How Education, Not Income, Came to Define America's Political Divide | Opinion

Not too long ago, it was easy to describe the demographics of your typical left-wing political party anywhere in the industrialized West. This party would be composed of low-income, working-class people who were primarily motivated by pocketbook issues.

This described Labour in the United Kingdom and the Democratic Party in the United States, both of which built powerful economic policy-based coalitions following World War II. In the UK, Labour established the National Health Service, a system of socialized provision of health care that went on to be so popular that conservative and left-wing governments alike declined to roll it back.

Here in America, we saw the rise of the New Deal coalition, a vast confederation of voters that included labor unions, religious and ethnic minorities, and poor southern whites who had benefited from the New Deal's sweeping interventions in the American economy.

Yet over the past few decades, economic class is an increasingly weak predictor of belonging to left-leaning parties in the UK, US, and elsewhere. A new paper by researchers Amory Gethin, Clara Martinez-Toledano, and Thomas Piketty charts the evolution of political cleavages in 21 Western democracies over 300 elections that took place between 1948 and 2020.

They find that in the beginning of this period, left-wing parties were indeed associated with lower-educated and low-income voters. But more recently, education rather than income has become the defining cleavage for many of these parties, with "high-education elites" now forming the vanguard of much of the left while "high-income elites" continue to by and large support the right.

They define this new division as one between a "Brahmin left"—referring to historic India's elite upper caste—and the "Merchant right," referring to the business class. But uniquely in the United States, the researchers noted a shift happening along income; in 2016 and 2020, the "top 10 percent of earners became more likely to vote for the Democratic Party for the first time since World War II."

What's causing this dramatic new realignment? The paper suggests that the transition in voting across Western democracies is being accelerated by the green (environmentalist) and anti-immigration movements. The green movements tend to attract a large share of higher-educated young voters, while the anti-immigrant movements appeal more to people who have less formal education.

The long-term implications of this shift from class-based politics to a politics divided increasingly by education remain to be seen. But we know that political parties tend to respond to the constituents they rely on to win elections.

college grads
David Geffen, philanthropist and entertainment mogul, received the UCLA Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the university, during the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLAs Hippocratic Oath Ceremony on May 30, 2014 at Westwood, California Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for UCLA

We can already see this transformation under way in the United States. Senior Democratic Party politicians like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have made the cancellation of student deb—a policy that would benefit America's Brahmins most of all—into a top priority. Meanwhile, others in the party are organizing around repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions, which would disproportionately benefit some of America's richest taxpayers, a reflection of the reality that many of the country's most well-off residents are increasingly voting for Democrats. And it's not a surprise that the Republicans were the ones to pass a tax related to college endowments into law, and some in the party want to take that policy even further.

And whether the parties are consciously choosing to or not, they're even starting to sound like they are composed of people with completely different educational backgrounds.

Take the speeches given at last year's presidential nominating convention. While President Biden is in many ways emblematic of the historic Democratic Party before its shift into a high-education party, you can see it's future in young New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose speech included a lament about the wounds of "racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia."

If you put that speech into a readability formula, a tool you can use to see what sort of audience is easily able to interpret a text, you'll find that it was most suited for a college-educated audience. Do the same thing for former President Donald Trump's speech, and you'll see that it was aimed at people with about a tenth-grade education.

It's unclear what the future holds. It's possible that these trends are short-lived and that voting will return to the norms of the mid-20th century, with low-educated and low-income voters once again forming the base of the Western left. But if these trends continue unabated, we're likely in for a turbulent future, where both halves of the political equation can credibly stake a claim in populist politics, as Merchants and Brahmins do battle in election after election.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast "Extremely Offline."

The views in this article are the author's own.