In the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, higher-income households voted more for Trump whereas Biden was more supported among higher-education individuals (college graduates and postgraduates). In the French 2022 presidential elections, higher-income and education individuals voted more for the right-center candidate Macron (compared for the far-right candidate Le Pen).
As shown by recent elections results in the U.S. and in France, political divides are diversified and have shown important evolutions since the postwar area. As argued by many political scientists and by the economist Thomas Piketty in the recent book Capital and Ideology published in 2020, left-wing parties traditionally represented voters with low income and education levels whereas right-wing were supported by individuals with higher income and education levels (referring to the ‘merchant right’ in the Piketty’s book).
According to Piketty, the vote for the left has increasingly been related with higher education levels (what Piketty calls the ‘brahmin left’), suggesting a minor role played by income divides. But our recently published paper co-written with Bruno Amable shows that income still plays a significant role in understanding political cleavages.
More particularly, one configuration – referring to the concept of ‘bloc bourgeois’ defined by Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini in their book The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis published in 2021 (initially published in French in 2018) – describes an increase in support from voters with higher levels of income and education, as exemplified by the recent re-election of the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Relying on a large sample of comparative survey data covering a large number of OECD countries from 1985 to 2018, we investigate the impact of income and education levels to explain party preferences (support for left and right parties) as well as different policy preferences: support for government redistribution to reduce income inequality; support for public investment in education (support for government education spending and support for the statement that it is unjust that people with higher incomes can buy a better education for their children than people with lower incomes); support for trade globalization (support for free trade and support for large international companies) and support for immigration (support for the statement that immigration is good for the economy and do not represent a threat to local jobs).
The emergence of a ‘multi-elite system’
According to Piketty, the traditional income-based cleavage in the 1950/1960s was gradually replaced by an ‘identity-based’ cleavage in the 1970s/1980s. Trade globalization through higher exposure to foreign competition and increasing access to education across the general population are two key factors to understand this evolution. First, higher international competition has made it more difficult for governments to implement more generous redistributive policies. Second, the rise in the general level of education opened a new dimension of inequality, in addition to income inequality.
All these mutations have created a ‘multi-elite system’ where the elites are all favorable to globalization with divergent interests regarding the level of taxation and public expenditure. Individuals with high level of education (the ‘brahmin left’) generally favor public investment in education while individuals with high level of income (‘merchant right’) are more likely to support low taxes and limited redistribution. Finally, another cleavage opposes high-income, high-education voters and low-income, low-education voters. This suggests a restructuring of political cleavages, with a unification of the well-off social groups formerly constituting the traditional left and right blocs into a new social bloc, the bloc bourgeois, as described by Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini.
Identifying the evolution of the political cleavages
The aim of our paper is to identify the emergence of different social groups which have been previously defined (‘popular classes’ versus ‘brahmin left’ and ‘merchant right’ versus ‘bloc bourgeois’). To do this, our analysis goes beyond the analysis of political preferences but also includes policy preferences, with the ultimate goal of understanding how income and education simultaneously shape political and policy preferences.
First, political preferences – and the underlying social groups – are simultaneously driven by education and income levels. The same applies for cleavages on (trade) globalization due to the adverse effects of globalization on popular classes in terms of relocation and job losses. Second, divides on redistribution are driven by income levels, as affluent individuals are traditionally opposed to redistribution with higher taxes. Then, cleavages on immigration are more derived from the education level, because high-education voters are less concerned about labour market competition from immigrants. Finally, cleavages on public investment in education are also derived from the education level.
Our results show that both the education and income levels do still influence individuals’ political preferences, suggesting in line with the Piketty’s work the existence of the brahmin left, i.e. a left mostly detached from the popular classes.
Additional results analyzing the attitudes towards redistribution, investment in education and globalization are less clear in this regard. On the one hand, for instance, the decline in the support for redistribution with income at all levels of education may suggest the emergence of a fraction of left voters less concerned about inequality, again validating the Piketty’s thesis. On the other hand, some results may suggest the possibility of a unification of the better-off part of the brahmin left and the high-educated fraction of the merchant right into a bloc bourgeois. This seems to be more relevant when investigating the preferences for redistribution, investment in education and immigration. This possibility is, however, not supported for the other globalization issues (support for free trade and large companies).
These two options, i.e. the existence of a brahmin left or a unification into a bloc bourgeois, have different implications for the political landscape. The existence of a brahmin left implies a possible emergence of a ‘new’ left as underlined by several political scientists pointing out the opposition between materialist and postmaterialist values or libertarian/cosmopolitan versus authoritarian/nationalist/nativist views representing a ‘second dimension’ of political differentiation beyond the traditional left-right axis. By contrast, the possibility of a bloc bourgeois questions the opposition between left and right, conceivably in new or ‘renovated’ parties.
Our findings provide some evidence of a possible unification of some segments of the brahmin left and the merchant right on different socioeconomic issues by their common financial situation. Our results also suggest that individuals’ financial situation still remains relevant in a series of divides, even taking into account differences in the education level. This nuances the main thesis proposed by Piketty which gives a central role to globalization/immigration in the emergence of a multiple-elite party system, mainly based on a gradual rise in the educational level. According to this interpretation, political conflicts would result from education inequalities rather than from income dispersion.
Thibault Darcillon is an Associate Professor of Economics (Maître de conférences HDR) at the Université Paris VIII (Vincennes – Saint-Denis)
This article is based on Bruno Amable and Thibault Darcillon, “The brahmin left, the merchant right and the bloc bourgeois,“ Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 29 Issue 4, pp. 1342-1367 (2022)
Image: “President Donald J. Trump at the United Nations General Assembly,” via Flickr.