Skip to main content Accessibility help

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

  • Mark Elchardus (a1) and Bram Spruyt (a2)


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.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Abrams, D.Hogg, M.A. (2004), ‘Metatheory: lessons from social identity research’, Personality and Social Psychology 8(2): 98106.
Achterberg, P.Houtman, D. (2009), ‘Ideologically illogical? Why do the lower-educated Dutch display so little value coherence?’, Social Forces 87(3): 16491670.
Alexander, J.C. (1982), Theoretical Logic in Sociology. Vol.1, Positivism, Presuppositions, and Current Controversies, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Arwine, A.Mayer, L. (2008), ‘The changing base of political conflict in Western Europe: the cases of Belgium and Austria’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 14(3): 428452.
Bartolini, S.Mair, P. (1990), Identity, Competition, and Electoral Availability: The Stabilization of European Electorates 1885–1985, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bauman, Z. (2000), Liquid Modernity, London: Polity Press.
Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.
Benjamin, A.J. (2006), ‘The relationship between right-wing authoritarianism and attitudes toward violence: further validation of the attitudes toward violence scale’, Social Behavior and Personality 34(8): 923926.
Billiet, J.De Witte, H. (1995), ‘Attitudinal dispositions to vote for a ‘new’ extreme right-wing party: the case of ‘Vlaams Blok’ ’, European Journal of Political Research 27(2): 181202.
Bishop, G.F. (1976), ‘The effect of education on ideological consistency’, The Public Opinion Quarterly 40(3): 337348.
Boltanski, L.Thévenot, L. (1991), De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur, Paris: Gallimard.
Bonilla-Silva, E.L.A.Embrick, D.G. (2004), ‘ “I did not get that job because of a black man…”: the story lines and testimonies of color-blind racism’, Sociological Forum 19(4): 555581.
Carmines, E.G.Stimson, J.A. (1982), ‘Racial issues and the structure of mass belief systems’, The Journal of Politics 44(1): 220.
Converse, P.E. (1964), ‘The nature of belief systems’, in D.E. Apter (ed.), Ideology and Discontent, New York: The Free Press, pp. 206261.
Dalton, R.J. (1988), Citizen Politics in Western Democracies, Chatham: Chatham House.
De Groof, S.Elchardus, M. (2009), ‘Kwetsbaarheid, anomie, autoritarisme en ethnocentrisme’, in M. Elchardus and J. Siongers (eds), Vreemden, Tielt: Lannoo, pp. 7998.
De Koster, W.Van der Waal, J. (2007), ‘Cultural value orientations and Christian religiosity: on moral traditionalism, authoritarianism, and their implications for voting behavior’, International Political Science Review 28(4): 451467.
Derks, A. (2000), Individualisme Zonder Verhaal, Brussel: VUB Press.
Derks, A. (2004), ‘Are the underprivileged really that economically ‘leftist’? Attitudes towards economic redistribution and the welfare state in Flanders’, European Journal of Political Research 43(4): 509521.
Derks, A. (2006), ‘Populism and the ambivalence of egalitarism. How do the underprivileged reconcile a right wing party preference with their socio-economic attitudes?’, World Political Science Review 2(3): 175200.
Elchardus, M. (1994a), ‘Gekaapte deugden. Over de nieuwe politieke breuklijn en de zin van limieten’, Samenleving en Politiek 1(1): 2027.
Elchardus, M. (1994b), ‘Over de ontdubbeling van links en rechts’, Samenleving en Politiek 1(7): 517.
Elchardus, M. (1996), ‘Class, cultural re-alignment and the rise of the populist right’, in A. Erskine, M. Elchardus, S. Herkommer and J. Ryan (eds), Changing Europe: Some Aspects of Identity, Conflict and Social Justice, Alderschot: Avebury, pp. 4163.
Elchardus, M. (2009), ‘Ethnisch vooroordeel als verwerkte kwetsbaarheid’, in M. Elchardus and J. Siongers (eds), Vreemden, Tielt: Lannoo, pp. 6178.
Elchardus, M.Pelleriaux, K. (1998), ‘De polis verdeeld. Hoe de kiezers links en rechts herdefiniëren’, in M. Swyngedouw, J. Billiet, A. Carton and R. Beerten (eds), De (on)redelijke kiezer. Onderzoek naar de politieke opvattingen van Vlamingen. Verkiezingen van 21 mei 1995, Leuven: Acco, pp. 183210.
Elchardus, M.Smits, W. (2006), Het grootste geluk, Tielt: LannooCampus.
Elchardus, M.Spruyt, B. (2010), ‘Does higher education influence the attitudes with regard to the extreme right?’, European Journal of Social Sciences 18(2): 181195.
Elchardus, M., Glorieux, I., Derks, A.Pelleriaux, K. (1996), Voorspelbaar ongeluk. Over letsels die werkloosheid nalaat bij mannen en hun kinderen, Brussel: VUB press.
