Amory Gethin is a PhD candidate at the Paris School of Economics and a research fellow at the world Inequality Lab. He is a coeditor (along with Clara Martinez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty) of Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of 50 Democracies, 1948-2020.
Indeed, the moderation of left-wing party’s economic policy proposals in the eighties and in the nineties and the decision to promote an unregulated capitalism with no kind of proper compensation and no tax harmonization leading to greater offshore wealth and rising inequality. All these decisions have played a role in leading the working class to take distance from these parties and, at the same time, enabling these new issues to take a growing importance.
Key Highlights Include
- Why have multi-elite party systems emerged in Western democracies?
- Describes the divide between the “Brahmin Left” and “Merchant Right”
- How do party systems differ between Western and Non-Western democracies?
- Descriptions of party systems in India, Eastern Europe, and Brazil
- Why have party systems changed?
Amory Gethin is another new voice I am proud to feature on this podcast. I first came across his name as a source in a recent article in The Economist on inequality in South Africa. Then I noticed he was a coeditor alongside Thomas Piketty and Clara Martinez-Toledano of a new book called Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities. A Study of 50 Democracies, 1948-2020.
In some ways, this book is an extension of Piketty’s Capital and Ideology where he shows Western party systems have transformed into what he describes as a multi-elite system of a Bramin left and a merchant right. But unlike Piketty’s past work it also explores the political divisions in party systems outside the United States and Western Europe. It is an incredibly broad examination of party systems in many different political contexts.
Our conversation begins with the transformation Western democracies have undergone in recent years before moving onto party systems outside the West. Sometimes we make some broad generalizations. I’m aware we sometimes lose the nuance found in a deeper dive into a country like India, Germany or the United States. But this broad approach offers insights into larger trends that you’ll likely recognize from your own political experiences.
Now before we begin I’d like to encourage everyone to leave a review of the podcast. Whether you listen on Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict, Podcast Republic or others, it’s really important to help independent shows like this to stand out. Like always, I’m open to questions or suggestions by email at email@example.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Amory Gethin…
Amory Gethin, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Hello, thank you very much for having me.
Well, Amory, this is a really impressive book. There was so much content and it’s so comprehensive. You literally went through 50 different democracies to study, not just their party systems, but also the way that inequality and different political cleavages affect those party systems.
So, the key insight in the book that I drew kind of leans on a lot of Piketty’s most recent work from Capital and Ideology where he talks about what he describes as the Brahmin Left and the Merchant right, this new divide within politics, especially within the United States and Europe. So, in the introduction you write, “The era of the comforting opposition between social democratic parties and conservative parties, once perceived as seemingly eternal, is long gone.” That’s such a powerful statement with a lot to unpack there. So, Amory, as we kind of start out, let’s set the stage. Can you help explain how a multi-elite party system is different than a class-based party system?
Sure. So, what we do in the book is to extend some of Thomas’ analysis on the evolution of political divides that he had done on France and the US. And so, in the first part of the book, which is dedicated to Western democracies, we really focus on this transformation that has occurred in nearly all Western democracies, which is indeed what we call the transition from a class-based party system to a multi-elite party system. So, to put it simply, in the fifties and sixties class voting was very prevalent in many Western democracies in the sense that lower educated, low income, low wealth people voted for the same parties irrespective of their ethnic identity or religious identity even though these divides also played a big role. And so, Social Democratic and affiliated parties managed to gather the votes of these different voters.
And since then, there’s been a striking divergence in the effect of income and education on the votes. So, these two types of inequalities that are income inequalities and education inequalities have increasingly played different roles in determining the votes. Put simply, conservative parties, so right-wing parties, continued to be supported by high income, high wealth voters. So, they continue to be the parties of merchant or economic elites, while left-wing parties have very gradually become the parties of higher educated intellectual elites or what we have called, in reference to India’s caste system, the Brahmin left. And so, these divisions have led to what we call the multi-elite party system in the sense that now right-wing parties represent high-income voters while left-wing parties represent higher educated voters.
