The Origins of Elite Splits

The origins of political divisions, for instance along center-periphery cleavages, have received scholarly attention in the studies by Lipset & Rokkan (1967), and especially by Rokkan in his subsequent analyses in the 1970s. In these explanations, the emphasis was on how modernization processes and distinct cultural characteristics (past institutions, language, etc.) shaped identity at the regional level. Yet, the recent contribution by Maayan Mor shows that voters reaction to central State policies is also relevant to understand the emergence of ethnic cleavage formation. Beyond voters, in a recently published paper, I show the importance of elite preferences, incentives, and resources to explain the origins of elite competition and the emergence of a center-periphery cleavage.

The study of political elites has gained prominence in the study of HPE in recent years (see this post) with most studies focusing on the consequences of elite competition, for instance, on franchise extension, democratization, or changes in fiscal institutions. The origins of elite competition have received much less attention. The previous literature on elite struggles tends to take elite divisions as given, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, a better understanding on the origins of these divisions can contribute to explain when and how elite struggles entail consequences for democratization or for other institutional reforms. In my recent paper, I specify some of the conditions and the mechanisms that lead some elites to engage in a process of elite division and to foster elite political competition.

I focus on the case of Catalonia in the late 19th and early 20th century. Catalonia is a region with a distinct culture, institutions, and language, and the first attempts to revive the Catalan nation and culture took place in the second half of the 19th century. Moreover, Catalonia was at the forefront of the industrialization process since the early 19th century in a largely rural Spain. Despite these two conditions, most elites in Catalonia remained politically aligned with Spanish elites until the early 20th century. In 1901, certain sectors of the Catalan elites—some industrialists, the petty bourgeoisie, and intellectual elites—joined to promote a new political party: the Lliga Regionalista. They were electorally successful and from 1910s onwards they were the predominant political party in Catalonia. Why, where, and when did these elites decide to support and enhance this new party?

Building on Rokkanian intuitions, economic geography explanations, and the relevance of organizational capacity, I argue that two factors are crucial to understand when elite splits take place. On the one hand, I posit that economic heterogeneity is only important when there are changes that exacerbate differences among elites. Even when elites are heterogeneous there might be intra-elite arrangements that make it possible for elites to coexist, but when there are sudden changes these mechanisms are more likely to blow up. This is what I claim it happened in Catalonia after the 1898 colonial crisis. In 1898, Spain lost the last overseas colonies—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philipinnes— and this had important economic consequences for the Catalan industries, which largely relied on colonial exports. The loss of the colonies, without a proper compensation mechanism, had an impact on the Catalan bourgeoisie. I constructed a shift-share instrument to capture the trade shock of this event by relying on aggregate export data and locality level industry composition characteristics. From this measure, I can ascertain which the most affected areas in Catalonia by the shock were and which elites had more incentives to engage in an elite split.

On the other hand, even when elites have incentives to politically split they also need to take into account whether their political enterprise would be successful. Elites then consider whether they can resort to mobilization resources to win elections. In Catalonia, I argue, this organizational capacity was provided by a network of intellectual agents. Based on the origins and attendance to one of the first pro-Catalan nationalist assemblies (Assemblea de Manresa) in 1892, I capture the mobilization resources in hands of elites.

When combining these two elements I find that it was precisely in these constituencies where elites were subject to a largest economic shock and where they had access to mobilization resources that a candidate of the Lliga Regionalista, the Catalan elite-led political party, was more likely to stand for office. In fact, in areas with very low mobilizational capacities, the economic shock was not transformed into elite divisions, this only happened where both factors were present. Thus, economic differences and organizational capacity are both important to observe elite divisions.

This finding contributes to endogeneize some factors associated with elite competition and it shows that economic differences and mobilization are not only a consequences of elite struggles but also lie in their origins. Moreover, this paper also contributes to better understanding the origins of regional elite cleavages, which have regained importance in the last years with rising secessionist movements all over the world. The role of elite incentives and resources is crucial to understand the evolution of this cleavage. This paper also focuses on the importance of trade, not only for voters in contemporaneous settings, but also for the elites in the democratization periods. Finally, this paper aims to attract attention to the origins of elite divisions, which are crucial to understand the consequences of elite divisions, and to also consider regional elites. In the other two papers of my dissertation, I argue that presence of politically organized elites in Catalonia and elite struggles were important for the democratization process, but I will cover this in upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned.


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