Amory Gethin & Thomas Piketty “Identity cleavages are not inevitable”



What is the main lesson of your opus, which mobilized around twenty researchers?

Amory Gethin: The aim of this book is to study the link between social inequalities and political cleavages. To do this, we sifted through nearly 500 electoral studies in 50 democracies. And this in order to measure the influence on the vote of class factors, mainly income and educational level, and “identity” factors, age, gender, ethnicity or religion. What emerges is a spatial and temporal fresco on the way in which inequalities translate politically. Study which shows, in the end, that many trajectories are possible. History is never written in advance.

Thomas Piketty: We see, in the history of the different countries studied, that there are times when classist factors prevail over identity factors, and vice versa. In the West, political cleavages linked to social classes and the redistribution of income dominated until the 1980s when it is now identity issues that structure political life. In some countries of the South, India or Brazil, ethno-religious conflicts are on the contrary diminished in favor of class conflicts. Even in Nigeria, where the religious divide between the underprivileged Muslim North and the more developed Christian South has become more pronounced recently, we are witnessing a development of class divisions: the most educated Muslims vote for the Christian party and the least educated Christians for the Muslim party. If this book, initially descriptive, does not provide definitive answers, it nevertheless shows that the rise of identity cleavages is not inevitable, as long as more ambitious redistribution policies are put in place.

You describe in the West the emergence of“A system of multiple elite parties”. That is to say ?

AG: In the years 1950-1960, the less educated and less well-off voters voted mainly for the left parties while the richest and most educated voted largely for the conservative parties. Since then, a spectacular reversal has taken place. From the 1970s, we see that the most educated turned more to the left, while the better-off continued to vote on the right. The pace and scope differ from country to country, but this movement concerns the entire West and complicates the debate around inequalities.

TP: Each major political formation has become the party of an elite: business elite for conservatives; intellectual elite for the left. This is one of the keys to the rise of populism. Take the example of the United States: since the 2000s, the most educated voters vote over 70% for the Democratic Party, which was traditionally that of the popular classes, regardless of color. This is what allowed billionaire Donald Trump to present him as “the party of the elites” and to rally, in 2016, a large part of the white electorate to a form of identity that overcomes his feeling of abandonment.

Another upheaval is the rise of divisions around identity and the issue of migration. Is the West ethnicizing?

TP: It is clear that Europe is moving in this direction. The ethnic and religious minorities vote strongly on the left, no doubt because they feel a stronger hostility towards them on the part of the right, while the “native” working classes are increasingly tilting either in abstention or in abstention. in the vote for xenophobic parties. It is rather worrying because to attenuate class conflicts one can always find compromises around the good level of redistribution… whereas identity conflicts are often more difficult to settle.

AG: Gender is not to be underestimated either. Until the 1960s, women voted overwhelmingly for conservatives, which was correlated with religious practice. This is no longer the case. And this because of the secularization of society, their economic insecurity or because of the growing importance of the theme of equality between men and women, more carried by the left. It is a reversal as important as the shift of the intellectual elites.

How would you summarize the French political landscape?

TP: When we ask the French about what they think of immigration, a line of divide appears between the “internationalists”, more for, and the “nativists”, more against. When asked whether to take from the rich to give to the poor, a division emerges between the “egalitarians” and the “unequal”. The combination of the two explains the unprecedented result of the first round of the 2017 presidential election, where four candidates were almost even. Hence this pound that we describe with François Fillon, the anti-immigration and anti-redistribution candidate, Emmanuel Macron, also unequal but a little more pro-immigration, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, egalitarian internationalist, and finally Marine Le Pen , pro-redistribution but very anti-immigration.

And it was finally Emmanuel Macron who won. How can this evolve?

AG: If we opt for a comparative perspective to approach the question, we see that the social-liberal family, represented by Emmanuel Macron, rarely exceeds 10% of the vote in other Western countries. The French election is astonishing from this point of view and can no doubt be explained by the voting system which favors the useful vote. But this results in an unstable configuration which leads, in practice, the power to move to the right to face the National Rally while the left, fragmented, struggles to ally.

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