Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities. A Study of 50 Democracies, 1948-2020

Clivages politiques et inégalités sociales. Une étude de 50 démocraties, 1948-2020

Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano, Thomas Piketty (ed.)

Harvard University Press (forthcoming November 2021) / EHESS/Gallimard/Seuil (April 2021)

World Political Cleavages and Inequality Database: https://wpid.world/.


Who votes for whom and why? Why has growing inequality in many parts of the world not led to renewed class-based conflicts, and seems instead to have come with the emergence of new divides over identity and integration? News analysts, scholars, and citizens interested in exploring those questions inevitably lack relevant data, in particular the kinds of data that establish historical and international context. Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities provides the missing empirical background, collecting and examining a treasure trove of information on the dynamics of polarization in modern democracies.


The chapters draw on a unique set of surveys conducted between 1948 and 2020 in fifty countries on five continents, analyzing the links between voters’ political preferences and socioeconomic characteristics, such as income, education, wealth, occupation, religion, ethnicity, age, and gender. This analysis sheds new light on how political movements succeed in coalescing multiple interests and identities in contemporary democracies. It also helps us understand the conditions under which conflicts over inequality become politically salient, as well as the similarities and constraints of voters supporting ethnonationalist politicians like Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump.

Depuis les années 1980, les inégalités sont reparties à la hausse dans la plupart des régions du monde, après une période relativement égalitaire dans l’après-guerre. Faut-il y voir la conséquence implacable de la mondialisation et de la technologie, ou bien plutôt un phénomène proprement politique et idéologique ? Pourquoi de nouvelles coalitions électorales unies par d’ambitieux programmes de redistribution des richesses tardent-elles à se développer, et quel est le lien avec la montée de nouveaux conflits identitaires, incarnée par les succès de Trump aux États-Unis, Le Pen en France, Modi en Inde ou encore Bolsonaro au Brésil ?


Cet ouvrage collectif offre des pistes de réponses à ces questions en retraçant la transformation des clivages politiques dans 50 pays entre 1948 et 2020. À partir de l’exploitation d’enquêtes électorales couvrant de manière inédite les cinq continents, l’ouvrage étudie le lien entre les comportements de vote et les principales caractéristiques des électeurs telles que le revenu, le diplôme, le genre ou l’identité ethno-religieuse. Cette analyse permet de comprendre comment les mouvements politiques sont amenés à coaliser des intérêts et identités multiples dans les démocraties contemporaines. Une telle perspective historique et mondiale s’avère indispensable pour mieux appréhender l’avenir de la démocratie au XXIe siècle.


Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies, 1948-2020

Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2022
with Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty

This article sheds new light on the long-run evolution of political cleavages in 21 Western democracies. We exploit a new database on the socioeconomic determinants of the vote, covering over 300 elections held between 1948 and 2020. In the 1950s and 1960s, the vote for social democratic, socialist, and affiliated parties was associated with lower-educated and low-income voters. It has gradually become associated with higher-educated voters, giving rise in the 2010s to a disconnection between the effects of income and education on the vote: higher-educated voters now vote for the “left,” while high-income voters continue to vote for the “right.” Combining our database with historical data on political parties’ programs, we provide evidence that the reversal of the education cleavage is strongly linked to the emergence of a new “sociocultural” axis of political conflict.

Why is Europe More Equal than the United States?

American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2022
with Thomas Blanchet and Lucas Chancel

This article combines all available survey, income tax, and national accounts data to produce pretax and posttax income inequality series in twenty-six European countries from 1980 to 2017. Our estimates are consistent with macroeconomic growth rates and comparable with US distributional national accounts. Inequality grew in nearly all European countries, but much less than in the US. This rise was concentrated at the top end of the income distribution and was most pronounced in Eastern Europe. Contrary to a widespread view, we demonstrate that Europe’s lower inequality levels cannot be explained by more equalizing tax-and-transfer systems. After accounting for indirect taxes and in-kind transfers, the US redistributes a greater share of national income to low-income groups than any European country. “Predistribution”, not “redistribution”, explains why Europe is less unequal than the United States.

Media coverage: Le Monde, France 24, VoxEU.


Wealth Inequality in South Africa, 1993-2017

World Bank Economic Review, 2022
with Aroop Chatterjee and Léo Czajka

This paper estimates the distribution of personal wealth in South Africa by combining microdata covering the universe of income tax returns, household surveys, and macroeconomic balance sheets statistics. We document unparalleled levels of wealth concentration. The top 10% own 86% of aggregate wealth and the top 0.1% close to one third. The top 0.01% of the distribution (3,500 individuals) concentrate 15% of household net worth, more than the bottom 90% as a whole. Such levels of inequality can be accounted for in all forms of assets at the top end, including housing, pension funds and financial assets. We find no sign of decreasing inequality since the end of apartheid.

Growing Cleavages in India? Evidence from the Changing Structure of Electorates

Economic and Political Weekly, 2019
with Abhijit Banerjee and Thomas Piketty

This paper combines surveys, election results and social spending data to document a long-run evolution of political cleavages in India. The transition from a dominant-party system to a fragmented system characterised by several smaller regionalist parties and, more recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party, coincides with the rise of religious divisions and the persistence of strong caste-based cleavages, while education, income and occupation play a diminishing role (controlling for caste) in determining voters’ choices. More importantly, there is no evidence of the new party system being associated with changes in social policy, which corroborates the fact that in India, as in many Western democracies, political conflicts are increasingly focused on identity and religious–ethnic conflicts rather than on tangible material benefits and class-based redistribution.

Media coverage: Economic Times