by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 20
May 2021
Chart
13:27

Revealed: The most important political trend of our time

New research shows just how important the education divide is in western politics
by Peter Franklin

Want to understand the last fifty years of democratic politics? Then read this new paper by Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty.

It investigates a familiar hypothesis, which is that the most ‘highly’ educated voters are increasingly trending Left, with a corresponding shift of non-graduates to the parties of the Right. 

The remarkable thing about the research is just how far it goes in showing that this shift is not only true, but overwhelmingly more important than any other comparable development in voter preferences. 

For a start, the researchers use data drawn from 21 western nations — enabling them to demonstrate that the phenomena they describe are truly international. In a paper bursting with charts, two in particular stand out. 

The first shows the political divides of the 1970s — when, in almost every country, the parties of Right attracted higher levels of support from voters with the highest levels of income and education (with the parties of the Left doing the diametrical opposite).

Fast forward to the present day (or at least to the 2010s) and a remarkable shift has taken place. Though the parties of the Right continue to have an advantage among the voters with the highest incomes, it is the parties of the Left that now attract more support among voters with the highest level of education:

These charts have been doing the rounds on political Twitter — no doubt, because they tell such a dramatic story. It is worth pointing out a few details though.

Firstly, for both income and education levels, these charts are comparing the top 10% of the population versus everyone else. Thus these shifts are taking place among the elite and aren’t just a side-effect of expanding higher education to other parts of the population. 

Secondly, it’s important not to misinterpret the research as showing no shift towards the Right among poorer voters and no shift away from the Right among the richest ones. Graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates and therefore any move away from the Right in the graduate population will be reflected in the voting preferences of higher earners too. However, the researchers statistically control for this “mechanical” factor. As they say themselves, removing this control “displays a stronger decline in the influence of income on the vote.”

Thirdly, the shift shown by this research hasn’t occurred all-of-a-sudden. The charts above are for the 1970s and 2010s, but the paper also has charts for the intervening decades. Taken together, these show that the great shift has been underway across that entire period. Indeed, it’s truly extraordinary that it wasn’t spotted sooner. 

Looking back, we can see that the Tories before Brexit were wasting their time trying to appeal to young graduate professionals. In reality, a very different set of voters were waiting to drop into their lap — as Boris Johnson was to prove in 2019 and again this year. 

I don’t want to say that people like David Cameron and George Osborne were on the ‘wrong side of history’… but then again, they were on the wrong side of history. 

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Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
1 year ago

Globalization strongly benefits people with credentials. So it’s not really surprising that people with credentials are in favour of globalization.
Immigration and global trade drive down wages and the cost of living. If your job is protected by having a local credential (for instance, you have a postgraduate qualification accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute that allows you to work for the local council as a planning officer, or some other highly specific, non-transferable qualification), you’re protected from wage erosion because your job can’t be off-shored or taken by an immigrant, but you gain all of the upside of cheap imported clothing and electronics, as well as access to cheap restaurants or builders. It’s a win/win. If you don’t have a credential, though, you lose out.
The educated are supporting “leftist” parties for economic, not cultural reasons. The supposed cultural reasons are just a fig leaf covering economic self-interest for policies that are harmful overall to the nation.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Harvey
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

“The educated are supporting “leftist” parties for economic, not cultural reasons.”

Could not be more utterly wrong. Remember the film of BLM riots, or any ‘Demo’ in London? The radicals are young, White, educated, useful idiots. They believe their twisted ideology totally, it goes to their very core. That most will never have any money as they did education in subjects which – rather than pay – keep them impoverished for life as a ‘Debt Slave’- BUT the mindset of the education system also has imprinted its self on the ones who will be the 10% one day.

Just look at the top universities! They are on a frenzied hunt for witches to trap and burn as much as they peruse their studies. Remember the best analogy – 1212, The Children’s Crusade, where a mania swept Europe and thousands of children set off to march to the Holy land and peacefully convert the Infidel, and so off they went, and hitting the Mediterranean boarded ships to cross, but instead all of them were taken to the Muslim Slave Markets and sold. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children's_Crusade

The young today, under the influence of the wicked Lefty/Liberalism are doing the exact thing, and will meet the same fate once they destroy the West which protects and cossets them.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As I understand it, most historians who have looked into it have serious doubts whether the Children’s Crusade actually happened. Or at least they question whether actual children were involved. There may have been those of the lower classes who were called “boys” and “girls” – much like blacks in the American South were called “boy” even at advanced adulthood – some might have tried to march to the Middle East. We don’t know.
While BLM and Antifa can do enormous damage given their numbers, those numbers are still small. But they can be very useful idiots indeed for the well-educated and high-earning sorts who wish to keep the majority divided. But that doesn’t make Andrew Harvey wrong. It makes his picture, at worst, incomplete.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

I would generally agree with this. Take Brexit for example.

