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Moving away from three-tier democracy

Summary:
Is it possible to break out of the present three-tier democracy in France and more generally on a European and international scale, and rebuild a left-right divide centred on questions of redistribution and social inequality? This is the central issue of the current legislative elections in France. Let us first recall the contours of the three-tier democracy, as expressed in the first round of the presidential elections. If we add up the various candidates from the left-wing and ecological parties, we obtain 32% of the votes for the left-wing bloc, which can be described as being in favour of social-planning or social-ecological. If we combine the votes cast for Macron and Pécresse, we also obtain 32% of the votes for the liberal or centre-right bloc. We arrive at exactly the same score

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Is it possible to break out of the present three-tier democracy in France and more generally on a European and international scale, and rebuild a left-right divide centred on questions of redistribution and social inequality? This is the central issue of the current legislative elections in France.

Let us first recall the contours of the three-tier democracy, as expressed in the first round of the presidential elections. If we add up the various candidates from the left-wing and ecological parties, we obtain 32% of the votes for the left-wing bloc, which can be described as being in favour of social-planning or social-ecological. If we combine the votes cast for Macron and Pécresse, we also obtain 32% of the votes for the liberal or centre-right bloc. We arrive at exactly the same score of 32% if we add up the three candidates of the nationalist or extreme right bloc (Le Pen, Zemmour, Dupont-Aignan). If we divide the 3% of the unclassifiable ruralist candidate (Lassale) between the three blocs, we arrive at three almost perfectly equal thirds.

This tripartition is partly explained by the specificities of the electoral system and the political history of the country, but its underpinnings are more general. It should be noted that the three-tier democracy does not mean the end of political divisions based on social class and divergent economic interests, quite the contrary. The liberal bloc achieves by far its best scores among the most socially advantaged voters, whatever the criterion used (income, wealth, education), especially among older people. The fact that this ‘bourgeois bloc‘ managed to attract a third of the vote is also due to the evolution of participation, which has become much higher among the wealthiest and oldest voters than among the rest of the population over the last few decades, which was not the case before.  De facto, this bloc has combined the economic and wealthy elites, who used to vote for the centre-right, with the educated elites who have taken over the centre-left in many places since 1990, as the World Political Cleavages and Inequality Database shows. With equal participation across all socio-demographic groups, however, this bloc would only garner about a quarter of the vote and could not claim to govern alone. In contrast, the left-wing bloc would be in the lead, as it scores best among the lower socio-economic classes, and especially among the younger generation. The nationalist bloc would also be ahead, but only slightly, as its lower class vote profile is more evenly spread among the age groups.

In a way, one could say that this tripartition recalls the three great ideological families that have structured political life for more than two centuries: liberalism, nationalism and socialism. Since the Industrial Revolution, liberalism has been based on the market and the social disembeddedness of the economy, and has mostly attracted the winners of the system. Nationalism responds to the resulting social crisis by reifying the nation and ethno-national solidarities, while socialism attempts, not without difficulty, to promote universalist emancipation through education, knowledge and power sharing. More generally, it has always been known that political conflict is structurally unstable and multidimensional (identity and religious cleavage, rural-urban cleavage, socio-economic cleavage, etc.) and cannot be reduced to an eternal one-dimensional left-right conflict reproducing itself identically over time. However, in many of the configurations observed in the past, or at least in those that have been retained, the social question took precedence and defined the main axis of the political conflict, opposing a social-internationalist left to a liberal-conservative right.

The novelty of the current situation is that the social question has lost its intensity, partly because the left in power has watered down its transformative ambition and has often rallied to the liberalism that has triumphed since the fall of communism, so that the question of identity has taken over. What defines the three-tier democracy is first of all that the working classes are deeply divided around the migratory and post-colonial question: the young and urban working class electorate has a more ethnically mixed sociability and votes for the left-wing bloc; conversely, the less young and more rural working class electorate feels abandoned and turns to the nationalist bloc. The bourgeois bloc hopes to remain in power in perpetuity thanks to this division, but this is a risky and dangerous gamble, as the rhetoric deployed by the nationalist bloc (and often encouraged by the bourgeois bloc) leads to no constructive outcome and only exacerbates dead-end conflicts. Contrary to what the other two blocs claim, the left-wing bloc is by no means unaware of the question of insecurity: on the contrary, it is the most capable of gathering the fiscal resources to strengthen the police and the justice system. As for the accusation of communitarianism, it is particularly inane. If young people of immigrant origin vote massively for the left-wing bloc, it is because it is the only one to defend them against the prevailing racism and to take the question of discrimination seriously.

The return to a confrontation centred on the social question is a necessity, not because the working classes would always be right when confronted with the bourgeois bloc (it is never simple to fix the right cursor on the scale of redistribution), but because conflicts resolved through mediation by social class offer more grist for the mill and allow democracy to function. Let us hope that these elections will contribute to this.

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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