Self Help

Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities - Amory Gethin & Clara Martínez-Toledano & Thomas Piketty

Author Photo

Matheus Puppe

· 15 min read



  • The book analyzes political cleavages and social inequalities in 50 electoral democracies from 1948 to 2020 based on electoral survey data.

  • Electoral surveys conducted after elections collect information on voter behavior and socioeconomic characteristics, providing a window into the relationship between political alignments and social structures.

  • The research examines how different dimensions of social inequality (income, education, wealth, occupation, gender, age, origin, identity) correlate with voter preferences and patterns of political mobilization.

  • A central question is the relative importance of “class-based” versus “identity-based” factors in shaping political cleavages and votes. These factors interact in complex ways that vary over time and space.

  • Examples are given of changing political alignments in the US, Europe, and other regions to show how class and identity cleavages can reconfigure electoral politics in different democracy contexts.

  • The goal is a global and historical mapping of how social inequalities are or are not commonly politicized within existing electoral blocs across 50 democracies from 1948 to the present.

  • The volume examines political cleavages and social inequalities in 50 democracies between 1948-2020. It analyzes case studies across Western/Eastern Europe, North America, Oceania, Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

  • Recent decades have seen rising income/wealth inequality globally since the 1980s after a more egalitarian 1950-1980 period. However, this has not necessarily revived class conflicts or redistribution demands.

  • Instead, identity-based political divisions have risen in many countries. But class-based conflicts have also intensified in some Latin American, Asian or African nations.

  • The analysis reveals common patterns across Western democracies like reversals of the education cleavage, emergence of “multi-elite” systems, and evolving identity cleavages.

  • It aims to establish factual patterns and transformations in the socioeconomic structure of electoral coalitions, cleavages and inequalities using historical, global and transnational analysis.

  • The volume explores potential hypotheses for observed evolutions but does not claim to perfectly explain voting reasons. The goal is descriptive analysis to further collective understanding of the documented political transformations.

Here are the key points from the summary:

  • The chapter examines the relationship between social inequalities and the evolution of political cleavages in 50 democracies using a new dataset of electoral surveys spanning over 60 years.

  • It documents how income, education and other social characteristics like religion, identity, geography correlate with voting patterns, and how these relationships have changed over time.

  • In Western democracies, class-based voting patterns (lower income/education voters supporting left, higher supporting right) weakened as higher-educated shifted left, making systems more “multi-elite.” This disconnected economic status from political behaviors.

  • Religious divisions have been strong cross-cutting cleavages, but their influence is waning in the West. Religion also structures politics in majority-Muslim and Hindu-majority countries.

  • Identity issues like immigration have risen in importance, correlating with support for parties on the left or far-right depending on country. Ethnic minorities strongly allied with certain parties.

  • Spatial inequalities also matter - rural areas historically voted more conservative in the West, while parties of low-income urban voters did better in non-Western countries. Regionalism has also intensified in some places.

So in summary, it analyzes how political cleavages have evolved in relation to various social divisions like class, religion, identity and geography, finding both common trends but also variations across democracies.

  • Political cleavages play an important role in determining how economic inequalities are addressed or neglected in democracies. Cleavages influence party strategies and representation of citizens’ views.

  • Contrary to expectations, democracies have not inevitably led the poor to expropriate the rich. Three factors help explain this: collective beliefs about inequality; unequal political representation favoring the wealthy; and multi-dimensional politics involving other issues besides economics.

  • Unequal political representation, through lobbying, campaign finance, unequal participation, shapes parties’ incentives and programs. Left parties only shift left on economics when voter turnout is high.

  • Politics involves diverse issues beyond economics, like culture, identity, and integration. Parties may emphasize these issues to attract voters, weakening economic solidarity. Conflicts over immigration can reduce redistribution support.

  • Political cleavages, as defined by Lipset and Rokkan, emerge from major social transformations like nation-building and industrialization. They define fundamental divisions in democracies around sectors, classes, religion and center-periphery relations.

  • Understanding political cleavages is important to analyze how social conflicts are expressed in democratic politics and party systems, and how this impacts inequality. Multi-dimensional politics complicates a simple rich-poor dynamic.

The concept of political cleavages is useful for understanding how social inequalities and interests are represented in democratic politics. In Western democracies, scholars have documented a process of dealignment from traditional class- and religion-based cleavages over the 20th century, as well as a realignment along a new cultural/societal dimension.

