I was enjoying a (Wine Spectator 91) Italian red, while reading Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit, when I came across Thomas Piketty’s 2018 report, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict:
The general objective is to better understand the interplay between long- run inequality dynamics and the changing structure of political cleavages.
Using post-electoral surveys from France, Britain and the US, this paper documents a striking long-run evolution in the structure of political cleavages. In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for left-wing (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. It has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to a “multiple-elite” party system in the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the “left”, while high- income/high-wealth elites still vote for the “right” (though less and less so).
In India’s traditional caste system, upper castes were divided into Brahmins (priests, intellectuals) and Kshatryas/Vaishyas (warriors, merchants, tradesmen). To some extent the modern political conflict seems to follow this division.
What happens with an Academic Capitalist?
What happens when a Brahmin (from India), is an academic (“University Professor”) and has also been a software entrepreneur?
Globalization and educational expansion have created new dimensions of inequality and conflict, leading to the weakening of previous class-based redistributive coalitions and the gradual development of new cleavages.
In the present paper, I argue that the particularities of US party dynamics (whereby the Democratic party very gradually shifted from the slavery party to the poor whites party, then the New Deal party, and finally the party of the intellectual elite and the minorities), which often seem strange and exotic from a European perspective (how is it that the slavery party can become the “progressive” party?)…
To be clear, I am not a Democrat. Have always been independent. In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama.
However, to my knowledge, my paper is the first work trying to relate the rise of “populism” to what one might call the rise of “elitism”, i.e. the gradual emergence (both in Europe and in the US) of a “multiple-elite” party system, whereby each of the two governing coalitions alternating in power tends to reflect the views and interests of a different elite (intellectual elite vs business elite).
More generally, the main novelty of this research is to attempt to build systematic long-run series on electoral cleavages using consistent measures of inequality (especially regarding education, income, wealth). In particular, by focusing upon differentials in voting behavior between deciles of income, wealth or education (relatively to the distribution of income, wealth or education prevailing for a given year), it becomes possible to make meaningful comparisons across countries and over long time periods, which is not possible by using occupational categories (which the literature has largely focused upon so far).
In such a setting, the business elite will tend to favor very low taxation (they are not so much interested in higher education spending, and they are not interested at all in the universal transfer), the education elite will favor somewhat higher taxation (they want to fund higher education), and the low-education low-income groups should favor even bigger taxation (in order to pay for generous universal transfers and spending, as well as higher education for those poor students who make it).
Building explicit models of multi-issue party positioning along these lines would be very interesting, but far beyond the scope of the present paper.
We will find out, won’t we, how 2020 US Elections will play out. If Piketty wants to keep studying this (false?) dichotomy, perhaps he should call his next paper, updating his understanding to 21st Century US where many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and VCs and Tech CEOs (originally from India) are Brahmins:
Brahmin Left and Vaishya Right.