Now, when we talk about these two different divides, this new cleavage that is between effectively the elites, between what you describe as a merchant right and a Brahmin left, the merchant right, essentially it was already there. I mean, that’s the same political party structure that you had in the fifties and sixties where you had an economic elite that would support economic liberalization and policies that effectively would benefit the wealthier within the population. The Brahmin left is new. That’s really where the change seems to be. Has the change really just been more dramatic on the left or has the transformation on the right been similarly striking?
So, indeed the class divide in the sense of income, the fact that high income voters vote for the right has remained very constant. This is a very striking phenomenon which points to the persistence of economic divides of socioeconomic conflicts in Western democracies. They still exist. They’re still very important as they used to be in the fifties, sixties.
But what the complete reversal of educational divides shows is that there’s been a rise in the salience of new issues. Generally something we could call social cultural issues. And so, on the left, the environment and climate change play a big role in structuring support for higher educated voters for green parties when parties really distinguished themselves from other parties in the fact that they attract a very high share of university graduates or postgraduates. And on the right where far right parties, anti-immigration parties, whether in Europe or looking at Donald Trump in the United States, they distinguish themselves by capturing a fraction of the vote of the lower educated. And so, of course, turnout also needs to be taken into account, because low-income, low-educated voters tend to vote less and less in many Western democracies.
So, many of them are really not satisfied with this multi-elite party system and, to some extent, we also need to point to the fact that left-wing parties have become sometimes less ambitious in their proposals and most certainly less convincing in proposing redistributive policies. And this directly contributed, I believe, to enable the rise of these new social-cultural divides.
So, traditionally the economic elites were the educated elites. I mean, there was no difference between the two, because if you have more education, you typically make more money. So, typically, the right-wing parties had not just the economical elites, but also the educated elites. There’s some differences. You always have people who are university professors or different groups that are highly educated that would support the left. But as a whole, the right-wing parties would have both more educated voters as well as more economically wealthy voters. Has there been a change in terms of the economies where more educated people are not necessarily more wealthy or has it been that there are so many educated people that it’s, not simple enough to say if you’re educated, you’re automatically in the higher economic echelons anymore?
So, one of, the interpretation that can come to mind is the fact that education would determine income less today than it used to. But actually, this is not what we find in the data. So, if we look at the correlation, the link, between education and income over time since the fifties, there hasn’t been any substantial change. In this fact, higher educated people always on average have higher incomes. This was already the case before, but not all of them have high incomes. And so, the relation between education and income is always imperfect and this always open space for the divergence that we observed between educational and income divides.
So, as you said, higher educated voters used to vote for conservative parties. This is something that is often forgotten. We often forget that actually, PhDs and intellectual elites in the fifties, sixties, they voted for right-wing parties. One interpretation is perhaps that they were doing so for economic reasons because education is also a dynamic characteristic that determines your future income that is also part of social class by itself. And so, they might have voted for these parties also for economic reasons in the past, while today these new issues determine their vote to a greater extent and the same can perhaps be said for lower educated voters.
In any case, Social Democratic, Socialist, Communist parties in the fifties really succeeded in bringing together these three dimensions of inequality: education, income, and wealth. Many individuals located at the bottom of these three dimensions of these hierarchies in society converge in voting for these parties and this is not the case anymore today.
So, we’ve seen this phenomenon probably most clearly in the United States where I live and we see the Democratic Party becoming much more associated with the educated elite, like you described, and on the right-wing it’s continued to be represented by economic issues, by pushing for… I mean, the last presidential candidate was Donald Trump. He was a billionaire. I mean, it’s a perfect example of what you would describe as the merchant elite.
So, in the book you have an interesting quote, you have a fascinating finding, where you 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.” That’s such a dramatic change in terms of how we think about the right and the left. Does a complete reversal of the income effect, does that effectively nullify the entire idea of what you described as the merchant right and redefine what it means to be a right-wing political party?
So, Thomas Piketty in his chapter on France and the US asks the following question, ‘Is this system sustainable? Can we have a full divergence of education and income for very long periods of time or should we expect a complete realignment in the future?’ Meaning that at some point, higher income voters and higher educated voters will both start voting for the left. The US really standouts in the fact that indeed in 2016, and, I think 2022, high-income voters voted slightly more for Clinton than for Trump. But it’s not completely sure, first, whether this is really a Trump effect, and whether it will go back to normal if there’s a more moderate candidate.
