There is frequent talk in journalism of things like right-wing populist movements, of parties moving to the center or of politicians shifting to the left. One might think that this spatial metaphor would be best shown using graphic illustrations, but in practice, such graphics are few and far between. With our project “Is Europe Moving to the Right?” however, we have produced an ambitious multimedia feature that does just that. Our goal was no less than placing every European Union member state on a left-right political axis and following each country’s political shifts over time.
The project was initially published in German on May 19, 2019, on derStandard.at and has received around 50,000 page impressions and a cumulative retention time of 4,500 hours. The article generated 320 posts from users and, by the standards of Austrian media, enjoyed significant resonance on social media outlets. We also received a great deal of international feedback on the German-language version of the graphic, even before we published the English version, which made it onto several data viz newsletters.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Data-driven stories are created in two ways. Either a mass of data reveals a surprising set of circumstances that demands to be shared. Or it begins with a supposition that must be examined either with the help of data already in existence or with information that must first be gathered. Our project falls into the latter category, but initially it seemed that data availability might turn out to be an insurmountable hurdle. How were we, in 2019, to determine whether Finnish parties and their voters in 1999 leaned more to the left or more to the right? How far to the left or right? And what did “centrist” mean at the time?
Fortunately, social scientists at North American and European universities have long been focused on such questions. Since 1999, the organizers of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey have been polling political scientists on the political leanings of parties in their home countries. The survey now encompasses 268 national parties, allowing them to be situated on an abstract left-to-right spectrum at the time of each parliamentary election – from 0 (the left end of the democratic spectrum) to 10 (the right end).
By analyzing individual party positions together with the share of votes they received in a given election, we were able to calculate a long-term national average for each EU member state. The trick was to find an adequate method for presenting that information. Instead of a simple line chart, we decided to place the outline of each individual country on an animated, vertical timeline. The right-left movements of the country as it travels down the timeline depict its political leanings. This method enabled us to produce a seemingly straightforward portrayal of each country’s political shifts over time
What can others learn from this project?
Don’t give up on a visualization idea just yet because the data is available, the leading question has been asked countless times (“Is Europe Moving To The Right”), and the representation is obvious (left/right movements of countries).
Chances still are no one has done it before and you can create something new and unique.