Middle class metropolitan professionals who were benefiting greatly from the EU four freedoms and EU procurement rules were not going to be truthful about that.

Hence Project Fear and the false consciousness rhetoric.

Culture is being used instrumentally to avoid admitting that self interest is at heart as well as being a deliberate strategy to consolidate the black vote, the gender vote and the anti-national vote.

So yes I agree, middle class leftie cosmopolitans have instrumentalised culture for economic self interest.

With nowhere to turn other than working class jobs, their sex and gender fluidity cultural cause is now shifting to class fluidity. Presumably if that doesn’t work, the instrumentalisation of fluidity will no doubt reach ethnicity, colour and race.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
1 year ago

Could it be because, over the last three decades, universities have become dissemination centres of a particular political point of view?

Michael James
Michael James
1 year ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

Yes.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael James

Also the highly educated graduates are likely to be the children of similarly educated parents. They probably all expect to work in the public sector, so of course they favour big government , a central core of Labour and expect to do well in its system. For example the son of a former Labour Home Secretary works for the civil service , as did his mother. A sort of public nepotism. As even private firms are going ‘woke’ ie Vogue magazine you need to appear left-wing in order to become an intern. Rather than encouraging creativity this route seems to create yes men & women-look at universities nowadays.We are still living under the direction of Sage- which even though it consists of various people with presumably differing ideas , would any of them care to ‘go out on a limb’ and possibly lose their livelihoods by challenging the leading ethos?

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

That doesn’t explain however why the parties favoured by workers became favoured by professionals, and vice versa.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago

The Labour party was founded by workers to represent their economic interests, but it was soon hijacked by upper-class socialist ideologues and they have taken more and more control of the party.
Over time the old mass industrial working class has got smaller, while the public sector middle class has only ever expanded. Both the trade unions and the Labour party now much more represent the latter group than the former.
The Conservative party on the other hand has never had a mass electoral base, but has been much more willing and able to adapt itself to whoever the voters are to be able to go on winning elections. If the Labour party no longer wants the votes of ordinary non-university educated people, the Tories will happily take them.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I would propose another factor influencing these data. More people fall into the highly educated group today than they did in the 1970s because so many more people now attend university. Also, more people obtain advanced degrees or second degrees to try to keep pace with changes in the workplace or the need to retrain for a second career when jobs in their original field disappear.
There are a lot of disaffected, educated people out there who are angry that their degree(s) no longer guarantee them a solid middle class life style. I think they’re much more open to progressive politics that seeks to overturn the established political/economic system that no longer works for them.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Also, WHO does the paying jobs. Back then it took real world intelligence, Mine engineers, CEOs, Bank Managers, Corporate Lawyers, and they had been taught by ex-soldiers from WWII, and the civilians who had been through it.

Now the top 10% are in entertainment, Computer coding, shifting numbers on computers in finance, they are not the same. The real world to them is comfort, security, luxury, safety, sheltered, – they are spoiled Brats. Their parents did not get bombed in the Blitz, dad never charged up a beach under fire.

mendriki
mendriki
1 year ago

From the paper:

These results suggest that religious-secular divides have not been a major source of political realignment in the past decades. 

Entirely depends on your definition of religion. The internet has allowed a significant portion of the global secular population to adopt a unified metanarrative that is overtly religious in nature. There’s even a similar organization into sub-groups (or sects) that share the same fundamental beliefs, with prophets (Thunburg, Kendi), martyrs (George Floyd), holy texts (IPCC report), and hierarchal institutions (BLM, Green Peace, etc.).
I’d argue the religious-secular divide has been the driving force behind more recent political realignments. The best example being the current rise of ‘Green’ parties in Western democracies, fueled by a universal narrative that has little practical relation to factors that historically drive political divides, such as employment or immigration.
It’s a ‘fire and brimstone’ approach that encourages missionary-like behavior to recruit supporters who can think just critically enough to understand the plausibility of a worst-case scenario from a scientific perspective, but not to a point as to question the science itself.
To me, that describes the bulk of modern post-secondary graduates to a tee.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

It is so easy to understand. Frankfurt School.