And it’s also linked, I mean, linked probably to the fact that Trump was a very radical candidate. And as we observe in Western Europe that far right candidates tend to get higher votes from low-income voters in the same way. Trump sort of embodied these particular movements which tends to make slightly better scores among low-income voters. So, it’s not completely sure where we’re going, but a complete realignment should not be excluded. And so, this remains to be seen.
Now, the United States is also unique in having such a defined two-party system. It’s unlike most of the countries within the West. So, I am curious here. Other countries in the West… France has a broader party system. It still is a little bit more rigid because of the electoral system. The fact that they’re still elected within districts. They have a presidency. But other countries within Western Europe have a very straight proportional representation system with a very broad range of political parties. Does that have any impact on the creation of a multi-elite party system?
So, what we find in the book is not really. To the extent that the reversal that we observed in educational divides holds about as much in two party systems such as the US and the UK than in extremely fragmented party systems such as Denmark or the Netherlands. But what’s useful about these Western European countries with proportional representation is that it allows us to better disentangle which underlying social movements trigger this reversal in educational divides. And as I said before Green Parties on the left really played a key role in generating support from higher educated voters to the left, while far right parties, anti-immigration parties really distinguished themselves by their support among lower educated voters.
And some tend to say that the concepts of left and right don’t mean much anymore. And that in these extremely fragmented systems it does not make sense to think of political conflicts in terms of left and right. But I think that this reversal happened as much in the US as in these very fragmented systems, tends to make us think that actually the left-right divide continues to operate to some extent. And what we see from manifesto data, for instance, when we look at the manifestos that parties release before being elected is that Green Parties on average tend to be left-wing on the economy and anti-immigration parties that many of them tend to be quite liberal when it comes to the economy, although there are some exceptions. And so, what has happened instead is more of a growing importance taken by these new cultural divides and a declining relative importance in these economic issues that used to structure the party systems in the sixties and seventies.
So, do you see the shift as a natural outcome of changes within culture, within changes within the economy or do you think of this more as actual strategic decisions that parties of the left made over time? I think of writings that Sheri Berman has made where she’s criticized the decline of social Democracy. I think of discussions about Tony Blair who looked to be able to triangulate and essentially capture the middle, the center of the political spectrum when he was in office. Was this more of a strategic decision or is this more of just a natural shift because of culture, economics, and other aspects in the society?
So, there is a debate whether these changes come from political demands, so changes in what people value in society, or whether they come from political supply, that is party’s tendencies to emphasize different kinds of issues over time and how it changes and how it determines people’s votes. And what we observe when we look at what people think and how people are defined by social class on a number of issues is that there doesn’t seem to have been a major shift in social divides, in social cleavages. And there’s a great book by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, for instance, that shows that in the UK belonging to the working class continues to determine one’s beliefs on a number of issues just as much today as 50-60 years ago.
So, this really points to the idea that there’s been a change in supply and that parties have changed. The policies have changed the issues that they emphasize over time. And this can explain probably a good share of the shift that we observe. Indeed, the moderation of left-wing party’s economic policy proposals in the eighties and in the nineties and the decision to promote an unregulated capitalism with no kind of proper compensation and no tax harmonization leading to greater offshore wealth and rising inequality. All these decisions have played a role in leading the working class to take distance from these parties and, at the same time, enabling these new issues to take a growing importance. So, I really believe that political supply played a role. Although, of course, the rise of environmental issues, for instance, largely goes beyond simple supply factors.
Sure and your work focuses a lot on political parties. But political parties are more institutionalized in different parts of the world than others. The United States has a very institutionalized party system. The Republicans and Democrats are very firmly entrenched within political life. Some would say too entrenched. In other parts of the world, party systems lack that sense of institutionalization. And we’ve seen that in Latin America, but we’ve even seen that in France to some extent with the ability of Macron to be able to win the presidency in an entirely new political party. Does the lack of party system institutionalization, does that have any impact on whether or not the political divide becomes multi-elite? Does it open a space for new political demands or does it not really have much of an effect at all?
