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/.


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.


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.

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

WID.world Working Paper 2021/15, May 2021
with Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty

This paper provides new evidence on the long-run evolution of political cleavages in 21 Western democracies by exploiting a new database on the vote by socioeconomic characteristic covering over 300 elections held between 1948 and 2020. In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for democratic, labor, 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 to “multi-elite party systems” in the 2000s-2010s: high-education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income elites continue to vote for the “right”. This transition has been accelerated by the rise of green and anti-immigration movements. Combining our database with historical data on political parties’ programs, we provide evidence that the reversal of the educational cleavage is strongly linked to the emergence of a new “sociocultural” axis of political conflict.

Wealth Inequality in South Africa, 1993-2017

WID.world Working Paper 2021/16 - UNU-WIDER Working Paper 2020/45
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.

Why is Europe More Equal than the United States?

WID.world Working Paper 2020/19, September 2020
with Thomas Blanchet and Lucas Chancel

This paper combines all available household surveys, income tax and national accounts data in a systematic manner to produce comparable pretax and posttax income inequality series in 38 European countries between 1980 and 2017. We find that inequalities rose in most European countries since 1980 both before and after taxes, but much less than in the US. Between 1980 and 2017, the European top 1% pretax income share rose from 8% to 11% while it rose from 11% to 21% in the US. Europe’s lower inequality levels are mainly explained by a more equal distribution of pretax incomes rather than by more equalizing taxes and transfers systems. “Predistribution” is found to play a much larger role in explaining Europe’s relative resistance to inequality than “redistribution”: it accounts for between two-thirds and ninety percent of the current inequality gap between the two regions.

Media coverage: Le Monde, France 24, VoxEU.


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

Economic and Political Weekly, 54(11), pp. 34-44, March 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