Elchardus, M., et al. (1999), Zonder maskers. Een actueel portret van jongeren en hun leraren, Gent: Globe.
Evans, G.A.Heath, A.F. (1995), ‘The measurement of left-right and libertarian-authoritarian values: a comparison of balanced and unbalanced scales’, Quality and Quantity 29(2): 191206.
Evans, G.A., Heath, A.F.Lalljee, M. (1996), ‘Measuring left-right and libertarian-authoritarian values in the British electorate’, The British Journal of Sociology 47(1): 93112.
Flanagan, S.C. (1979), ‘Value change and partisan change in Japan: the silent revolution revisited’, Comparative Politics 11: 253278.
Flanagan, S.C. (1987), ‘Value change in industrial societies’, The American Political Science Review 81(4): 12891319.
Fleishman, J.A. (1988), ‘Attitude organization in the general public: evidence for a bidimensional structure’, Social Forces 67(1): 159184.
Gallie, D. (1978), Search of a New Working Class: Automation and Social Integration within Capitalist Enterprise, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gibbins, J.R. (1989), ‘Contemporary political culture: an introduction’, in J.R. Gibbins (ed.), Contemporary Political Culture, Politics in a Postmodern Age, London: Sage, pp. 130.
Giddens, A. (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity.
Goffman, E. (1974), Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York: Harper and Row.
Goldthorpe, J.H., Lockwood, D., Bechhofer, F.Platt, J. (1969), The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grant, P.R.Brown, R. (1995), ‘From ethnocentrism to collective protest: responses to relative deprivation and threats to social identity’, Social Psychology Quarterly 58(3): 195211.
Grunberg, G.Schweisguth, E. (1990), ‘Libéralisme culturel et libéralisme économique’, in D. Boy and N. Mayer (eds), L’électeur Français en question, Paris: Presses de Sciences, pp. 4569.
Hainsworth, P. (1992), The Extreme Right in Europe and the USA, London: Pinter.
Harré, R. (1989), ‘Language games and the texts of identity’, in J. Shotter and K. J. Gergen (eds), Texts of Identity, London: Sage, pp. 119.
Hellemans, S. (1990), Strijd om de moderniteit, KADOC studies 10, Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven.
Hogg, M.A. (2000), ‘Subjective uncertainty reduction through self-categorization. A motivational theory of social identity processes’, European Review of Social Psychology 11: 223255.
Hogg, M.A. (2005), ‘Uncertainty, social identity, and ideology’, in S.R. Thye and E.J. Lawler (eds), Advances in Group Processes, New York: Elsevier, pp. 203229.
Hogg, M.A., Hohmann, Z.P.Rivera, J.E. (2008), ‘Why do people join groups? Three motivational accounts from social psychology’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2(3): 12691280.
Houtman, D. (2003a), Class and Politics in Contemporary Social Science. “Marxism Lite” and Its Blind Spot for Culture, New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Houtman, D. (2003b), ‘Lipset and “working-class” authoritarianism’, The American Sociologist 34(1–2): 85103.
Houtman, D., Achterberg, P.Derks, A. (2008), Farewell to the leftist working class, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
Ignazi, P.Ysmal, C. (1992), Extreme Right Wing Parties in Europe, Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Inglehart, R. (1984), ‘The changing structure of political cleavages in Western society’, in R.J. Dalton, S.C. Flanagan and P.A. Beck (eds), Electoral Changes in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 2569.
Jaeger, M.M. (2006), ‘What makes people support public responsibility for welfare provision: self-interest or political ideology?’, Acta Sociologica 49(3): 321338.
Kriesi, H.-P. (1998), ‘The transformation of cleavage politics: the 1997 Stein Rokkan lecture’, European Journal of Political Research 33(2): 165185.
Kriesi, H.-P., Grande, E., Lachat, R., Dolezal, M., Bornschier, S.Frey, T. (2008), West-European Politics in the Age of Globalization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Krosnick, J.A. (1999), ‘Survey research’, Annual Review of Psychology 50: 537567.
Lachat, R.Dolezal, M. (2008), ‘Dealignment and realignment of the structural political potentials’, in H. Kriesi, E. Grande, R. Lachat, M. Dolezal, S. Bornschier and T. Frey (eds), West European politics in the age of globalization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 236267.
Lane, R.E. (1973), ‘Patterns of political belief’, in J.N. Knutson (ed.), Handbook of Political Psychology, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 83117.
Lipset, S.M. (1959), ‘Democracy and working class authoritarianism’, American Political Science Review 24(4): 482502.