Like being a Baathist in Iraq and Syria was a huge determining factor in how you placed on the income scale, Liberal Indoctrination is the same now. You have gatekeepers on the ladder up.
The Frankfurt School from the Wiemar Republic Marxist Intellectuals were all about using Marxism (and Existentialism and Freud, oddly as destruction of the Family was thought the way forward) to destroy Capitalism from the inside. In 1950 they moved to Columbia University and then spread throughout Academia in the West, the Left/Liberal meme, say.
Now they have taken every bit of the entire education industry (and MSM and entertainment, and most of the “Justice’ system and all the Social Media) excepting some STEM (and they have to STFU), from Kindergarten to post graduate. They are the Inquisition, and any committing apostasy are soon purged. It is a self replicating pathology which is designed to destroy the West, and is working perfectly, even though it will kill the host, they cannot break out of the cycle.
Political Prisoners wile criminals go free is next. Thought Crime is already on the legal books, Gulags may be along one day if Mao and Stalin, Saddam, Hugo Chavez, and the other totalitarian ideologies are a good model, and I suspect they are.

Neil Papadeli
Neil Papadeli
1 year ago

The theory ‘feels’ right of course; however, presenting a complex, multi-point graph to, in essence, display a, “look, simple proof! Everything is completely opposite to 50 years ago!” automatically makes me suspicious. A minor thing (but it has a big effect on the impact of the graphs) the data size scales are slightly different from one graph to the next. The income data range is reduced by 50%, the Education data range by 20%. What does that mean? By comparing two datasets together as if they had the same spread skews the story, magnifies it and makes it more dramatic. And we all know how these graphs will be used…Somewhere where nuance is unknown and dramatic simplicity is sovereign.
To present a data representation as ‘proof’ of a simple, direct and huge societal change (:D) should not require the viewer to perform mental gymnastics to understand it. If it does, it has failed.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Neil Papadeli

Good comment. To fully understand this study we’d have to review the original report and complete data set. We’d also require enough math knowledge to analyze the data and study design for ourselves. Most people don’t have that type of skill.
I’m reminded of the endless debates involving science and covid. Do masks work? What is the real mortality rate for covid? Is growth of the infection exponential or does it follow a Gompertz (S-shaped) curve? Ultimately, we have to rely on someone, be it a scientist or a journalist with a science background, to answer these questions for us because it’s too hard to review all the primary data and figure out the answers ourselves.
So who do we trust? Now, when presented with a study report like the one mentioned in this article, my first question is who conducted the study and what is their agenda? Does the study come from what appears to be an impartial research group, or is it tied to a political think tank pursuing a specific agenda. The answer to that question usually answers the question of whether or not I pay any attention to the study. Sad that science has become so politicized.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You are a patient man. I dismiss such studies out of hand on the grounds that impartial research groups no longer exist – if they ever did. .

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago

There is a general misconception, particularly in the US, that credentials are a signifier of intelligence.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
1 year ago

I strongly suspect the mistake is in the definition of a left wing party. Neither the Dems nor Labour are left wing, for example. Nor is Macron, who, ridiculously, was once considered so.

Neil Papadeli
Neil Papadeli
1 year ago

Details, mere details…

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
1 year ago

Yes – in general the working classes seem to have abandoned these parties as they have embraced global capitalism.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
1 year ago

That is indeed true, if Left is defined as being pro-working class, or something of that sort. But the definition of the “Left” has changed, perhaps because the working class has refused to be sufficiently grateful for some of the alleged “improvements” in their lives. This may be largely because so many Leftists must have new causes to embrace when old ones are largely solved. As a result, they are constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone.

David Morrey
David Morrey
1 year ago

Wrapping my head around this data – I think it is saying that those dots on each graph are the variance between the top 10% of all earners (vertical axis) and the average of the rest of the 90% of the population, with the horizontal axis being the variance between the top 10% by level(?) of higher education and the average of the rest of the 90% of the population.
That is a fairly big ‘limitation’ – why top 10%? Does the picture look different if you cut it at 15%? Or 30%? Am genuinely curious as this is going to be used to promote a ‘anyone with any education votes left’ narrative.
But my major observation is this – to get that spread there must not be much overlap between the top 10% of highest educated and the top 10% of highest earners. So those highest educated types are smart enough to pass exams, and tell us how to live our lives, but not do anything sufficiently of value to society for them to earn a really good living for themselves.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  David Morrey

Possibly, it could also be that a proportion of those in the top 10% of income don’t do anything of sufficient value to earn a really good living but the income comes from rent (in the economic sense).

