Voting behaviour is determined by many factors, including race, sex, schooling, income and wealth. The analysis of voting trends is an interesting phenomenon for those interested not only in Politics, but also in Economics and other Social Sciences.
Left-wing parties have historically been stronger among less educated and poorer individuals and the opposite has stood for right-wing parties. Parties to the left of the political spectrum often rose from the context of trade unions and class struggle in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.
However, this is no longer the case in most countries in the developed world. Left-wing parties have transitioned from being the Worker’s parties to the parties of the Educated, and political struggle has shifted from class politics and economic issues to ethno-racial and identitarian concerns.
This change in voting patterns caught my attention while reading Thomas Piketty’s new book: “Capital and Ideology”, in particular Part Four of his book: “Rethinking the Dimensions of Political Conflict”. Thomas Piketty performs an extensive analysis of voting patterns from the 1940’s onwards in France, the US and the UK and gives an enlightened political-economical explanation for this phenomenon.
Among the data (and graphs) provided by the French economist I would like to mention a few.
In the first graph above, we can see that the difference in voting percentage between the best educated 10% of voters and the remaining 90% least educated voters for the Democratic Party in the US, the Labour Party in the UK and left-wing parties in France (Socialists, Communists, Radicals and Ecologists) changes from clearly negative in the 1950’s to positive from the 1980’s onwards. These graphs and others show that left-wing parties have become less popular among less educated voters and more successful among more educated ones, not only in larger countries like the US or France, but also in smaller countries such as the Netherlands or New Zealand.
For example, for France we can observe that, in 1956, only 37% of voters with a college degree voted for the left while 57% of those with a primary education or less voted for the left. In 2012 this figure changed as 58% of voters with a college degree voted for left-wing parties and just 47% of those with a primary diploma voted for left-wing parties. Here France serves as an example that can be extended to other countries in Europe and elsewhere (see fig. 16.2).
Across the developed world, from the 1970’s onwards we observe that, in response to the social and sexual revolution of the 1960’s, rising globalisation (the international mobility of people, capital and goods), and already developed social welfare systems, left-wing parties (especially social-democratic parties) started changing their electoral programmes. Nationalisations and more radical measures for redistribution of income and property were discarded and social democratic parties shifted to the economic centre, with the objective of conciliating a market economy and globalisation with a social welfare state. At the same time, left-wing parties became more socially liberal, supporting LGBT rights, abortion and other socially progressive issues.
This transformation in electoral programmes of leftist parties naturally led to a change in these parties’ voter basis. The declining “proletariat” class, which consists of less educated workers, did not recognise the issues they cared about the most, such as greater economic equality, sufficiently represented by the left, as left-wing parties shifted away from clearly socialist agendas to more ethno-racial equality focused ones, which were clearly not the main concern of low skilled white workers in developed countries.
According to Piketty, the political system that has characterized the 1980’s-2010’s is dominated by two blocks: a “Brahmin Left”, which attracted the support of the highly educated, and the “Merchant Right”, with the support of both highly paid and wealthier voters. Both represent the dual elites of the political-economic establishment. While the “Brahmin left believes in rewarding scholastic effort and talent; the merchant right, on the other hand, emphasizes business talent.”
As income and wealth inequality increases and globalisation creates losers, a growing number of voters discontent with the political establishment grows. Piketty interestingly provides a four-way ideological divide in France between egalitarian internationalists (pro-immigrant, pro-poor), inegalitarian nativists (anti-immigrant, pro-rich), inegalitarian internationalists (pro-immigrant, pro-rich) and egalitarian nativists (anti-immigrant, pro-poor). Therefore, the current ideological positioning of traditional left-wing and right-wing parties has given rise to populist parties which propose reducing income inequality and, to those in the far-right, reducing immigration.
Consequently, centre-left parties have also become the parties of the winners of globalisation and, by not focussing on a left-wing economic agenda, they have rejected much of their former basis of support, thereby giving room for the rise of populist right-wing parties.
