May 11, 2021
Written by

Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies

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


In this paper, Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty provide 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”. Combining their database with historical data on political parties’ programs, the authors provide evidence that the reversal of the educational cleavage is strongly linked to the emergence of a new “sociocultural” axis of political conflict.


Key findings

  • In the 1950s-1960s, Western party systems were “class-based”, in the sense that low-income and lower-educated voters were significantly more likely to vote for social democratic and affiliated parties, while high-income and higher-educated voters were more likely to vote for conservative and affiliated parties.
  • These party systems have gradually become “multi-elite party systems”, in which 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, whose key distinctive feature is to concentrate the votes of the higher-educated and lower-educated electorate, respectively.
  • The reversal of the educational cleavage is strongly linked to the rising salience of a new “sociocultural” dimension of political conflict: between the 1950s and today, parties emphasizing socially “liberal” issues have concentrated a growing share of the higher-educated electorate, while those emphasizing “conservative” issues have seen their electorate become more concentrated among lower-educated voters.
  • The paper also discusses the evolution of other political cleavages related to age, geography, religion, gender, and the integration of new ethnoreligious minorities.



Political Cleavages in Western Democracies

This figure shows that in the 1960s, both higher-educated and high-income voters were less likely to vote for left-wing (democratic / labor / socialdemocratic / socialist / green) parties than lower-educated and low-income voters by more than 10 percentage points. The left vote has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rising to a “multi-elite party system”. Figures correspond to five-year averages for Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. Estimates control for income/education, age, gender, religion, church attendance, rural/urban, region, race/ethnicity, employment status, and marital status (in country-years for which these variables are available).




  • Amory Gethin is a research fellow at the World Inequality Lab (Paris School of Economics, PSE)
  • Clara Martínez-Toledano is a professor at the Imperial College London wealth coordinator et at the World Inequality Lab
  • Thomas Piketty is a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and at the Paris School of Economics, and Co-Director of the World Inequality Lab.

Media inquiries


The authors thank Thomas Blanchet, Lucas Chancel, Ignacio Flores, Javier Padilla, Tom Raster, Till Weber, and seminar and conference participants from the Paris School of Economics Applied Economics Lunch Seminar and the CUNY Graduate Center Comparative Politics Workshop for helpful comments.

Related articles
‘Political cleavages and social inequalities’ now available in Greek
July 4, 2024 |

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 ... Continue reading