Michael James
Michael James
1 year ago

We now know what Tony Blair was doing when he set about getting 50% of young people into higher education.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

I’m not sure they were necessarily on the wrong side of history.
The failure to secure a remain vote in 2016 could have been down to a simple failure to understand the people who were minded to vote to leave. You cannot address the concerns of people if you don’t understand why they are concerned. You can pretend to understand, and pretend you are going to do something about it, but you won’t be believed. This was also the failure of the EU over time.
In addition, your view of the world is determined by your circumstances. If you are a graduate flourishing in the gig economy you are going to have a different assessment of the value of EU membership than if you are a worker on a construction site. This is not an education thing, it is a circumstance thing.
The irony is that those Remain voters who professed themselves more intelligent than their Leave voting fellow citizens were (and are) not intelligent enough to understand the legitimate reasons those people had for voting Leave. Brexit was caused by a failure of intelligence and imagination among the so-called higher educated as much as it was caused by the surrender to populist impulses among the less well educated. To this day I think most Remain voters still believe Leave voters did not know what they were doing.

Still, as regards the main thrust of the article, it seems fairly obvious that this change has taken place.
Today there is far more university education, but I see no evidence that this expansion university education has produced a greater capacity for independent thought in the general population. If anything, recent events have shown that people, by and large, are unthinking. They are certainly, in the main, instinctively conformist.

Perhaps there is another possibility with regard to Brexit. I would be interested to know whether the Remain voters were largely conformist in nature and the Leave voters largely non-conformist.
Higher education does not make you non-conformist, since it does not make you more capable of independent thought.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kremlington Swan
Bob Bepob
Bob Bepob
1 year ago

I find these charts confusing, though they do make the point about the shift since the 1970s.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
1 year ago

The comparison of the charts is too simplistic. For example, income, who are the high earners ? I would strongly suggest today’s high earners have totally different social backgrounds to the high earners of the 70’s and surely your upbringing and “historic” family roots have a huge bearing on your attitudes. Likewise with education : anybody earning a degree in speaking Klingon in the 70’s ! The subject matter of education has changed and yet again this relates to social backgrounds.
Politics has most definitely changed and the traditional left-right split based on economics and social integration is not fit for purpose. I do get the distinct impression that there is a group of people who believe that they “know what’s best for us” because they have had a higher education. This applies to both sides of the old left-right divide. It is just more pronounced on the left as shown by chart 2. Make no mistake left or right global elites want the same thing : Control and power for them.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

Interesting. So due to the scaling, left right politics has shifted anticlockwise in a nonlinear circular sense or flipped in a linear straight line sense.

My thinking is that with this graph scale format, political is the top left, ecology is the bottom left, economy is top right and culture is bottom right.

Whilst previously it made ecological rational sense for the Left to hold political power and ecological stewardship and the Right to hold economic power and cultural stewardship, ecological rationality now decrees the opposite as a whole.

In this respect, the Left and Right reflect an integrated national personality, with the Right requiring to hold political power, due to its embedded sense of national resilience along with ecological stewardship for the security of the working class in order to preserve against globalist economic frameworks. And the Left needs to balance the Right by holding the cultural space and asserting the economic realities of the human growth,/climate/biodiversity/ecological crisis.

Previously the Left held political power and ecological stewardship in order to implement the necessary actions and policies to create a more open egalitarian society after ww2 with the Right safeguarding economic development and cultural traditions.

In other words, this shift may reflect human adaptation in action with the polarity of Left and Right signifying human dispositions and traits which need to align with different sectors of political, ecological, economy and culture depending on the ecological/environmental circumstances.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
1 year ago

I propose a more obvious reason: educated people easily spot populism for what it is, whereas uneducated people cannot help falling for populist ideology that glorifies them and their struggles. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

What if you’re very educated and very populist.

Does that make the uneducated right and the educated wrong. Or the very educated wrong and the educated right.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
1 year ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

I have a better one:
A lot of people have paid a lot of money to be educated in university degrees that are complete garbage – no intellectual value and produce no useful skills – but they do get you a job in public sector management where expensive credentials are valued more than actual ability, competence and work-rate.
These people are therefore certain to vote for the party that promises to endlessly expand the public sector and create more non-jobs for them to fill.