Have the Teals got socioeconomic winds of change at their back?

Much of the discussion about the emergence of the Teal Independents has focussed on the Morrison Government and its attitude to climate change and women as if this was the primary cause of the phenomenon.

Yet while it is immensely influential it is also significant that another source of their emergence, and possible success, stems from broader developments in western democracies.

These broader developments are discussed in the paper – Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: Changing Political Cleavages in 21 Western Democracies 1948-2020.

It was written by Amory Gethin, Clare Martinez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty and published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (October 7 2021).

The authors suggest that: “Western democracies have undergone major transformations in recent years, embodied by political fragmentation, the increasing salience of environmental issues, and the growing success of anti-establishment authoritarian movements. Yet, much remains to understood about the nature and origins of these political upheavals. On what dimensions of political conflict (education, income, age etc) have such transformations arisen?”

They seek to answer the questions by drawing on a data set on the long run behaviours in 21 democracies. “Drawing on nearly all electoral surveys in these countries since World War II, we assemble microdata on the individual determinants of the vote for over 300 elections held between 1948 and 2020.”

They divide parties into two groups: social democratic, socialist, communist and green parties (left wing or social democratic affiliated) on one side and conservative, Christian democratic and anti-immigration (right wing or conservative and affiliated parties) on the other.

They note that in the 1950s and 1960s the vote for social democratic and affiliated parties was class based and strongly associated with the lower-income and lower educated electorate.

In contrast since the 2010s the vote has gradually become associated with higher educated voters “giving rise in the 2010s to a divergence between the influences of income (economic capital) and education (human capital)” resulting in higher education voters shifting to supporting the left while high income voters continue to vote for the right – hence the concept of Merchant Right and Brahmin Left.

They also find that the rise of green and anti-immigration parties since the late 20th century has accelerated the transition – although that explains only about 15% of the overall shift.

To explore the factors underlying the divergence the authors also match their data with the Comparative Manifesto Project base which is the most comprehensive source on political parties’ manifestos since the end of WWII.

Looking at an indicator of party ideology – an economic-distributive axis and a socio-cultural axis –  they find that the “separation between these two dimensions of political conflict and the divergence of income and education are tightly related.”

The share of the vote conservative parties get from high income voters is the same as it was 60 years ago but the correlation between education and parties’ socio-cultural policies has dramatically increased in the same time.

One factor which possibly clouds the situation, as far as Australia is concerned, is compulsory voting. For many of the other countries in the sample turnout among the bottom 50% of least educated and poorest voters is low, but not among the top 50%. This could be a sign that these people have just been left aside by the rise of multi-elite party systems.

What this bottom 50% of the group do with their votes in Australia is not well- understood but arguably the Morrison pitch to some outer suburban voters may also be directed towards this same ‘bottom’ 50%.

But basically, the data from the 21 countries shows that parties promoting ‘progressive’ policies (green and traditional left wing parties) have seen their electorate restricted to higher-educated voters while parties holding more conservative views on socio-political issues (anti-immigration and traditional right wing parties) have concentrated a growing share of the lower-educated electorate.

The authors do suggest a few provisos. One is that, whatever their manifestos offer, social democratic parties “may continue emphasising redistributive policies, just as they used to in the past, but their credibility in effectively pursuing these policies may have declined since then.”

Moreover, as Australia has shown, they may be retreating rapidly from such policies.

There is also a significant generational impact with social democratic parties attracting a growing share of the higher-educated electorate among the youth. The reverse has also been highest among non-religious voters and among men.

Nevertheless, social democratic support among the young as a whole is much the same as it was in the 1950s as are rural-urban and religious cleavages which have remained stable or have decreased in most countries. Arguably Australia is not among the ‘most’ given results in Indi and the social and economic changes in rural areas and provincial cities illustrated by Gabrielle Chan’s book Rusted Off: Why country Australia is fed up.

The authors also note not that increased support for green parties on the left and anti-immigration parties on the right have contributed to the reversal of the education cleavage but that it is insufficient to explain the cleavage because it started decades before these parties even emerged.

There are some interesting provisos discussed in the paper. Surprisingly, the reversal of support of higher-educated voters for social democratic parties in Norway, Sweden and Finland has not been fully completed and the social democratic parties there keep a non-negligible fraction of low-income and lower-educated electorate.

The delay is also common to recent democracies or late industrialised countries such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland although there are many other complicating factors in all three.

Data on Australia low-income and lower educated voters post-election will also be interesting -particularly in any demographic analysis of  One Nation and UAP results.

So what does this mean for the Teals? Probably they have socioeconomic winds of change at their back. But they may not be as significant as tactical voting by Greens and Labor supporters and the unpopularity of Scott Morrison who is carefully avoiding campaigning in the electorates they are targeting.