According to some of the analysis that continues to stream out of the groves of academe in the United States, an obscure but ultimately crucial voter constituency in a battleground state helped President Barack Obama win re-election in 2012. This sizeable but politically apathetic constituency was made up of middle-aged people who love heavy metal music. Resultantly, Obama’s campaign team started to aggressively run adverts in the state on a popular late-night heavy metal TV show. In terms of this analysis, the ads worked the magic they were meant to: Obama won the state and resultantly, the presidency.
This anecdote becomes relevant as one digests unprecedented work by three French scholars, Amory Gethin, Clara Martinez-Toledano and Thomas Piketty, who are some of the researchers behind the World Top Incomes Database project at the Paris School of Economics in France. They collaborated with 20 fellow researchers from around the world and have now published (in French) work that draws on a unique set of surveys conducted for the period between 1948 and 2020 in 50 countries on five continents. These surveys analyse the links between voters’ political preferences and socio-economic characteristics, such as income, education, wealth, occupation, religion, ethnicity, age, and gender. As the researchers explain, the central aim of this project, is “to provide open and convenient access to the most extensive available dataset on the structure of political cleavages and social inequalities in electoral democracies, located on the five continents, from the mid-20th century to the present.”
Their research retraces the transformation of political divisions in 50 countries between 1948 and 2020. Using electoral surveys covering the five continents “in an unprecedented way”, it studies the link between voting behavior and the main characteristics of voters such as income, education, gender or ethno-religious identity.
“This analysis makes it possible to understand how political movements are led to combine multiple interests and identities in contemporary democracies. Such a historical and global perspective is essential to better understand the future of democracy in the 21st century,” the researchers explain.
Botswana is one of the 50 countries that the project has been studying over the years and produced groundbreaking research on. One part of their research on Botswana reviewed the share of votes received by selected groups of political parties in Botswana’s general elections between 1965 and 2019. They reached some unusually interesting conclusions with regard to voting along the ethno-linguistic lines of Sotho-Tswana (Sotho, Tswana, Pedi and Birwa speakers), iKalanga, Shekgalagari and all Other languages in the country.
In measuring “ethno-linguistic educational inequalities in Botswana”, the French researchers found that in the 2019 general election, 80 percent of illiterate voters were Sotho-Tswana with the remainder being Kalanga, Kgalagadi and Others; over 80 percent of voters with primary school education were Sotho-Tswana, with the remainder being Kalanga, Kgalagadi and Others; 80 percent of voters with secondary school education were Sotho-Tswana with the remainder being Kalanga and Kgalagadi and Others; over 80 percent of voters with tertiary education were Sotho-Tswana, with the remainder being Kalanga and Kgalagadi and Others.
More interestingly, the share of votes received by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party by language in the previous four election cycles, reveal a contest between speakers of Kalanga and those of Other languages.
In 2004, less than 50 percent of the votes received by the BDP were from Shekgalagari speakers, around 55 percent were from Kalanga speakers, 51 percent were from Sotho-Tswana speakers and 64 percent were from speakers of Other languages. In 2009, 67 percent of the BDP’s votes were from Kalanga speakers, 54 percent from Sotho-Tswana speakers, 46 percent from speakers of Other languages and 49 percent from Shekgalagari speakers. In 2014, with the BDP’s popularity having plunged to a historic low, the highest number of votes (52 percent) that it received was from speakers of Other languages, followed by Kalanga speakers at 49 percent, Shekgalagari speakers at 47 percent and Sotho-Tswana speakers at 45 percent. In 2019, when most surveys had the BDP neck and neck with the Umbrella for Democratic Change, Kalanga speakers did really go to bat for the ruling party: 70 percent of the votes that the BDP received were from Kalanga speakers; 59 percent were from speakers of Other languages, 57 percent were from Shekgalagari speakers and 55 percent were from Sotho-Tswana speakers.
Where support for the BDP among illiterate and primary-school education voters started to decline in 2004, it rose sharply in the 2019 general election. In 2004, the highest share of votes received by the BDP by education level (60 percent) was from the illiterate, followed by 54 percent from voters with primary school education. In the 2019 elections, the share of votes from both constituencies (75 percent for the illiterate and 64 percent for primary school education) peaked to a historic 20-year high. Most dramatic though for 2019, was the increase in the share of votes from people with secondary school education – from 43 percent in 2014 to 62 percent. What has impressed the latter about the BDP failed with voters with tertiary education. Over the past 20 years, support for the BDP among voters with tertiary education has declined by 35 percent – dropping to 29 percent in 2019 from 34 percent in 2014.
In terms of the distribution of education levels of the adult population in Botswana and its evolution over time (1999-2019), support from illiterate and primary-school education voters has been steadily declining, that of voters with tertiary education has been increasing marginally (especially between 2014 and 2019) while that of voters with secondary school education is increasing steadily – with a spurt between 2009 and 2014.
So, how did the French researchers compile a dataset that some will hotly contest? Their computations are based on Afrobarometer surveys and show descriptive statistics by year for selected available variables, namely education, age, gender, employment status, religion, location, region, language and occupation.
All three are scholars of repute but one (Piketty) particularly stands out. He achieved breakthrough success in the mainstream publishing world with his New York Times bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which was published in 2013 and for which he was awarded the British Academy Medal. In the book, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax as a solution for wealth and income inequality. He has served in the British Labour Party’s Economic Advisory Committee, convened by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and reporting to former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015, Piketty delivered the 13th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. Having completed his PhD studies at the London School of Economics, the French-born economist subsequently joined the university as the distinguished Centennial Professor, doing economic research focusses mainly on wealth inequalities and the use of capital in the 21st century.
With the latest research, Piketty’s team attempted to analyse why growing inequality in many parts of the world has not led to renewed class-based conflicts, and seems instead to have come with the emergence of new divides over identity and integration. The team observes that “this analysis sheds new light on how political movements succeed in coalescing multiple interests and identities in contemporary democracies. It also helps us understand the conditions under which conflicts over inequality become politically salient, as well as the similarities and constraints of voters supporting ethno-nationalist politicians like Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump.”
It is a given that their credentials notwithstanding, the research of Piketty & Co. will be questioned by some scholars and politicians here at home. There can be no doubt though that as the 2024 general election comes into view, some savvy politicians may be inspired to distill this research into valuable intelligence and use it like the Obama campaign did in 2012. That is how far advanced politics is in the 21st century.