Thomas Piketty is best known for publishing Capital in the 21st century. It changed the way the intellectual community thought about the problem of inequality. Despite the fact that it may not have changed many opinions, it is one of the most influential business books of the last quarter of a century. It provided academics with a language to discuss the problem of inequality intelligently rather than using slogans based on widely shared assumptions.
A few years later Piketty followed up his masterpiece with an even more relevant work for the study of politics. The publication of Capital and ideology it represented a shift for Piketty from pure economics to a broader theory of inequality that drew on further subjects such as political science, history and philosophy. Of course, Piketty has already described himself as a political economist. But this book appeared as if it had crossed a threshold beyond the economy. His examination of inequality focused more on politics and less on economics.
A new book, Political splits and social inequalities, extends many of Piketty’s thoughts into a detailed analysis of party systems around the world. In this volume Thomas Piketty collaborates with co-editors Amory Gethin and Clara Martínez-Toledano along with other collaborators for a careful examination of 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’s a data-driven analysis where charts and graphs often steal the spotlight from the storytelling. The approach highlights the uniqueness of each country or region, while allowing you to easily recognize the patterns among them.
Western party systems
Western democracies have long had a family party system based on the economy class. Left parties supported redistributive policies, while the right believed in limited government. This is an oversimplification. Indeed, leftist parties ranged from Social Democrats to Communists. Furthermore, the Christian Democrats accepted moderate forms of redistribution. However, the left-right divide was centered on issues of redistribution and economic policy. Consequently, the parties on the left represented the lower socio-economic classes, while the right represented the upper classes. Again, this is an oversimplification. But the characterization generally holds up when considering the population as a whole.
Piketty showed in Capital and ideology how Western party systems have morphed into a multi-elite party system. This observation is followed by an essay in this volume in which it examines France, the United States and the United Kingdom. Other essays link these trends to almost all Western democracies. Piketty notes that the left now identifies with the educated rather than the economically disadvantaged elite. At the same time, the right continues to identify itself with a “merchant elite”. This observation creates a paradox, because education leads to greater economic success. Historically, right-wing parties have represented both economic and educated elites.
Over time, the educated elites have shifted to the left-wing parties. As a result, leftist parties have undergone a paradigm shift away from the priorities of the lower socioeconomic classes and towards the interests of what he calls the “Brahmin left”. Consequently, leftist politics focuses more on identity politics and less on economic redistribution. Indeed, many on the left have even embraced neoliberal priorities such as free trade, deregulation and tax cuts. Not surprisingly, these policies tend to benefit the economic priorities of educated elites.
Non-Western party systems
Democracies outside the West offer a wider range of diversity. Social identities have shaped party systems in many countries. However, the economy class has received increasing attention over time in almost all countries. Of course, identity politics often shape economic priorities and demands. Furthermore, social identities often shape or even determine economic class in many cultures. However, it is disconcerting to find a reversal of the trajectory of Western party systems in non-Western democracies. Their politics has become more class conscious, while established democracies become less so.
Of course, the diversity of political circles offers some bizarre results. For example, left-wing parties in post-communist countries have embraced neoliberal policies to distance themselves from their communist past. However, this provides an opening for far-right political parties to bypass left parties with redistributive economic policies. Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki documented the strange combination of political incentives formed in this environment in their article “When Left is Right”.
Interestingly, the case study from Brazil can offer a paradigmatic example of how party systems acquire greater class consciousness. The class had little effect in the Brazilian presidential elections until 2006, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or “Lula” ran for re-election. The introduction of the Bolsa Familia and other welfare policies polarized the electorate along the class lines. Indeed, Amory Gethin and Marc Morgan show that class divisions remain important in explaining Jair Bolsonaro’s rise in 2018. Rather than diminishing over time, issues of economic redistribution have become more salient. They write: “it was redistributive policies during periods of strong economic growth that drove new divisions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor'”.
Since most Western democracies adopt a multi-elite party system, it is natural to assume that this is a structural result. It is difficult to imagine that almost all Western democracies would follow the same political trajectory if they did not follow similar causes. Indeed, the widespread adoption of neoliberal economic policies and growing inequality likely accelerated the transition to a multi-elite party system, yet many authors argued that the left’s embrace of the neoliberal economy was neither inevitable nor necessary. They note that it has involved a number of political choices over time.
For my part, I choose not to take a stand in this debate at this time. Instead, I find it difficult to understand the division of political elites into a merchant right and a Brahmin left, especially as education has become even more valuable over time. Furthermore, it seems almost inevitable that education and income will once again converge to the right or to the left. Indeed, it is possible that 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 be underway is the United States … time since World War II.”
Of course, no one knows whether this was a “Trump effect” or meant a more permanent change. Either way, it opens up a wide range of political possibilities that previous generations never considered.
Listen to Amory Gethin on the Democracy paradox where he will discuss how economic inequalities continue to shape political rifts in democracies. Look for it on November 30th or sign up on your favorite podcast app today.
Sheri Berman (2009) “Unannounced battle: capitalism, the left, social democracy and democratic socialism, ” Dissent
Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue (Editor) (2019) Divided Democracies: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization
Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty (Editor) (2021) Political Splits and Social Inequalities: A Study of Fifty Democracies, 1948-2020
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (2020) Let Them Eat Tweets: Like 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 21st century
Thomas Piketty (2020) Capital and ideology
Rennwald Line (2020) Social Democratic Parties and the Working Class: New Voting Models
Margit Tavits and Natalia Letki (2000) “When the left is right: party ideology and politics in post-communist Europe, ” Review of American Political Science
Podcast on the paradox of democracy
Amory Gethin on political divisions, inequality and party systems in 50 democracies