Thomas Piketty is best known for the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It changed how the intellectual community thought about the problem of inequality. Despite the fact it may not have changed many opinions, it is one of the most influential books on economics in the past quarter century. It provided a language for academics to discuss the problem of inequality intelligently rather than using slogans based on widely held assumptions.
A few years later Piketty followed up his masterpiece with a work even more relevant for the study of politics. The publication of Capital and Ideology represented a shift for Piketty away from pure economics into a broader theory of inequality that drew from additional subjects such as political science, history, and philosophy. Of course, Piketty already described himself as a political economist. But this book came across as though he had crossed a threshold beyond economics. His examination of inequality focused more on the political and less on economics.
A new book, Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities, extends many of Piketty’s thoughts into a detailed analysis of party systems from around the world. In this volume Thomas Piketty partners with coeditors Amory Gethin and Clara Martínez-Toledano along with other contributors for a close examination of the party systems in fifty different democracies. They draw on Piketty’s concept of multi-elite party systems in the West, but find a wide diversity of political environments around the world. It is a data driven analysis where charts and graphs often steal the spotlight from the narrative. The approach highlights the uniqueness of every country or region, while making it possible to easily recognize patterns between them.
Western Party Systems
Western democracies have long had a familiar party system based on economic class. Parties of the left championed redistributive policies, while the right believed in limited government. This is an oversimplification. Indeed, parties of the left varied from Social Democrats to Communists. Moreover, Christian Democrats have accepted moderate forms of redistribution. Nonetheless, the left-right divide centered around questions of redistribution and economic policy. Consequently, the parties of the left represented lower socio-economic classes, while the right represented upper classes. Again, this is an oversimplification. But the characterization generally held when considering the population as a whole.
Piketty showed in Capital and Ideology how Western party systems have transformed into a multi-elite party system. He follows up this observation with an essay in this volume where he examines France, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Other essays link these trends to nearly all Western democracies. Piketty observes how the left now identifies with the educated elite rather than the economically disadvantaged. At the same time the right continues to identify with a “merchant elite.” This observation creates a paradox, because education leads to greater economic success. Historically, the parties of the right have represented both economic and educated elites.
Over time educated elites have shifted to the parties of the left. As a result, leftist parties underwent a paradigmatic shift away from the priorities of the lower-socioeconomic classes and towards the interests of what he refers to as the “Brahmin Left.” Consequently, left-wing politics focuses more on identity politics and less on economic redistribution. Indeed, many among the left have even embraced neoliberal priorities such as free trade, deregulation, and tax cuts. Unsurprisingly, these policies tend to benefit the economic priorities of the educated elites.
Non-Western Party Systems
Democracies outside the West offer a broader range of diversity. Social identities have shaped party systems in many countries. Still, economic class has received increasing attention over time in almost all countries. Of course, identity politics often shape economic priorities and demands. Moreover, social identities often shape or even determine economic class in many cultures. Nonetheless, it’s puzzling to find a reverse of the trajectory of Western party systems in Non-Western democracies. Their politics has become more class conscious, while established democracies becomes less so.
Of course, the diversity of political environments offers some bizarre outcomes. For example, the leftist parties in Post-Communist countries have embraced neoliberal policies to provide distance from their communist past. However, this provides an opening for far right political parties to outflank leftist parties with redistributive economic policies. Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki have documented the odd combination of political incentives formed in this environment in their paper, “When Left is Right.”
Interestingly, the case study of Brazil may offer a paradigmatic example of how party systems gain greater class consciousness. Class had little effect in Brazilian Presidential elections until 2006 when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or “Lula” ran for reelection. The introduction of the Bolsa Familia and other social welfare policies polarized the electorate along class lines. Indeed, Amory Gethin and Marc Morgan show class divisions remain important to explain the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Rather than diminishing over time, issues surrounding economic redistribution have become more salient. They write, “it was redistributive policies during periods of strong eco- nomic growth that drove new divisions between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’.”
As most Western democracies adopt a multi-elite party system, it’s natural to assume this is a structural outcome. It’s hard to imagine nearly all Western democracies would follow the same political trajectory unless they followed similar causes. Indeed, the widespread adoption of neoliberal economic policies and rising inequality has likely accelerated the transition to a multi-elite party system. However, many writers have argued the left’s embrace of neoliberal economics was neither inevitable nor necessary. They note it involved a series of political choices over time.
For my part, I choose not to take sides in this debate at this time. Instead, I find the divide of political elites into a merchant right and a Brahmin left difficult to comprehend especially as education has become even more valuable over time. Moreover, it seems almost inevitable for education and income to converge once again on either the political right or the left. Indeed, it’s possible the final stages of this transformation have already begun. Gethin, Martínez-Toledano, and Piketty write, “The only country where a complete reversal of the income effect could well be underway is the United States… where in 2016 top 10 percent earners became more likely to vote for the Democratic Party for the first time since World War II.”
Of course, nobody knows whether this was a “Trump effect” or it signified a more permanent change. Either way, it opens a wide range of political possibilities that prior generations never considered.
Listen to Amory Gethin on the Democracy Paradox where he will discuss how economic inequalities continue to shape political cleavages in democracies. Look for it on November 30th or subscribe today on your favorite podcast app.
Sheri Berman (2009) “Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism,” Dissent
Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue (eds.) (2019) Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization
Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano, and Thomas Piketty (eds.) (2021) Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of Fifty Democracies, 1948–2020
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2020) Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality
Scott Mainwaring (ed.) (2018) Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse
Thomas Piketty (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty (2020) Capital and Ideology
Line Rennwald (2020) Social Democratic Parties and the Working Class: New Voting Patterns
Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki (2000) “When Left Is Right: Party Ideology and Policy in Post-Communist Europe,” American Political Science Review