It’s quite difficult to say. As I said before, the reversal or the changes that we observe happen just as much in the US, an extremely institutionalized system, than in countries, such as France as you mentioned, where there’s instability. Parties constantly merge and divide and candidates can just arrive, especially recently, and get elected like Emmanuel Macron. So, it’s a bit difficult to say, but certainly parties play a big role and I’d like to mention the fact that in two countries in Europe, the changes that we observe have not really taken place. There’s not been any clear reversal in the educational cleavage. These countries are Ireland and Portugal and in these two countries what we find and what’s been documented is that socioeconomic issues continue to play a much more structural role than they do in other Western European countries.
And in these countries, we observed that lower educated, low-income voters continue to vote to some extent for the same party. So, there are of course historical reasons, for instance, the role of the 2008-2009 crisis in Portugal or the fact that Ireland has had a very special party system already and that the rise of a new left-wing party enabled these new class divides to emerge. And, I think, it points to one fact that things are open and there’s no deterministic trend towards the rise of social, cultural divides or the growing importance of ethnic or new religious conflicts. All this is not determined. It depends a lot on historical trajectories and sometimes very unexpected events. And so, everything is still to be determined in the future. There is no guarantee that this trajectory will continue.
So, Amory, one of the things I found really interesting about your book was that it didn’t just look at countries in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia. It didn’t just look at countries of the West. You really made a strong effort to be able to examine as many different regions as you possibly could. The book is called Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of 50 Democracies, 1948-2020. Your coauthor Thomas Piketty’s work has been criticized sometimes for being too focused on places like the United States and France, very developed countries. So, this book was striking to me because it made such a strong effort to be able to incorporate all these different places outside of the west. Can you talk a little bit about how inequality and the party system is different in places outside of the west?
Yes, many of the things we’ve been talking about up until now are very well known to some extent in the political science literature and a lot of work has been done already, even though no one has really combined all the data that we used in this book for Western democracies. But I think what’s really new is to put in the same book all this data on 29 other non-Western democracies. So, more than half of the book is dedicated to democracies outside the West. So, none of these democracies is perfect at all and there are varying degrees at which elections are fair and free, but there are very interesting findings that come out from this sort of global comparison of this global map of political divides.
The first one is that this multi-elite party system is very rare in history in comparative perspective and outside of a few examples generally speaking what we observe is that education and income tend to determine the vote in the same way. Parties tend to be supported by lower educated and low-income individuals or highly educated, high-income individuals. But there are large variations in the intensity of these class divides. And these, again, depend on a range of historical factors which we analyze country by country in the book.
And another finding which, I think, is very interesting is that contrary to this view that we hear sometimes that according to which non-Western democracies would be plagued by ethnic conflicts or unsolvable religious divides, well, in fact, many of these democracies seems to move towards greater class divides, greater socioeconomic conflicts today. And, on the contrary, it seems that it’s the West that is to some extent moving towards greater cultural conflicts in recent years.
That’s interesting, the way that you just kind of framed it. The idea that class divides are in many ways less divisive than other more cultural divides. Because when I read earlier accounts of democracy from like the American founding fathers and others, the fear was that the class divide was going to be incredibly dangerous, because you’d have the poor people trying to take the wealth from the rich people. And there’d be almost a class civil war within the culture. But what we found is that it’s a very stable conflict within the West as we’ve seen democracies mature. Can you explain a little bit about why the class conflict is more stable than the more cultural conflicts that we feared that these countries would face?
It is true that the class conflict that Western democracies saw in the middle of the 20th century were more appeased than social cultural conflicts may look like today. I think we should not overemphasize the fact that class conflicts are necessarily more appeased. I mean there are lots of cases in history where class divides led to massacres, to civil wars, to authoritarianism. So, this is also something that we should remember. And I think there’s a great book that I like from Adam Przeworski and he shows that to some extent, a stable well functioning democracy is democracy where political divides are moderate, not too low. If they’re too low, then any kind of charismatic leader or party can come and be elected with a specific issue.
So, you have to have some rules in the society and they need to be institutionalized, but these divides need not to be too strong either otherwise you bear the risk of a civil war or of unsolvable conflict. And it’s true that class divides in Western democracy has had this advantage. They have had the advantage that they are solvable. They’re solvable in intergenerational mobility, in policies, in informed debate.