Moreover, this pattern of change in voting patterns is continuing to evolve. As education is an important determinant of income and wealth, left-wing parties are also becoming the parties of the highly paid. In 2016, for the first time the Democratic party received a higher vote share from those in the top 10 percent with highest income compared to the remaining 90 percent. This trend can also be seen in other countries such as France, but it is less evident in the UK.
This does not forebode well for the Democrats’ chance of winning the White House later this year. If Joe Biden repeats Hillary Clinton’s Democratic coalition of highly-educated and high-income urban and suburban voters and minority voters (mostly black) he might not get sufficient electoral votes to take Donald Trump out of the White House.
Additionally, an interesting development is how ethnicity, race and religion are an increasingly important factor behind voting patterns, not only in the US, where the Democrats dominate the African-American vote since the 1960’s, but also in European countries, such as France, where in 2012, 77% of voters of non-European origin voted for the Socialist candidate in the second round of the presidential election.
In conclusion, in the last decades politics has shifted its focus away from “class politics” towards “identity politics”, opening room for xenophobic and anti-immigrant parties.
The voter basis of centre-left parties has thus become highly educated, medium to high-income voters and minorities. At the same time, less educated and low-income voters continue to shift towards right-wing parties, some of them being openly far-right parties like the Front National in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, and others being establishment right-wing parties, such as the GOP in the US and the Conservatives in the UK, which have adopted a more nationalistic agenda.
- The Portuguese exception:
In contrast to major trends in most developed countries, left-wing parties in Portugal (my home country) still have a higher vote share among less educated and low-income voters. In addition, since 2011, income has increased its predictive power, with centre-right parties having a higher vote share among higher income voters.
Therefore, the Portuguese political system continues to revolve more around socio-economic issues than ethno-racial concerns, in contrast to most European countries.
The negative correlation between education and vote share for left-wing parties is very strong in Portugal, at levels characteristic of the 1970’s for many Western countries. In the last legislative election, in 2019, for voters without high school education, 66% voted for left-wing parties while only 26% voted for right-wing parties. For those, with a college degree, 48% voted for left-wing parties while 36% voted for right-wing parties.
Nevertheless, left-wing parties in Portugal are diverse in their voter basis. In the far-left, CDU (the coalition between the Communist Party and the Greens) is more popular among older and lower income voters, while BE (the Left Bloc) is more popular among younger and more educated voters. In the centre-left, the Socialist Party (PS), the party that is currently in government, has a heterogenous voter basis, being popular especially among lower and middle income voters. Thus, the diversity of support for left-wing parties in Portugal and its continued strength among low-income and less educated voters allows for the left as a whole to have a majority of the vote thereby creating the conditions for a progressive social-democratic government.
Naturally, it’s hard to infer conclusions from the Portuguese case that are relevant for the political systems of other developed countries. Portugal emerged from a right-wing dictatorship in 1974 and its politics have remained skewed to the left compared with other European countries. In addition, the Portuguese political system has remained fairly stable with the two centre-left and centre-right parties, PS (Socialist Party) and PSD (Social Democratic Party), still accounting for a vote share of around 65%. Nonetheless, the fragmentation of the political system has also started to hit Portugal, with three new parties having entered the Parliament in 2019, including a right-wing populist party, “Chega”, electing one MP. This shows that no country is immune to the worldwide trend of growth of populist and far-right parties.
However, some conclusions can be taken from the Portuguese case. Firstly, that the transformation of left-wing parties from the parties of the workers to the parties of the educated and the winners of globalisation is not inevitable. Secondly, that “identity politics” does not have to be the focus of the political debate.
Finally, left-wing parties should try to answer the concerns of less educated and low-income voters and focus less on identity issues. Their main emphasis should be on reducing wealth and income inequalities, ensuring the quality of the social welfare state and reaching a fair socio-economic system. In my opinion, this is the only way for left-wing parties across developed countries to be appealing to the losers of globalisation and to revert their loss of voters to the populist far-right. If successful, left-wing parties will get the chance to form progressive, social-democratic governments that answer the concerns of a majority of the population and change the status quo.
Costa Lobo, M., & al., e. (2020). Estudo Eleitoral Português 2019. Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS-IUL).
Piketty, T. (2020). Capital and Ideology.