Dealignment involved factors like secularization, economic restructuring, and the decline of unions weakening traditional working-class voting patterns. At the same time, new issues around gender, minorities, and the environment emerged and aligned some voters with green and new left parties. While class identities remain, class voting has declined.

Analyzing cleavages in non-Western democracies is more complicated due to weaker institutions, high volatility, and different historical influences. The church-state and center-periphery cleavages must be expanded to include ethnicity and religion. National liberation movements also shaped cleavages. Latin America most resembles the Western model, while ethnicity, valence issues, and candidates play a bigger role in Africa. Clientelism also influences elections in many non-Western countries. Extending beyond the traditional Western cleavages is needed to understand political representation of inequalities in different country contexts.

  • The chapter aims to systematically analyze the roles of income, education, and other sociopolitical identities in generating durable electoral divides, especially in non-Western democracies.

  • It introduces a conceptual framework using income and education as the main measures of social class/inequality, as they are more straightforward and comparable than occupational categories. Some other dimensions like wealth and self-identified class are also considered when available.

  • The interaction between social inequalities and political cleavages is explored, distinguishing between reinforcing cleavages that enhance class divides, and cross-cutting cleavages that blur class divides.

  • A new comparative database is presented covering approximately 500 elections in 50 democracies from 1948-2020. Surveys were harmonized to make income, education and voting data comparable across countries and time periods.

  • The analysis focuses on broad income and education groups to overcome comparability issues. Surveys are also reweighted to match official election results.

  • The chapter aims to systematically document the relationship between inequality and political alignments using this cross-national dataset, while acknowledging limitations of the case studies as not all countries are fully consolidated democracies.

  • The data covers elections in 50 democracies around the world since the 1940s-1950s for many Western countries and later start dates for other regions as democratic elections began later in places like Africa, Asia, Latin America.

  • Data quality varies significantly, with high quality exit poll/post-election survey data available for many Western democracies and some large non-Western ones like India, Brazil, Indonesia. Data is lower quality for other countries.

  • The analysis focuses on identifying the main party or coalition that disproportionately receives support from the bottom 50% of income earners in each country. This is done to simplify cross-country comparisons but has limitations since voter preferences can change over time.

  • In Western democracies, social democratic, socialist, labor and green parties are typically identified as receiving more support from low-income voters, though this has varied some over the decades. Identifying these “left” or “pro-poor” parties is more complex in non-Western societies.

  • Table 1.1 lists the main left-leaning or pro-poor party identified for each of the 50 countries based on the most recent available election data to provide a starting point for understanding who low-income voters support cross-nationally.

  • Traditionally, party systems in Western democracies were more “class-based”, with social democratic parties representing lower-income and lower-educated voters, and conservative parties representing higher-income and higher-educated voters.

  • Over time, these systems have transitioned to “multi-elite” systems, where social democratic parties have become the parties of higher-educated elites, while conservative parties remain the parties of high-income elites.

  • This transition occurred through two processes - the income divide has attenuated somewhat, while the education divide has reversed completely, with higher-educated voters becoming more likely to vote for social democratic parties.

  • However, the speed and extent of this transition varied across countries. Countries with stronger historical class-based systems like Norway, Sweden and Finland saw a slower reversal.

  • Southern Europe and newer democracies also witnessed a delayed reversal, while countries like the US, Netherlands and Switzerland saw the strongest association between higher education and social democratic voting today.

  • Income continues to influence voting preferences, with top-income voters still favoring conservative parties. But the strength of this impact has declined over time across Western democracies.

  • Over the past decades, Western democracies have seen a shift toward multi-elite party systems, with income and education playing increasingly important but reversed roles in determining vote choice.

  • Traditionally, higher-income voters supported right-wing parties while lower-income voters supported left-wing parties. However, there has been a shift where higher-educated voters now tend to support left-wing and green parties while lower-educated support right-wing populist parties.

  • This reversal is driven by the rise of new issue dimensions around immigration and cultural/identity politics since the 1960s. Educational expansion has also contributed, as more educated citizens feel social democratic parties only defend elite interests.

  • The decline of communism and embrace of neoliberal economic policies weakened traditional left parties and class cleavages. This opened space for new right-wing populist and anti-immigration parties.

  • Two-party systems like the US saw this play out within existing parties. In multiparty systems, traditional socialist and Christian democratic parties have declined as green and populist right parties have emerged and grown. Income now divides left from right, while education divides green from populist right. This marks a transformation in the structure of political cleavages.

