During her PhD, she was also a visiting researcher at NYU New York from 2021 – 2022. Working on the intersection of quantitative methods and computational social sciences, her research centres around political behaviour, populism, political communication and protest behaviour. In her work, she applies various text-as-data techniques to study party and elite communication. She also conducts survey experiments to study voter responses to parties’ communication strategies. She will start working as a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC-Project LOOPS at the Free University Berlin focusing on backstage organisation of protest movements.
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