Cleavage Structures and Distributive Politics

Party competition, voter alignment and economic inequality in comparative perspective

Master Thesis directed by Thomas Piketty and Abhijit V. Banerjee.
Amory Gethin


This study identifies three complementary factors associated with economic inequalities in democratic regimes. If (1) parties politicize distributive conflicts, (2) voters polarise on issues making equality electorally profitable and (3) low income earners are politically mobilised, then governments are more likely to implement redistributive policies. Together, these dimensions of democratic competition generate self-sustaining equilibria.


I apply this framework to the analysis of voting behaviour in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Japan by using pre- and post-electoral surveys. A contextualised examination of social cleavages in these countries reveals that periods of rising or declining income inequality are typically associated with shifts in the space of political competition. Despite very different historical backgrounds, I find that drawing parallels between these countries reveals interesting common features which are consistent with theoretical predictions.