(Getty/Nicholas Kamm)

Thomas Piketty says Bernie Sanders' electoral strategy is the way to beat back the right

New paper explores how both parties were captured by the "elite," leaving a politically rudderless underclass

Keith A. Spencer
March 27, 2018 8:58AM (UTC)

In a new paper, French political economist Thomas Piketty, author of the bestselling 2013 book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," argues that Western political parties on the right and left have both become parties of the "elites."

Yet the 65-page paper from the notoriously punctilious economist — titled "Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict" — is more surprising for the lessons it has for the political left in the Western world. Indeed, the left-populist wing of Western political parties, including the American progressive movement restarted by Bernie Sanders, has reason to celebrate: Piketty's paper aligns with their somewhat counterintuitive strategy that shifting the Democratic Party platform more to the left is actually a winning electoral strategy that can help bring back disenfranchised working-class voters and less educated voters who currently may not vote at all or identify with right-wing populism.


"Using post-electoral surveys from France, Britain and the US, this paper documents a striking long-run evolution in the structure of political cleavages," Piketty writes in the abstract. He goes on to explain the political changes that have happened since the 1950s and 1960s, when "the vote for left-wing (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters" — in other words, the Labour Party of the United Kingdom, the Socialist Party of France and the Democratic Party of the United States were considered parties that supported and helped destitute and less-well-educated voters.

Yet over time, those parties, Piketty explains, "gradually become associated with higher education voters," which he describes as creating a system of "multiple-elite" parties where "high-education elites now vote for the 'left,' while high-income/high-wealth elites still vote for the 'right' (though less and less so)." In other words, both sides of the spectrum became parties of the elite, with no party for less educated folks or the working class.

Piketty argues that this situation "contributes to rising inequality and lack of democratic response to it," as well as the rise of populists like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in Britain. "Without a strong egalitarian-internationalist platform, it is difficult to unite low- education, low-income voters from all origins within the same party," he writes.


If the Democratic Party was wise, it might see Piketty's paper as a chance to improve its electoral strategy. Indeed, the Democratic Party seems to be locked in a battle for its own soul, a fight long-presaged that erupted during the 2016 presidential primary. In one corner sits the Clintonite corporate wing of the party, who believe that the key to Democratic Party strategy is to move to the center in order to pick up moderate conservatives voters who feel left behind by the Republican Party's far-right shift.

This was Clinton's strategy to a T: in her election campaign, she bragged about her connections to Henry Kissinger and her support from billionaire Republicans like former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, while being famously dismissive of social democratic policies like single-payer health care.

In the other corner there are those who argue that the Democratic Party will win more voters if it appeals explicitly to class interests and concerns. As Steve Phillips wrote in a Times op-ed last year:


If Democrats had stemmed the defections of white voters to the Libertarian or Green Parties, they would have won Michigan and Wisconsin, and had they also inspired African-Americans in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Clinton would be president.

If progressive whites are defecting because they are uninspired by Democrats, moving further to the right will only deepen their disillusionment.

This "go left" strategy hints at what Piketty calls the "class-based party system" that dominated Western democracies in the 1950s and 1960s. In those decades, "lower class voters from the different dimensions (lower education voters, lower income voters, etc.) tend[ed] to vote for the same party or coalition, while upper and middle class voters from the different dimensions tend[ed] to vote for the other party or coalition."

Similar as the Democratic factions may seem to the right, which seem unable to distinguish a liberal billionaire like Warren Buffett from a "communist," they represent radically different positions and have different constituencies. The Clintonite coalition tended to rely on pandering to identity groups and a sort of vague multiculturalism that posited that billionaires, corporations and the poor could live in some kind of perfect harmony, even though the former rely on the exploitation of the latter to exist.


Critics like Phillips argue that Clinton and her DNC lackeys failed to grasp that her milquetoast liberalism lacked a comprehensible ideology: There were no scapegoats, and "America was already great," in Clinton's words. Those words appeared tone-deaf to the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, who sought a scapegoat and heard a more sensible explanation for their woes from Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the strategy of Bernie Sanders — mirrored in other left organizing groups in the United States that seek to push the Democratic Party to the left, including Our Revolution and Democratic Socialists of America — is to offer a more serious material analysis of the underpinnings of oppression and suffering in the United States and to scapegoat income inequality caused by an unjust economic system propped up by the elite. Sanders and his counterparts overseas, particularly U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, offer that aforementioned "strong egalitarian-internationalist platform" that has the potential to "unite low-education, low-income voters from all origins," as Piketty describes.

Though Sanders came up short in the primaries, he was vindicated in the aftermath of the general election in several ways: First, many of the Rust Belt states that Trump carried — states Hillary Clinton had banked on winning — were won by Sanders in the primary, including Michigan and Wisconsin. Second, post-election studies suggested that had Sanders been the Democratic nominee, he would have defeated Trump by a wide margin. Third, Sanders remains the most popular politician in the United States, despite an ongoing bile-spitting campaign orchestrated by Democratic insiders like Sally Albright (who called Sanders "racist" for proposing free college) or Peter Daou (who blames Sanders for Clinton's loss). Finally, Clinton's victory was aided considerably by a corrupt party apparatus that was already in the bag for Clinton, as former interim DNC chair Donna Brazile has described.


For Berniecrats, democratic socialists and those even further left, there's much to love in Piketty's paper. His conclusion, one echoed by the Sanders wing of the Democratic party, is essentially that ostensibly "left" parties — e.g. the Democrats in the United States, Labour in the U.K. or the Socialist Party in France — have lost the constituencies they once supported and now appeal to the elite, leaving a vast underclass politically unrepresented and rudderless. Piketty is giving them a rudder, if the parties can seize it.

Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor for Salon. He manages Salon's science, tech, economy and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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