Lipset, S.M. (1981), ‘Political man updated’, in S.M. Lipset (ed.), Political Man. The Social Bases of Politics, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, pp. 459523.
Marsh, H.W. (1996), ‘Positive and negative global self-esteem: a substantively meaningful distinction or artifactors’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70(4): 810819.
Middendorp, C.P. (1978), Progressiveness and Conservatism, The Hague: Mouton.
Middendorp, C.P. (1979), Ontzuiling, politisering en restauratie in Nederland. Progressiviteit en conservatisme in de jaren 60 en 70, Amsterdam: Boom Meppel.
Minkenberg, M. (1992), ‘The New Right in Germany. The transformation of conservatism and the extreme right’, European Journal of Political Research 22(1): 5581.
Minkenberg, M.Inglehart, R. (1989), ‘Neoconservatism and value change in the USA: tendencies in the mass public of a postindustrial society’, in J.R. Gibbins (ed.), Contemporary Political Culture, Politics in a Postmodern Age, London: Sage, pp. 81109.
Pelleriaux, K. (2001), Demotie en burgerschap, Brussel: VUB Press.
Reimer, B. (1989), ‘Postmodern structures of feeling: values and lifestyles in the postmodern age’, in J.R. Gibbins (ed.), Contemporary Political Culture, Politics in a Postmodern Age, London: Sage, pp. 110126.
Runciman, W.R. (1966), Relative Deprivation and Social Justice: A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth-Century England, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Scheepers, P., Billiet, J.De Witte, H. (1995), ‘Het electoraat van het Vlaams Blok. De kiezers en hun opvattingen’, Sociologische Gids 42(3): 232252.
Schmitt, R. (1989), ‘From ‘Old politics’ to ‘New politics’: three decades of peace protest in West Germany’, in J.R. Giddens (ed.), Contemporary Political Culture. Politics in a Post-modern Age, London: Sage, pp. 174198.
Sorokin, P.A. (1928), Contemporary Sociological Theories, Through the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century, New York: Harper and Row.
Srole, L. (1956), ‘Social integration and certain corollaries: an exploratory study’, American Sociological Review 21(6): 709716.
Stack, S. (2003), ‘Authoritarianism and support for the death penalty: a multivariate analysis’, Sociological Focus 36(4): 333352.
Stenner, K. (2005), The Authoritarian Dynamic, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sternhell, Z. (2006), Les anti-Lumières. Une tradition du XVIIIeme siècle à la guerre froide, Paris: Gallimard.
Stouffer, S.A., Suchman, E.A., DeVinney, L.C, Star, S.A.Williams, R.M. (1949), The American Soldier, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stubager, R. (2008), ‘Education effects on authoritarian-libertarian values: a question of socialization’, The British Journal of Sociology 59(2): 327350.
Stubager, R. (2009), ‘Education-based group identity and consciousness in the authoritarian-libertarian value conflict’, European Journal of Political Research 48(2): 204233.
Taylor, C. (1991), The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tilly, C. (2006), Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons … and Why, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Topf, R. (1989), ‘Political change and political culture in Britain, 1959–87’, in J.R. Gibbins (ed.), Contemporary Political Culture, Politics in a Postmodern Age, London: Sage, pp. 5280.
Treier, S.Hillygus, S.D. (2009), ‘The nature of political ideology in the contemporary electorate’, Public Opinion Quarterly 73(4): 679703.
Van der Brug, W.Fennema, M. (2003), ‘Protest or mainstream? How the European anti-immigrant parties have developed into two separate groups by 1999’, European Journal of Political Research 36(3): 309329.
Van der Brug, W.van Spanje, J. (2009), ‘Immigration, Europe and the new cultural dimension’, European Journal of Political Science 48(3): 309334.
Van der Brug, W., Fennema, M.Tillie, J. (2000), ‘Anti-immigrant parties in Europe: ideological or protest vote’, European Journal of Political Research 37(1): 77102.
Vanneman, R.D.Pettigrew, T.F. (1972), ‘Race and relative deprivation in the urban United States’, Race and Class 13(4): 461486.
Walker, I.Smith, H.J. (2002), ‘Fifty years of relative deprivation research’, in I. Walker and H.J. Smith (eds), Relative Deprivation: Specification, Development, and Integration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 112.
Wuthnow, R. (1989), Communities of Discourse. Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Elchardus supplementary Appendix
Elchardus supplementary Appendix

 Word (283 KB)
283 KB

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

  • Mark Elchardus (a1) and Bram Spruyt (a2)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed