The Changing Composition of Support for Left and Right Parties

by Pranab Bardhan

Some decades back the typical voting pattern in many democracies used to be that the rich and upper middle classes used to vote in general for right-leaning parties, while the relatively poor voted for left-leaning parties. But in recent decades this pattern has been shifting: many of the professional or more educated voters in some of those countries are increasingly going for left or green parties, while many of the poor working-class voters are turning to right-wing parties, sometimes led by populist demagogues. Thomas Piketty and his associates in a new paper issued by the World Inequality Lab have provided data to show that for 21 western democracies the more educated voters have over the years become more left supporters than the less-educated voters. Piketty has described this elite division between high-education and high-income people colorfully as that between the Brahmin Left and the Merchant (the corresponding Indian caste term would have been ‘bania’) Right. He does not go much into explaining this pattern but it is clear that as education expands (measured by average years of schooling of the adult population) the left or center-left parties now can have a viable base even in the relatively rich or upper middle classes. Education often makes one appreciate more liberal values, which may sometimes outweigh their worries about higher taxes that the left parties may inflict.

But this still leaves unexplained why the less-educated poor are leaning right. Of course the shocks of job losses due to global integration and automation have hurt them (particularly as low education makes it more difficult to adjust to changes in market demand and technology), but why are they turning right instead of turning toward far-left parties which are often anti-globalization and in favor of more social protection for working classes? I’d suggest that this is for two major reasons. The first has to do with economic policy, and the second predominantly cultural.

Outside the US, the right-wing parties have changed course and are now much more oriented to the welfare state. Even extreme right-wing parties (like National Rally in France, PiS in Poland and AfD in Germany) are avid supporters of welfare benefits for the general (non-immigrant) workers. This somewhat neutralizes the special appeal of the left for workers. A survey of voters in the first round of French Presidential elections in 2017 showed that on redistributive issues the attitude of Le Pen voters was not that different from the voters for the far-left Melenchon. In the US this is somewhat different, as welfare dependency still carries stigma and racial overtones in right-wing parties. The other economic policy involved is in some specific sectors; for example, workers in coal and other fossil-fuel industries or in logging rally often to the right and are opposed to the green causes advocated by the left.

But I think the more important issue is cultural. Immigration, nativism, religious majoritarianism, ethnic nationalism—these are hot emotive issues, amplified by the social media, on which the traditional socially-conservative, often older and rural-based, blue-collar workers increasingly differ from the liberal, more educated, often younger, supporters of left or center-left parties. In the US (as in Poland) attitude to abortion or non-standard sexual preference also matters a great deal (not to speak of gun rights as a special right-wing American libertarian cause). On these cultural issues survey evidence of the 2020 election in the US shows that even a significant proportion of Hispanics and Blacks voted for Trump, not to speak of the majority of white less-educated voters. Immigration is, of course, both an economic and cultural issue, but in Europe it is clear that the cultural aspects of immigration provide the main fuel for right-wing anxiety about what is hyperbolically called the Great Replacement and act as a searing divisive issue with the left. In the past trade unions used to play a role in taming and transcending the nativist passions, but with their general decline workers now lack a sense of belonging to a shared institution and those passions and assertions of ethnic identities fill a cultural void.

What about developing countries? There are some similarities but also some marked differences compared to western democracies. As survey evidence shows there is in general a more positive attitude to globalization in developing countries, particularly as they have much to benefit from the opportunity to participate in the global value chain. An early-2020 survey carried out by YouGov Deutschland GmbH just before the pandemic on the attitudes to globalization in 15 countries (some developed and some developing, including China), roughly shows that support for globalization is stronger in developing than developed countries—strongest in the poorest country in the sample, Nigeria, and the lowest in France. This is in line with the long-run expected fallout in rich countries from the decline in their more than century-old domination in international trade and investment and the growing assertiveness and weight of developing countries (particularly from Asia). So globalization is not usually a divisive issue between right-wing and center-left parties in developing countries.

Let us pursue the party support issue a bit farther by taking the cases of three G-20 developing countries where right-wing parties are currently dominant: India, Brazil and Turkey. As the average years of schooling is much less in these countries than in the West, the educated by themselves cannot provide the main support base for a left party; it has to come from the poor workers and peasants, as it did for center-left parties like the Congress Party in India or the Workers Party in Brazil. In order to wean away that support right-wing leaders like Modi in India and Bolsonaro in Brazil used religious majoritarianism (with Hindus in India, Christian evangelicals in Pentecostal churches in Brazil), a muscular variety of ethnic nationalism, and the cult of a strong leader. Modi’s party demonizes Muslims as potential traitors and terrorists; Bolsonaro’s promises fighting against bandidos to keep the favelas safe from crime. Urban upper and middle classes were already largely in their bag—Piketty’s Brahmins as well as the Merchants are largely with the right, unlike in the West.

This is in some contrast with Turkey. Unlike in the case of Modi’s party BJP, in Turkey the poor, the less educated and the rural-based middle classes have long been solid supporters of Erdoğan’s party AKP, and over time it succeeded in mobilizing a more cross-class coalition. While in India (and Brazil) major metropolitan cities have mainly supported Modi (and Bolsonaro) in national elections, in Turkey the three biggest cities have been largely opposed to Erdoğan. To assuage the poor Modi has continued some of the pro-poor welfare policies of the Congress Government (though he had earlier mocked them as ‘dole’) and introduced some new ones. With some low- and middle-caste groups BJP has also made other kinds of transactional deals. In Turkey Erdoğan’s policies of helping disadvantaged groups and regions, and in particular those for big housing and construction projects, had made him popular with the poor and the lower middle classes.

Of late, however, the fumbling (and worse) by the three leaders in their fighting the pandemic has caused some disaffection all around. Popularity has declined most sharply for Bolsonaro. He faces a serious parliamentary commission of inquiry investigating his mishandling of the pandemic, something unthinkable for Modi in India—largely because the political opposition, the media, judiciary and civil society organizations have been all along less timid in Brazil than in India. The only major opposition Modi faces is in regional elections. In recent elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala Modi lost the votes of the majority of the poor; his oratorical discourse usually tries to forge affinity with the job-seeking aspirational youth, even though his record so far in creating jobs has been dismal.

All this illustrates how the right uses a mix of cultural and economic policies to get the support of working classes. Culture, however, remains the main dividing line between the left and right parties, and as culture and historical-institutional context vary from country to country in complex ways, it is quite hard to generalize about the comparative support base of these parties. Simply looking into income and education is not enough. This also means that the left parties have to seriously address the issues of cultural anxiety of the working classes. Without pandering to the prejudices they can try to relieve some identity-based tension by making their advocacy of economic justice programs as part of a common goal of humanitarian uplift and solidarity in local civic engagement, rather than a sectarian agenda of catering to some particular social groups.