Why Is It So Hard for Democracy to Deal With Inequality?

In theory, in a democracy, the majority should influence — some would even say determine — the distribution of income. In practice, this is not the case.

Over the past few decades, political scientists have advanced a broad range of arguments to explain why democracy has failed to stem the growth of inequality.

Most recently, Thomas Piketty, a French economist who is the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has come up with a straightforward answer: Traditional parties of the left no longer represent the working and lower middle classes.

In a January Power Point presentation, “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right,” Piketty documents how the domination of the Democratic Party here (and of socialist parties in France) by voters without college or university degrees came to an end over the period from 1948 to 2017. Both parties are now led by highly educated voters whose interests are markedly different from those in the working class.


The result, Piketty argues, is a political system that pits two top-down coalitions against each other:

In the 1950s-60s, the vote for left-wing (socialist) parties in France and the Democratic Party in the US used to be associated with lower education & lower income voters. It (the left) has gradually become associated since 1970s-80s with higher education voters, giving rise to a multiple-elite party system: high-education elites vote for the left, while high-income/high-wealth elites for the right, i.e., intellectual elite (Brahmin left) vs business elite (merchant right).

Changes in the structure of the electorate emerged in force during a period of unprecedented upheaval in the 1960s, when a combination of liberation movements — committed to civil rights, women’s rights, sexual freedom, the student left, decolonization and opposition to the Vietnam War — swept across Europe and the United States.

In this country, Democratic reforms adopted after the 1968 convention — an event marked by police violence against antiwar demonstrators — produced a radical shift in power within the Democratic Party.

– New York Times