  • In the 1960-1980 period in Western democracies, socialist and social democratic parties were generally supported by both lower-income and lower-educated voters, while conservative, Christian, and liberal parties attracted higher-income and higher-educated voters. This represented a period of strong class-based cleavage structures.

  • From 2000-2020, cleavage structures fragmented further. Education most clearly distinguished anti-immigration parties from green parties, while income most clearly separated conservative/Christian parties from socialist/social democratic parties.

  • Self-perceived class identities (working class vs middle/upper class) also showed a gradual decline in influence on party support over recent decades in Western countries where data is available.

  • In non-Western democracies, education and income cleavages tended to be more closely aligned, with lower-educated and lower-income voters supporting the same “pro-poor” parties. Notable exceptions were postwar Japan and 1990s Turkey.

  • There is significant cross-national variation, influenced by other political cleavages intersecting with socioeconomic structures, such as racial divides in South Africa or generational cleavages in Hong Kong.

So in summary, it describes the erosion of traditional class-based cleavage structures in Western democracies since 1960 and provides a comparison to patterns observed in non-Western countries.

  • The chapter analyzes how economic concerns interact with other political and social identities, focusing on ethnoreligious and sociocultural cleavages.

  • It first discusses religious-secular cleavages and the voting behavior of religious minorities in Western and non-Western democracies. Historically in Western countries, religious voters were less likely to vote for left-wing parties compared to non-religious voters. This gap has declined over time but remains.

  • It then analyzes political cleavages relating to immigration and new minorities in Western countries.

  • Religious-secular cleavages also exist in Latin America, India, Israel, Turkey and other Muslim-majority countries. But the dynamics vary - in some like India, the cleavage has risen sharply in recent decades.

  • Religion interacts with class cleavages - in countries with strong Christian democratic parties like Italy, religion was a bigger neutralizer of class divides.

  • Religious minorities were also less likely to vote for conservative parties historically in Western democracies, though there are some exceptions like Ireland.

  • The chapter examines how these sociocultural cleavages based on religion, identity and culture shape voting patterns and political representation across different country contexts.

  • In many Western democracies, religious-secular cleavages emerged after the formation of the modern nation-state and have proven highly resilient over time. Social democratic and centrist parties have attracted 30-40% more votes from left-wing and centrist voters since the 1960s.

  • Starting in the late 20th century, a new nativist cleavage emerged related to national identity and immigration. This coincided with the rise of anti-immigration parties. Countries with more powerful anti-immigration parties like Austria, Denmark, France and Switzerland saw larger differences in voting behaviors between natives and immigrants.

  • After 9/11, anti-immigration parties emphasized threats from Islam and Muslim minorities. Data shows Muslims are far more likely than others to vote for social democratic parties across Western countries. This new cleavage intersects with class.

  • Sociocultural cleavages vary across countries with disadvantaged minorities, historically dominant minorities, and high sociocultural fragmentation. Figures show how these identities intersect with class divisions and partisan support in different national contexts.

  • Sociocultural cleavages (divisions along ethnic, religious, linguistic lines) vary significantly across countries and over time in terms of how aligned they are with class cleavages.

  • In some countries like South Africa and Malaysia, sociocultural cleavages strongly correlate with economic inequalities, so class and ethnic divides reinforce each other.

  • In other countries like Taiwan, sociocultural cleavages are more cross-cutting and independent of economic status.

  • Countries with high ethnic/religious diversity like India, Nigeria, and Ghana generally have sociocultural identities that structure class cleavages to some degree.

  • However, lower-income parties in these countries still attract voters across sociocultural groups, not just from disadvantaged groups.

  • Rural-urban cleavages often correlate with economic divides, as urban areas tend to be wealthier. Left parties have historically been stronger in cities than rural areas in Western democracies.

  • Regional divides within countries can emerge from socioeconomic, cultural, or historical factors and sometimes fuel separatist movements. This varies significantly across countries.

  • Social democratic and similar center-left parties in Western democracies struggled to attract voters beyond the working class, particularly low-income and lower-educated non-manual workers. This limited their success over the 20th century.

  • Class divides were stronger in countries like the UK and Sweden where industrialization peaked earlier, as rural-urban cleavages were less significant when agriculture still dominated (Italy, Ireland, Japan).

  • Rural areas remain about 5-15 percentage points more likely to vote right-wing across most Western democracies, though support is fragmenting within blocs (e.g. greens in cities, far-right in rural areas).

