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Detached and out of touch? Political Elites between public criticism and logic of professionalization

Elites
Parliaments
Political Leadership
Representation
Marion Reiser
Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena
Marion Reiser
Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena
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Abstract

Both in public and academic debates, political elites are described as ‘detached’ from normal citizens and ‘out of touch’ with reality. This is reflected in the media coverage and in polls which show i.e. that citizens have only low levels of trust in politicians. Also, research on elites and on representation show rather low levels of vertical integration between elites and citizens and high levels of elite autonomy. In addition, tendencies of detachment from citizens are confirmed. These results have been explained by the specific social background of elites, their experience as elite members and the need for horizontal elite integration. However, little attention has been paid to the processes and mechanisms which lead to the detachment of politicians from citizens. Considering the low levels of trust in politicians and high levels of disenchantment with politics, this question is of high importance in representative democracy. What happens when normal citizens are becoming professional politicians and elite members? How and why do they lose their roots in society? In this paper, these research questions will be analyzed by taking up an actor-centered approach focusing on the perceptions and attitudes of the politicians. Empirically, this analysis is based on a qualitative panel survey focusing on the legislative socialization processes of all newly elected MPs in two German state parliaments (North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Wurttemberg; N=117). The new elite members have been interviewed (face-to-face interviews) twice: first, directly after being elected for the first time into parliament and second, after their first year in parliament. This panel design allows analyzing individual processes of chance and hence, reconstructing processes of detachment and getting out of touch. Interestingly, the study shows a two-fold process of detachment: On the one side, the political elites detach themselves from the citizens, i.e. due to a clear shift of priorities to internal parliamentary processes (introversion), changed perspectives and changed behavior in media and public. This can be explained by processes of legislative socialization and the logic of professionalization. But on the other side, citizens also detach themselves from the new MPs since they distance themselves from the politicians as a reaction to their new elite status and exclude them from their local social contexts.