And the new social, cultural conflicts that we observe, they do not seem to have such an easy or understandable solution, because very often conflicts between ethno-religious groups, well, one of the only ways to solve in a sense these conflicts is that one group annihilates the other. This, looks sometimes like the only outcome possible. So, there’s a huge danger about these kinds of conflicts as we see in many civil wars around the world and as the first half of the 20th century showed this in Europe.
Yeah, you have an interesting quote in the book where you write, “Conflicts over national origin or ethno-religious identities do not often admit solutions other than further exacerbation or persecution of one side by the other.” And it just emphasizes how these conflicts over national origin or ethnicity or religious identity can lead to persecutions when the conflict is primarily about that. The class divides… It’s not that inequality is good by any measure. It’s that democracies are able to resolve issues of inequality through negotiation, through being able to establish new government programs, or coming up with new compromises between how to distribute the wealth. One country that I think of that has had serious divides both in religion between Hindus and Muslims, between castes, between a lot of different people is India. Can you speak to how India’s party system has changed over time?
So, India, first of all, we must remember is bigger in population than all the Western democracies we’ve been talking about combined. So, it’s a really fascinating country to study in the book, a continent by itself. It doesn’t have one party system, but it has several party systems depending on its states, on regions, and on different traditional histories. And India’s party system has shifted from the 1950s into today from a one-party dominant system. So, in the fifties and sixties, the Indian National Congress, the party of Gandhi and Nehru, dominated politics. And this party was unique in the sense that it was able to capture votes from both the Brahmin elites, so the highest caste in Indian society, untouchables, which are the lowest caste in society and technically outside of the caste system, and from the Muslim minority, which has been historically unrepresented.
So, it was able to build this coalition of extremes as it has been called to some extent to make democracy work despite the extreme diversity both ethnolinguistic and religious diversity that India has until today. And what we have seen since the 1980s is the rise of Hindu Nationalism embodied by the Bharatiya Janata Party which is today in power with Narendra Modi. And this party in a similar way that we observe in the West has focused more on these identity-based issues. And it has disproportionally attracted support from upper castes. So, in that respect, in this party system may look more class-based because caste and class are very correlated.
But not so much in the end, because caste identity also has a non-economic dimension and because the relationship between class and voting for Hindu nationalism in India is quite complex.It has to do sometimes with economic insecurity. For instance, upper castes, because they feel threatened by the decline of caste inequality and the quota system that enables lower castes to reach, for instance, higher educational institutions tend to vote for this reason for the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party. So, there’s a complex interaction between class and caste which explains why India, I don’t think, today can be characterized as a proper class-based party system at all. It’s more of a complex interaction between these identity-based issues driven by castes and socioeconomic concerns driven by class.
When we look at some of the other countries that exist, one of the most fascinating for me was in the post-communist countries, particularly within Eastern Europe. And I’d read quite a bit before I came to your book where it talked about how the parties of the left were in an odd position where they didn’t want to be associated with the communist past. But at the same time, they were supposed to be representing the left. And so, the right has been able to kind of come in and almost outflanked them on the left at times. It’s an odd dynamic. Can you explain how countries like Poland, and Hungary, and some of those others, how the party system kind of worked together in a way that is surprising when we think of the traditional class-based system?
Yes, Eastern European countries are fascinating also because they show us how decisions by parties themselves, so the supply side we’ve been talking about, can play a big role in determining the evolution of political divides and the relative importance of class versus social cultural issues. So, I think the big difference is, for instance, between Hungary and the Czech Republic. So, in Hungary after the transition of the Socialist party, so the former ruling party of Hungary, decided to radically moderate its stances and to conduct alongside right-wing parties the liberal program proposed by the West and the move towards a market economy. This led to dramatic inequality. It also led to the collapse of left-wing parties in Hungary.
And so, these parties have never been considered as credible when it comes to proposing redistributive policies and arguably this contributed to the rise of extreme nationalism and arrival in power of Viktor Orbán, who is, as many far right parties in Europe, much more popular among lower educated voters who feel to some extent abandoned by left-wing parties who really don’t have any weight today in Hungary. In the Czech Republic, the Social Democratic Party right from the beginning, so first of all, it had the chance of not being the former ruling party. And it always distinguished itself on class issues. And it has concentrated, since the nineties, a large share of the lower educated, low-income electorate. So, class divides have played a more important role in the Czech Republic than in Hungary in structuring the party system.
