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Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right

Thomas Piketty

Rising inequality & the changing structure of political conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)

Income inequality has increased substantially in most world regions since the 1980s, albeit at different speeds (see Alvaredo et al, World Inequality Report 2018, This process of rising inequality came after a relatively egalitarian period between 1950 and 1980, which itself followed a long sequence of dramatic events — wars, depressions, revolutions — during the first half of the 20th century (see Piketty, 2014). Given the recent evolution, one might have expected to observe rising political demand for redistribution, e.g. due to some simple median-voter logic. However so far we seem to be observing for the most part the rise of various forms of xenophobic ‘populism’ and identity-based politics (Trump, Brexit, Le Pen/FN, Modi/BJP, AfD, etc.), rather than the return of class-based (income-based or wealth-based) politics. Why do democratic and electoral forces appear to deliver a reduction in inequality in some historical contexts but not in others? Do we need extreme circumstances in order to produce the type of Social-Democratic/New-Deal political coalition that led to the reduction of inequality during the 1950-1980 period?

This paper attempts to make some (limited) progress in answering these complex questions. The general objective is to better understand the interplay between longrun inequality dynamics and the changing structure of political cleavages. In order to do so, I exploit in a systematic manner the post-electoral surveys that were conducted after nearly every national election in France, Britain and the United States over the 1948-2017 period. I construct homogenous long-run series on the changing structure of the electorate in these three countries, i.e. who votes for which parties or coalitions depending on different dimensions of inequality (income, wealth, education, age, gender, religion, foreign or ethic origins, etc.). For instance, I show that the relation between voting behavior and income percentile is generally stronger at the top of the distribution than within the bottom 90%, and that the wealth profile has always been much steeper than the income profile (see Figures 1.1a-1.1b for the case of France). To my knowledge, this is the first time that such consistent series are established in a long run and comparative basis.

Next, and most importantly, I document a striking long-run evolution in the multi-dimensional structure of political cleavages in these countries.

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for ‘left-wing’ (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. This corresponds to what one might label a ‘class-based’ party system: lower class voters from the different dimensions (lower education voters, lower income voters, etc.) tend to vote for the same party or coalition, while upper and middle class voters from the different dimensions tend to vote for the other party or coalition.

Since the 1970s-1980s, ‘left-wing’ vote has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to what I propose to label a ‘multiple-elite’ party system in the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the ‘left’, while high-income/ high-wealth elites still vote for the ‘right’ (though less and less so). I.e. the ‘left’ has become the party of the intellectual elite (Brahmin left), while the ‘right’ can be viewed as the party of the business elite (Merchant right). I show that the same transformation happened in France, the US and Britain (see Figures 2a-2d), despite the many differences in party systems and political histories between these three countries.

I argue that this structural evolution can contribute to explain rising inequality and the lack of democratic response to it, as well as the rise of ‘populism’ (as low education, low income voters might feel abandoned). I also discuss the origins of this transformation (rise of globalization/migration cleavage, and/or educational expansion per se) as well as future prospects: ‘multiple-elite’ stabilization; complete realignment of the party system along a ‘globalists’ (high-education, high-income) vs ‘nativists’ (low-education, low-income) cleavage; return to class-based redistributive conflict (either from an internationalist or nativist perspective). Recent elections held in the three countries in 2016-2017 suggest that several different evolutions are possible: France-US illustrate the possibility a shift toward the ‘globalists’ vs ‘nativists’ cleavage structure (see Figures 2e-2f for the case of France); while Britain supports the ‘multiple-elite’ stabilization scenario (and possibly the return to class-based internationalism, though this seems less likely).

Two general lessons emerge from this research. First, with multi-dimensional inequality, multiple political equilibria and bifurcations can occur. Globalization and educational expansion have created new dimensions of inequality and conflict, leading to the weakening of previous class-based redistributive coalitions and the gradual development of new cleavages. Next, without a strong egalitarian-internationalist platform, it is difficult to unite low-education, low-income voters from all origins within the same coalition and to deliver a reduction in inequality. Extreme historical circumstances can and did help to deliver such an encompassing platform; but there is no reason to believe that this is a necessary nor a sufficient condition.

This work builds upon a long tradition of research in political science studying the evolution of party systems and political cleavages. This literature was strongly influenced by the theory of cleavage structures first developed by Lipset and Rokkan (1967). In their seminal contribution, Lipset-Rokkan stressed that modern democracies are characterized by two major revolutions — national and industrial — that have generated four main cleavages, with varying importance across countries: center vs periphery; state vs churches; agriculture vs manufacturing; workers vs employers/owners. Their classification had an enormous influence on the literature. One limitation of this work, however, is that Lipset-Rokkan largely ignore racial/ethnic cleavages, in spite of their importance in the development of the US party system.

In the present paper, I argue that the particularities of US party dynamics (whereby the Democratic party very gradually shifted from the slavery party to the poor whites party, then the New Deal party, and finally the party of the intellectual elite and the minorities), which often seem strange and exotic from a European perspective (how is it that the slavery party can become the ‘progressive’ party?), might be highly relevant to understand the current and future transformation of cleavages structures in Europe and elsewhere.

