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The contemporary contradictions of egalitarianism: an empirical analysis of the relationship between the old and new left/right alignments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 August 2011

Mark Elchardus*
Professor, Department of Sociology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium
Bram Spruyt
Research Assistant, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Research Foundation – Flanders), Brussels, Belgium


This paper deals with the often-observed complex relationship between the so-called old, ‘economic’ left/right alignment (egalitarianism) and the new, ‘cultural’ alignment. Many authors have observed that the less educated members of society occupy an apparently contradictory position, combining a leftist stand in favor of more equality and government intervention, with a rightist stand on minority rights, the treatment of criminals, and other aspects of democratic citizenship. Various explanations have been offered for this paradox. This paper proposes an explanation in terms of vulnerability and the way in which it is culturally processed. Less educated people are often vulnerable and long for more equality. The stronger their desire for equality, the greater their frustration when feeling vulnerable, and the greater the need to cope with that vulnerability. They do so, using particular narrative-coping strategies that create an affinity with the attitudes that form the new left/right alignment. One such coping strategy is based on feelings of relative deprivation. In the empirical part of the paper it is shown that relative deprivation completely explains the paradoxical position of the less educated, and that, when taking feelings of deprivation into account, the two left/right dimensions are in fact independent of each other at all levels of education, creating a situation that leads to tensions within parties that pursue egalitarian policies. The mechanism uncovered in this analysis reveals a tension at the heart of egalitarianism: the stronger the longing for equality among the vulnerable members of society, the more likely they are to opt for right wing positions on the new left/right dimension.

Research Article
Copyright © European Consortium for Political Research 2012

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