And what the authors of the chapter on Central Eastern Europe show is that this might explain also why so-called populism in the Czech Republic has not taken the extreme radical right form that it took in Hungary, but instead took more of a strange centrist technocratic form in the form of the ANO 2011. And so, these diverging trajectories really show how party’s emphases and the policies they propose and also, of course, the way the historical transition to democracy happens conditions the importance of class and cultural divides.
I think Poland’s a really fascinating example too, because it never really had a party of the left at all. Like in Hungary, the Socialists actually did extremely well up until 2010 when Fidesz was able to just dominate the elections and continues to dominate the elections for the past 11 years now. Poland never really had a party of the left. And so, the Law and Justice party is widely described as a right-wing party, a far right-wing party, but in a lot of ways it’s almost more the leftist party when you look at how it pushes redistributive programs. Can you talk a little bit about how Poland’s structure is a little different too?
Yes. So, as you said, left-wing parties in Poland have been very weak historically and this has allowed the parties like Law and Justice to capture much of the popular vote. And so Poland, in terms of divides between rich and poor, does show considerable variation and so the parties do distinguish themselves in their emphasis on redistributive policies quite a bit. But a lot of the issues today are indeed about very strong conservative social policies. Think about the debates about abortion and all these things. So, Poland is torn apart by these issues and no party on the left seems to be credible to embody at the same time a progressive coalition on these issues and capture the votes of the working class.
Now a hundred percent that the Law and Justice Party has definitely bought into those cultural issues that are important to the right. And that is the reason why they are a far right political party. It’s just fascinating still though how these expectations that we have in terms of redistribution being something that is solely something for parties of the left and the idea of economic liberalization being key to parties of the right can sometimes get mixed up. It can be very different in very different contexts throughout the world. And I think Central Eastern Europe is a fascinating example where that’s happened again and again.
When you look at Latin America that’s an area that has a partisan divide, but it’s obviously had a lot of turbulence where the party systems are not always intact. And so, we see different parties rise up. Other parties, kind of, fall away. Brazil’s a great example where Jair Bolsonaro was able to win the presidency with almost no party system underneath him at all, no political party backing, is able to kind of come from nowhere for a lot of people. How do you see inequality playing a role within the Latin American political system?
Brazil is a very interesting case, because it’s been a very unstable system since the 1990s. And there are lots of parties that are created that are purely cannibalistic, but still the Worker’s Party really distinguishes itself in the fact that it has survived all this period. It has become more and more institutional. And it has governed and implemented concrete redistributive policies which have clearly led to a decline in inequality among the poor at least and a significant improvement in their living conditions. And at the same time, if you look at the election of Lula in 2002, Lula was not particularly popular among low-income or high-income groups. He managed to capture a sort of diverse coalition and then he implemented a number of redistributive policies, such as the Bolsa Familia. And then in 2006, this is really when, class divides started to grow in Brazil.
And so, this shows again that the supply side matters. The fact that the PT was elected and implementing policies led to the rise of class divides and to sort of better structuring of Brazil’s party system along socio-economic lines. And I think something that’s quite fascinating is that Bolsonaro, contrary to radical right candidates in Europe or the US, Bolsonaro is not at all supported by the lower educated electorate. It’s completely the opposite. Bolsonaro attracts the highest share of votes among high-income, highly educated elites precisely because the PT remains the party of the working class. And this seems to have even exacerbated in 2018 compared to 2014.
So, the Brazilian party system is one of the clearest examples in the book of a rise in class divides. Something that’s also quite striking in Latin America is the relationship between religious cleavages and class cleavages which is something that we already observe in Western Europe in the fifties or sixties when religious divines are particularly strong. For instance, Italy was perhaps the Western country with the deepest religious divides between more or less religious Catholics and the secular. workers. And this was also the country with the weakest class divides.
So, religion cross-cut the class divide. And this is the same today in Latin America. Within countries such as Brazil or Argentina, they actually have relatively weak religious divides in the poll, at least, in the sense that religion does not determine much for who you are going to vote. On the contrary, in countries such as Costa Rica, and to some extent, Chile, religion plays a great role and these countries have also weaker class divides on average than other Latin American countries.
