Why is it so difficult to organize an effective progressive political coalition?
Such a coalition would combat environmental degradation, economic inequality, and militarism. The causes of this pervasive but highly unfortunate difficulty are illuminated by a new analysis of 500 elections, in 50 different electoral democracies, over the years between 1948 and 2020.
The data on which this analysis is based are available on the World Political Cleavages and Inequality Database (wpid.world) and the results are presented in the book “Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities,” edited by A. Gethin, C. Martinez-Toledano, and T. Piketty (Harvard, 2021).
The principal finding of this comprehensive study of post-World War II elections is that the traditional left in almost all capitalist electoral democracies has fragmented perhaps beyond repair.
Electoral class conflict in the capitalist societies of Europe and North America historically revolved around two forms of inequality: economic inequality and educational inequality. Between 1948 and about 1980, electoral class conflict in these societies pitted a lower-income and lower-educated public against a higher-income and higher-educated citizenry.
The former population tended to vote for liberal or left political parties. The latter group tended to vote for conservative or right political parties. The low-income and low-education coalition might be characterized as a proletarian left, although it included many non-proletarian elements.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the political structure of European and North American capitalist societies began to change. Voters with high education drifted away from conservative parties and started supporting liberal and social democratic political parties. At the same time, the allegiance of low-income working-class voters to the political left weakened. The authors describe the post-1980 political structure of these societies as multi elite. Conservative parties are still supported and led by the economic elite (persons of high income and high wealth).
But liberal and left parties now receive disproportional support from educational elites who are not in the economic upper class. Low-income voters, on the other hand, distribute their support about equally between both conservative and liberal parties. The post-1980 political left, largely supported by voters with above-average education, is described as a Brahmin left, Brahmin being the name of the Hindu high cast and a label which sometimes depicts the New England upper class.
What accounts for the emergence of both a multi-elite political structure and the so-called Brahmin left?
Many factors are considered in the “Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities” volume, but three seem of particular relevance. One factor is the complete collapse of communist parties within mature capitalist societies after 1991. Prior to 1980, communist parties in these societies received around 7% of the vote on average and helped anchor the working class to the political left.
A second and more important factor in the creation of a Brahmin left is the rise of Green politics. Green ideologies and Green parties have become an increasingly important part of the political left. These ideologies and parties receive strong support from highly educated voters, but are treated with relative indifference by lower-income working-class voters. Thus, environmental politics have pushed the left in direction of higher education.
Anti-immigration politics is the third and perhaps most important factor in the emergence of the Brahmin left. Immigration pressures have surged in almost all European and North American capitalist societies. Immigration in capitalist societies is far more disruptive to the working classes than to the middle and upper classes; and opposition to immigration is distributed accordingly. Liberal and left parties have generally been relatively sympathetic to immigrants, while conservative parties have usually been relatively unfriendly to them.
Working class antagonism to immigration has consequently pressed lower income voters in a conservative direction. Working class antagonism to immigration was at the core of the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the subsequent estrangement of the working class from the British Labor Party. And in the United States, working class antagonism to immigration was essential to the election of Donald Trump and to the continued support he receives from lower-income voters.
A Brahmin left is a structurally handicapped left. It cannot be the agent of the social transformation capitalist societies desperately need in this age of mounting environmental catastrophe. A democratic and truly revolutionary left must receive approximately equivalent support from all educational levels and overwhelming support from the economically disadvantaged.