Subsequent research has contributed to extend the Lipset-Rokkan framework. In particular, a number of authors have argued that the rise of universalist/liberal vs traditionalist/communitarian values since the 1980s-1990s, following in particular the rise of higher education, has created the condition for a new cleavage dimension, and the rise of the ‘populist right’ (see e.g. Bornshier, 2010). My findings are closely related to this thesis. In particular, I stress the interplay between income, education and ethno-religious cleavages, and the commonalities and differences between US and European trajectories in that respect (while Bornshier focuses on Europe).

This work is also related to the study of multi-issue party competition,5 and to a number of papers that have recently been written on the rise of ‘populism’. However, to my knowledge, my paper is the first work trying to relate the rise of ‘populism’ to what one might call the rise of ‘elitism’, i.e. the gradual emergence (both in Europe and in the US) of a ‘multiple-elite’ party system, whereby each of the two governing coalitions alternating in power tends to reflect the views and interests of a different elite (intellectual elite vs business elite).

More generally, the main novelty of this research is to attempt to build systematic long-run series on electoral cleavages using consistent measures of inequality (especially regarding education, income, wealth). In particular, by focusing upon differentials in voting behavior between deciles of income, wealth or education (relatively to the distribution of income, wealth or education prevailing for a given year), it becomes possible to make meaningful comparisons across countries and over long time periods, which is not possible by using occupational categories (which the literature has largely focused upon so far).

The present paper should be viewed as a (limited) step in a broader research agenda seeking to analyze in a more systematic manner the long-run interplay between inequality dynamics and political cleavages structures. The post-electoral survey data that I use in this paper in order to cover the case of France, the US and Britain over the 1948-2017 period has obvious advantages: one can observe directly who voted for whom as a function of individual-level characteristics like gender, age, education, income, wealth, religion, etc. Post-electoral surveys now exist for a large number of countries, at least for recent decades. They could and should be used in order to test whether the same patterns prevail, and to better understand the underlying mechanisms. The advantage of looking at only three countries is that I am able in this paper to analyze these cases in a relatively detailed manner. However it is clear that in order to go further one would need to add many more country studies.

Post-electoral surveys also have major drawbacks: they have limited sample size, and they do not exist before the 1940s-1950s (and in some countries not before the 1980s-1990s). The only way to analyze changing inequality patterns and political cleavages from a longer run perspective (i.e. going back to electoral data from the 1870s onwards, or before) is to use local-level electoral data together with local-level census data and/or other administrative or fiscal data providing indicators on the socio-demographic and economic characteristics of the area. This kind of data exists in pretty much every country where elections have been held. It is only by collecting and exploiting this material that we can hope to reach a satisfactory understanding of the interplay between inequality dynamics and cleavages structures.

Another obvious limitation of the present paper is that cleavages structures cannot be properly analyzed without using other types of sources and materials, including party manifestos, political discourses, and other non-voting expressions of opinion. Platforms and promises are not always straightforward to analyze and compare over time and across countries, however. Looking at cleavages structures, as revealed by the changing structure of the electorates, gives an interesting snapshot on how the different social groups perceive the various parties and coalitions and what they are likely to bring to them. Last but not least: this paper is already very long, so in order to save on space I choose to focus upon changing political cleavages among the voting population and to leave my results on abstention in the on-line data appendix. Maybe unsurprisingly, the massive increase in abstention, which took place in all three countries between the 1950s-1960s and the 2000s-2010s, arose for the most part within the lower education and lower income groups. A natural interpretation is that these voters do not feel well represented in the ‘multiple-elite’ party system. This also would need to be investigated more thoroughly in future research.

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. In Section 2, I present my results on changing political cleaves for the case of France. I then proceed with the case of the US (Section 3) and Britain (Section 4). In Section 5, I present simple two dimensional models of inequality, beliefs and redistribution, which might help to interpret some of these evolutions. In effect, these models build upon some previous work of mine (Piketty, 1995) and introduce multiple dimensions of inequality (domestic vs external inequality; education vs income/wealth) in the simplest possible manner in order to account for observed patterns. Although I view the primary contribution of this research as historical/empirical, it is my hope to convince the reader that the theoretical part also has a little bit of interest. Finally, Section 6 offers concluding comments and research perspectives.


This is the introduction to the paper 'Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising inequality & the changing structure of political conflict (evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)' by Thomas Piketty and published by the World Inequality Lab as Working Paper Series No. 2018/7on 22 March 2018 (67 pp + 107 figures). Read the full paper here.


Three of the 107 figures in the paper:

Figure 1.1a and Figure 1.1b compare the left-wing vote in France by income and wealth deciles. The relative steepness of the profiles 'are sufficently precise to demonstrate that wealth is a stronger determinant of voting attitude than income. The difference is even more pronounced in the US, where the top 10% of income earners suported the Democrats for th first time in the 2016 presidential election. The data on cleavages by wealth in the US is poor, but what exists shows that high wealth is a much stronger predictor of the Republican vote. The UK shows no significant left-wing trend for either high-income or high-wealth voters, although the latter is even more strongly welded onto the Conservative Party.


Figure 1.2d shows the great left-wing shift among highly educated voters in France, the US and the UK, after discounting for other trends (by age, sex. wealth, father's occupation) and after taking into account the structural change in the distribution of educational attainment (i.e., after discounting for the great increase in the number of university graduates over the past half-century). In other words, this is an exceptionally robust statistical result.


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