So, do you believe that the less developed countries or rather non-Western countries, do you think that the reason why their political divides are more based on class or at least moving in that direction is due to their economic development and that once they reach a higher level of economic development alongside the West that they’re going to see a similar shift to a multi-elite party system or do you think that every country is going to have its own trajectory in the future?
I don’t really believe in the evolutionary trajectory that every country depending on its development would move towards more or less class or cultural divides. There are extremely developed countries such as Japan where particular conflicts are very different again. And Japan is an extremely stable party system. The same party has been ruling since 1945, the Liberal Democratic Party, and it still continues to rule today. It is challenged by many parties which constantly divide and merge. So, cultural divides are not particularly stronger in Japan than they used to be 50 years ago. And class divides are indeed significantly weaker.
On the contrary, we have some democracies where these countries are not necessarily high income countries such as Indonesia where class divides are relatively weak for a number of reasons, because religion plays a role, because also sometimes in some countries ethno-linguistic divides can play a role. And the strength of class divides sometimes depends on inequalities between these groups, So, in a country like Pakistan where ethnolinguistic groups are very divided regionally and there are high inequities between these groups then we see a very strong ethnic cleavage which persists over time. So, there are many conflagrations. I don’t think we can summarize the trajectory of political cleavages by development or by anything else than completely looking at history. And I’m looking at what parties do and how they decide to position themselves on specific issues.
So, why has the United States, Europe, Western countries, why have they tracked alongside each other? Because we can look at a period where there was a clear class divide. And then we saw around the late seventies into the eighties, we saw a shift to neo-liberalism and now we’re seeing the effects of that. And we’re seeing a rise of populism within these same countries. Why do they seem to track alongside each other?
That’s a very complex question, of course…
That’s all I give you – complex questions.
These countries share a common history. They democratized at about the same period. The end of the 19th century democratization started. For centuries they had been under a similar political regime. So, they have a very long common history. Their standards of living have evolved at the same rate compared to the rest of the world. In any case, global ideologies have emanated from these countries, because these ideologies have spread throughout the world. They have affected society and party systems in a very different way because countries are originally very different, while Western democracies, when these changes happened, were to some extent comparable societies. So, I think it’s a very complex question. But it is true that Western democracies the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, they share common trajectories which are very striking and which we do not observe in many other democracies in the world.
So, when I think back to Piketty’s observation about a multi-elite party system between the Brahmin left and the merchant right, I feel that it’s oftentimes very focused on why different elites would vote for these different parties. Like why an educated elite would vote for the left, why an economic elite would vote for the right. But it doesn’t always explain why low-income voters would continue to support either of these parties. So, let me open that question up for you. As we’re seeing this shift in the West, why do low-income voters support political parties, let’s say of the merchant right that don’t necessarily support redistributive programs?
I’d say that the focus on elite has an interesting advantage. It can be explained by the fact simply that elites have greater sway on political decisions, on party programs. If you look at party membership, party membership is often very skewed by education and income and political leaders themselves, members of parliament, usually most of them come from privileged backgrounds. So, the focus on elites is important because the fact that extremely educated voters support the left, well, it has necessarily an influence on the left-wing party’s programmatic decisions. And the shift towards issues that high educated voters prefer…
Something that has to be taken into account too is the fact that the mobilizational capacities of low-income and lower educated voters have declined significantly over time. In the fifties and sixties unions played a big role in many countries. industrialization was high. They had the ability to conduct strikes, to mobilize, and to convince left-wing parties to defend their interests. And this is not the case anymore. Union membership has declined in nearly every single Western country. Deindustrialization and the rise of the service economy make things much more complicated for people working in part-time jobs in the service sector.
And so all these reasons explain, I think, why these voters have lower political influence and the focus on elites reinforces these facts and can contribute to explaining why left-wing party’s programs have to some extent for many of them abandoned these classes on economic policy.
Well, I mean, I think the focus on elites that you use is brilliant. The way that you lay it out I do still find that it’s a challenge to understand where does this put people that are not elites, people that are in the lower socioeconomic groups. David Runciman is a political scientist. He hosts a podcast called Talking Politics. Awhile back he brought up an interesting idea. He was mentioning the fact that in parliament within the United Kingdom, but this is true pretty much in a lot of different countries, that the members of parliament these days are almost exclusively people who have university educations and oftentimes advanced educations with master’s degrees, sometimes even doctorates. Do you think that it would make a difference in how government works, if political parties were either required or made a stronger effort to include people who are not just from lower socioeconomic classes, but even just people who had varying levels of education that came from varying occupations?