  • Rural-urban cleavages generally align with class cleavages in non-Western democracies, with low-income parties performing better in rural areas. Exceptions include Western democracies and Argentina.

  • Some countries have weak rural-urban divides politically (Japan, Brazil, India) or multiple competing pro-poor coalitions in rural and urban areas (Indonesia, Peru).

  • Dominant parties in one-party systems see much stronger support in rural areas due to patronage networks, while cities mobilize opposition.

  • Strongest regional cleavages involve ethnic diversity clustered regionally (Iraq, Nigeria, South Africa, etc.), interacting with sociospatial inequalities.

  • Thailand stands out as having one of the highest levels of regional voting polarization, driven by extreme wealth disparities between Bangkok and northern territories from unequal economic growth.

  • Regional cleavages have increased significantly in several democracies like India, Pakistan, Belgium, Spain, and the UK in recent decades. Regional parties have gained prominence.

  • Socioeconomic factors like disparities between rich and poor regions have contributed to the strength of regional identities and separatist movements in countries like Belgium, Spain, Canada, and the UK.

  • Generational cleavages can lead to party system transformation as new cohorts replace old ones and prioritize different values like post-materialist issues for those socialized in more affluent times.

  • Differences between age groups are often not due to aging effects but rather reflect lasting opinions formed during one’s formative years (across cohort effects rather than within cohort effects).

  • In Western democracies, generational cleavages have contributed to the emergence of multi-elite party systems that better represent specific demographic groups.

The passage discusses generational cleavages and differences in voting patterns across age groups in Western democracies. While the overall left-right divide between younger and older generations has remained stable over time, some key points are made:

  • Green and new left parties receive disproportionately more youth support, indicating young people place more importance on environmental and social issues.

  • However, there is no clear pattern of youth increasingly supporting anti-immigration parties more or less than older generations across countries. Support has both increased and decreased for such parties among youth in different places.

  • Replacement of older generations has led to a reversal of the educational cleavage, with higher-educated youth now more likely to support social democratic parties compared to lower-educated youth.

  • In one-party dominant systems, dominant post-independence parties receive more support from older generations with stronger collective memories, while youth form the base of rising opposition movements.

  • Some parties seen strong generational divides where issues of political integration, national identity, foreign policy and war memory are most contentious.

So in summary, it questions the idea of a uniform youth backlash but finds key variations in intergenerational voting patterns depending on country and issue. Replacement effects and new social issues are also reshaping some political cleavages over time.

  • Younger generations in the UK have been more supportive of EU integration compared to older generations, which can be partly explained by higher education levels among the young leading to a stronger sense of European identity and more progressive stances on issues like the environment and immigration.

  • Generational divisions over political integration into supranational bodies like the EU produce some of the deepest generational cleavages observed, as they question national sovereignty and identities.

  • Traditionally, women were more likely to vote conservatively while men leaned left, but this “traditional gender cleavage” disappeared in western democracies after the 1980s as women shifted toward social democratic parties.

  • Reasons for the modern gender gap include women’s increased economic independence, exposure to labor market inequalities, non-traditional family structures, declining religiosity, and embrace of post-materialist and feminist values among women.

  • Gender politics vary across countries, with some seeing candidate effects and others patterned more like traditional/modern western gender cleavages associated with certain parties.

  • Cleavage structures differ widely but generally class divides are stronger when religion/values cleavages are weaker, though identities linked to inequality can reinforce class divisions in some plural societies.

  • Party systems can be classified into four ideal types based on how social divisions and inequalities structure electoral competition: class-based, identity-based, multidimensional, and unstable/depolarized.

  • Class-based systems see socioeconomic divisions like income and education strongly determine voting behaviors. identity-based systems are dominated by other identities like ethnicity, religion, age that are weakly linked to class.

  • Multidimensional systems have both socioeconomic and secondary identity dimensions shaping votes. Unstable systems have weak partisan affiliations and floating voters.

  • Examples of tending toward identity-based include Iraq (ethnoreligious), South Korea/Taiwan (age, ethnicity). Class remains important in one-party dominant systems like Botswana, Senegal, India, Japan, Mexico.

  • Most democracies have multidimensional systems blending class and other identities to varying degrees. Some Latin American and Asian countries have unstable/depolarized systems.

  • Party systems can transition between types over time due to critical events or social transformations weakening or strengthening divisions. Representation of social cleavages depends on how political actors embody these divisions.

Author Photo

About Matheus Puppe