In the United States, the Republicans have long been thought of as the party of the elite and the Democrats as the party of the poorer and less educated. But that has become less and less true over time. The last presidential election, for example, saw many poorer and middle-class Americans opt for Donald Trump while many among the intellectual elite backed Hillary Clinton. Though much of the business elite still votes Republican, and though most poor voters, particularly poor voters of color, have stuck with the Democrats, there is no question that something has changed.
In a new working paper for the World Inequality Lab, the economist Thomas Piketty posits that the changing class composition of the major-party coalitions reflects the emergence of a “multiple-elite party system,” in which “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).” This development is not limited to the United States. Rather, Piketty finds that France and the United Kingdom have seen similar shifts over the last few decades as well.
What has happened, he argues, is that the preferences of educated voters in all three countries appear to have reversed. Whereas more education used to predict a higher likelihood of voting for the Right, it now predicts exactly the opposite. Meanwhile, although the relationship with income is much subtler, and doesn’t really apply until the top 10 percent of the income distribution, higher income generally predicts a greater preference for the Right. Higher wealth is even more predictive, and its effect on partisan affiliation kicks in before one reaches the top 10 percent.
As for why these changes are happening now, Piketty looks to globalization and immigration, with the potential policy solutions to both challenges (domestic redistribution and curbs on immigration) dividing the parties in new ways. For example, in France, Piketty finds that there are actually four types of voters, which “can be labeled as Internationalists-Egalitarians (pro-migrants, pro-poor); Internationalists-Inegalitarians (pro-migrants, pro-rich); Nativists-Inegalitarians (anti-migrants, pro-rich); Nativists-Egalitarians (anti-migrants, pro-poor).” Needless to say, one can quibble with Piketty’s nomenclature, which reflects his cosmopolitan and social-democratic sensibilities. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to characterize all those who favor selective immigration policies as nativists, or all libertarian critics of redistribution as inegalitarians, though of course there are some in both camps who fit the caricature. Regardless, his framework is illuminating.
In any given election, the ultimate coalitions of voters that take shape seem to depend on which set of issues is more salient, which raises the question of whether the multiple-elite system in all four countries can last. It might not. In the last U.S. presidential election, a majority of those with incomes in the top ten percent voted for the Democratic candidate for the first time. Only time and the next election will tell whether this was a one-off or the first sign of a deeper partisan realignment.