Most certainly. I really believe so. And what’s striking is that this representational inequality has increased. Countries like France or the UK in the fifties and sixties, you had a number of blue colors in parliaments, and you had a number of blue collars in the Communist party, in Socialist parties, in Labor parties. And so, these people had a voice, had a voice in political parties and they contributed to creating political programs and manifestos before elections. And this is less and less the case today. So, of course, there’s also a demographic effect. The fact that many people now have higher education and few people do not have university degrees and almost none have no high school degree especially in the younger generation.
So, their demographic weight has decreased and so, their influence on politics has also decreased. So, representational inequality, I think, is really cheap to reduce. But in terms of why low-income voters would vote for the right or the left, I think we also need to emphasize that many of them do not vote. There’s been a really strong decline in turnout in many Western democracies. And this decline has been concentrated among a new generation, among lower educated people, low-income people. And many of those who vote, vote because they are used to vote, but many of them are not convinced at all that whoever they will vote for will have any kind of influence on policy and on what matters for them.
No, you’re right that a lot of lower educated Americans, I’m sure this is true throughout the world, unfortunately don’t vote. But in the last presidential election in the United States, we saw a lot of things change. For one we saw the highest turnout that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime in that election where we saw both Joe Biden and Donald Trump… and it wasn’t just that the turnout meant that the Democrats gained any enormous number of votes. Like people usually assumed that non-voters were typically Democrats. They were less educated, less wealthy. Those would naturally be Democrats. We saw Donald Trump gain an enormous number of votes within the election. Turnout was high for both Republicans and Democrats.
And since then after the election, Joe Biden has almost done a pivot where instead of just emphasizing the issues of what the educated elite would normally demand, he’s almost done a pivot towards something that people have sometimes described as almost a resurgence of social democracy. Again, do you think that Joe Biden’s adoption of a bold economic agenda, does that signal a shift back towards class divisions within the United States or can it reverse the trend that party divisions have taken so far?
So, regarding the high turnout in US presidential elections. It’s true. And part of the reason is maybe that people are fed up by a system which for decades have gradually abandoned many of them. And so, the dynamics of anger play a role in determining this vote. So, this has to be taken into account, especially the fact that political polarization in the US has reached extreme levels. This polarization does not seem to be taking place to such an extent in other Western democracies. And so, when the system is more polarized, even candidates when they are more polarized, it’s normal that voters will think that it’s important to go vote because the other candidate is so extreme that there is a need to vote for the candidate that seems the less worse.
Regarding the shift in economic policy, it’s true that Biden seems to have made a big shift in that respect. And it remains to be seen whether these policies will be sufficient to convince low-income, lower educated voters that their voice matters and that it will make a change and that this will continue, but I think a couple of things need to be thought about too. The fact that, for instance, Donald Trump cuts the corporate income tax to unprecedented low levels and Biden is not bringing back these corporate income tax to what it was before Trump. He’s only bringing it up to about a half the gap.
So, he’s not changing progressive taxation that much in the end. And so, taxation in the US today is regressive at the very top. Billionaires pay less tax in proportion to their income than most Americans. This has been a very long run process and there’s been no substantial change in this and doing so would require being much more ambitious when it comes to tackling off shore wealth. It would require taxing wealth. It would require improving the income tax progressivity more generally. And I think, economic policies such as the one implemented now are useful, but they need to be complemented by a progressive tax system. So, we will see if things change, but a lot of things need to be changed too if we want to go back to the level of progressivity that was in place in the fifties and sixties.
Well, Amory. Thank you so much for joining me. This is a…. Wow! What a comprehensive and broad study. I’m sure that you’re excited to finally have it published.
Yes. Thank you very much.
Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities. A Study of 50 Democracies, 1948-2020 edited by Amory Gethin, Clara Martinez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty
Follow Amory Gethin on Twitter @amorygethin
Learn more about Amory Gethin at his personal website
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