The left turn of educated voters is surprisingly old and international
YesOR COULD fill a small library with books on right-wing populism. Some authors claim that these movements arose in reaction to relatively recent events, such as the 2007-09 financial crisis or the advent of social media. Others look to more enduring regional trends, like European integration or racial politics in America.
Thomas Piketty, an economist, rose to fame with a book analyzing 200 years of data on wealth inequalities across a wide range of countries. This month he published an article, co-authored by Amory Gethin and Clara Martínez-Toledano, which applies a similar approach to the relationship between demography and ideology. Its findings imply that Donald Trump’s electoral victories and the Brexit campaign in 2016 were not a sharp departure from precedent, but rather the consequence of a 60-year-old international trend.
In a 2018 article, Mr Piketty noted that the British, French and American elites were divided between intellectuals who supported left-center parties – he dubbed them the ‘Brahmin left’ – and businessmen who preferred the right-wing parties (the “right-wing merchant.”) His new work extends this study from three Western democracies to 21. He combines data on party political positions with surveys that show how voting choices vary across demographic groups.
The paper finds that income and education began to diverge as predictors of ideology long ago. In 1955, the wealthiest and most educated voters tended to support conservative parties. Conversely, the poorest and least educated people mainly chose the workers or the social democrats.
Today, the rich still lean to the right. In contrast, the relationship between education and ideology began to reverse in the 1960s. Each year, the 10% of voters with the most years of schooling gravitate towards left-wing parties, while the remaining 90% slide in the other direction. By 2000, it was going on for so long that, as a group, the more educated voters became more left than their less educated peers. The gap has only grown since then.
This trend is surprisingly consistent. It developed as quickly in the 20th century as it did in the 21st century and appears in almost all of the Western democracies studied. This includes both bipartite and proportional systems, in which green parties now attract educated voters, and nativist parties attract the less educated. Such a scale and regularity make the rise of right-wing populists like Mr. Trump – and center-left technocrats like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau – seem like a historical fatality.
Although the authors do not identify the cause of this trend, the simplest explanation is that it stems from an increasing level of education. By 1950, less than 10% of eligible voters in America and Europe had graduated from college. Any party relying on this group for its support would have had little hope of winning the election. On the other hand, more than a third of Western adults today have diplomas, which is enough to anchor a victorious coalition. And once candidates and parties start responding to the needs of educated voters – who often place life in a liberal society above cutting taxes – rival politicians could start winning elections by taking the lead. opposite position.■
Source: “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right”, by Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty (working paper, 2021)
This article appeared in the Graphic Details section of the print edition under the title “Brahmans vs. Merchants”