In virtually all rich democracies, governments subsidise expensive highbrow culture, such as theatre and opera. And they hire artists to work for these theatres and operas as public employees. At first sight, this might seem to pose a puzzle. After all, highbrow culture is elitist. And it seems electorally irrelevant.
Parties don’t really compete on culture in elections. It’s unlikely that hiring artists to turn them into grateful voters (patronage) makes electoral sense. Even if it did, the number of actors, singers, dancers and musicians working in these roles is simply too small to make any meaningful electoral impact. In fact, even the number of voters who actually go to the opera and theatre seems too small to make a difference in elections.
In our research, Markus Tepe, from the University of Oldenburg, and I try to make sense of this puzzle. We offer a theory of political and sociological multiplier effects to do so.
We believe that politicians will strategically manipulate subsidies for highbrow culture and hire more artists when they are aiming to be reelected. They do this because they want to use artists as conduits of indirect competence signals aimed, through them, at their audiences. In other words, politicians want to please highbrow culture consumers by hiring more artists for them to watch or hear – during election times.
These audiences – highbrow culture-consuming voters – are obviously more numerous than the artists themselves. But they are politically even more important than their numbers.
Sociologically speaking, highbrow culture consumers are what we call “high-multiplier” voters. Theatre and opera visitors are more likely to be consummate “political animals” themselves. Compared to other demographics, they are particularly likely to turn out to vote and to otherwise actively participate in politics.
These people may even be unusually influential in shaping other voters’ political behaviour. They are more interested in politics and they have more social network ties with other voters. So, impressing opera and theatre goers should be especially attractive to politicians in times of elections – at least, that is our theory.
We took our theory to the opera in Germany by using data on artist hiring between 1993 and 2010.
Is there a multiplier in the audience?
In German federalism, together with education and domestic security, culture is one of only three policy domains that are still decided largely at the state rather than federal level. German state-level and local-level politicians have joint legal and funding authority for theatres and operas.
In the period 1993-2010, there were on average only around 12,000 people working as dancers, singers, actors or musicians in public theatres and orchestras in all of Germany.
Using German General Social Survey data, we found that even after controlling for a whole array of socio-economic variables, Germans who consume more highbrow culture in their leisure time tend to go voting more frequently. They also more frequently tend to actively participate in politics in their leisure time. For instance, increasing the frequency of highbrow cultural leisure time from its minimum to its maximum corresponds with an average increase in personal political activism by 23 percentage points, and in voting likelihood by 20 points. Compared to the impact of core socio-economic control measures such as age (35 points) and income (38 points), this indicates a considerable direct effect of highbrow culture consumption on active political engagement.
And, as we suspected, German highbrow culture consumers also turn out to be political multipliers. They are much more interested in politics and have more social network ties with whom they might discuss politics. Increasing the frequency of highbrow cultural activities from its minimum to its maximum corresponds with an average increase in interest in politics by 19 percentage points, in spending one’s leisure time with friends, neighbours and acquaintances by 8 points and with family by 5 points.
The number of actors, singers, dancers and musicians employed in German public theatres and orchestras tends to increase during state-level and municipal-level election years. So it does indeed look like local politicians fine-tune their hiring of artists according to the electoral cycle.
Interestingly, in line with our theory, we have also found evidence of similar tactics in the remaining two “localised” policy domains of German federalism: education and domestic security. German local politicians also time the public hiring of teachers and of police officers to coincide with election periods.
Power politics permeates policymaking even when one least expects it. You are on the receiving end of electioneering even as you enjoy a night out at the opera.