Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Brahmin Left hypothesis

In a 2018 working paper, and in his book Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty uses the concept of the Brahmin Left to refer to the decline of the vote for the left among the voters with less formal education, and the rise of the vote for the left or center-left among the voters of the educational élite. The concept has been very successful, even before the article being published in a major refereed academic journal, reaching the pages of The Economist (last issue) in a Charlemagne column on “the last of the center-lefties,” which questions implicitly, though, that the concept applies to the surviving center left parties of Southern Europe and Scandinavia.

In the three great democracies closely analyzed by Piketty, namely France, the United States and the United Kingdom (extended to other countries, such as Israel, in more recent research), during much of the 20th century a political system that fairly closely followed a logic of social classes, gave rise to redistributive policies, mainly the result of the periods of left or center-left governments. The majority of voters with low income and education levels voted for left-wing parties. However, these redistributive policies have suffered a brake in recent decades, coinciding with the conversion of leftist parties into those preferred by educational elites.

The relationship between the two phenomena suggested by this coincidence, however, is only  mentioned as a conjecture by Piketty, since he does not present a detailed study by which the evolution over time and by countries of the change in the preferences of educational elites, and the brake on redistributive policies have advanced at the same pace, nor that a clear causal link can be established between them.

The theoretical model he presents, in line with other works on the existence of multiple dimensions in political dynamics, offers plausible arguments, similar to those presented by other authors such as John E. Roemer, in the sense that the redistributive dimension may not prevail at any given time.

It could be that the reversal of the higher educated voter pattern of behavior reflected the access of broad sections of the population to education (a phenomenon recognized by Piketty), or at least the fact that education stopped being tremendously elitist. Although in the empirical work the social origin of parents and grandparents is controlled for and the change in educational elites persists, this only means that for two voters with parents and grandparents of the same social level, the one who has accessed a higher level of education will tend to vote more to the left. But it could be that the interest of this phenomenon is not that education makes one a member of an elite that the poor perceive as increasingly distant, but it could also be plausible that a person of humble origin with a better educational level is more difficult to convince with populist and identity demagoguery. Piketty's empirical work does not distinguish between these two alternative hypotheses. The conquest of the lower educational classes by national-populists, to the detriment of the left,  is not universal, as Piketty himself in his book shows that some national-populist movements, such as the one in Catalonia, can obtain most of their votes from educational elites and upper-middle classes.

The data confirm that the influence of income has been reduced but not eliminated (except in 2017 in France because it places Macron on the left, and in 2016 in the presidential elections in the United States); on the other hand, the results of the reversal of the vote for education are much clearer. Those with less income and especially those with less wealth have not clearly come to vote for the right, although they do less for the left. It is true that the sectors with a higher education level now vote more for the left and less for the right than before, although the majority of historically discriminated sectors such as women and non-dominant ethnic groups also vote for the left.

The theoretical part and the empirical part of Piketty's work are of great interest separately but are only loosely related. The reasons why policies that emerge from democratic processes have lost some of their redistributive momentum (although this has been the case to different degrees in different countries) are various. Some may be related to globalization and technological change, others may be related to expectations of future improvement and potential to benefit from inequalities, or the growing weight of money in politics, or the weight of non-distributive dimensions (which are strategically used or introduced by the upper classes, in a conscious way or by trial and error). Piketty's work, which is part of the efforts made by the social sciences to process phenomena that are taking place in the present and on which we lack some perspective, presenting very interesting empirical findings, does not show that the parties of the left or the center-left are captured by unconcerned elites, although it does not allow us to rule it out either. A video like the one showing a conversation between Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, where the former complains about the scarcity of running treadmills in rural America, would be an example of a key member of the globalized center-left élite not speaking exactly the language of common people.

There is little doubt that the left is under big difficulties in those places where identity has conquered the political agenda, with Ireland and Israel being two clear examples. As the allure of identity increases, an existential question for progressives is how to stop this process. The left continues to have its fundamental hallmark in justice (not only with regard to income and wealth) and redistribution. Its future lies in fighting to be effective in correcting injustices, and this probably requires an agenda that facilitates redistributive policies at the relevant geographical dimension in a globalized capitalism.

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