Sunday, 13 November 2016
The idea of Donald Trump rebranding himself as a champion of the forgotten working class of America is about as absurd as politics gets. Yet amid all of the online fury and liberal media whining, it is clear that millions of working class Americans did vote for Trump just as many of them voted for Brexit in the UK. Maybe not a majority, but enough to make a difference. It may be true that Trump didn't actually win the election in numbers terms since he lost the popular vote. However until the US and UK reform their unfair electoral systems candidates have to work with what they have and in the key swing states where Trump and Clinton concentrated their efforts Trump won and that is what matters. Just as with Brexit, his victory says more about the failures of the left than it does about Trump himself who may well turn out to be the kind of loud PT Barnum type conman that America produces so well.
If you don't understand why millions of people voted for Trump, you are probably part of the reason why they did is an adage being bandied around social media and it's one I basically agree with. It may be true that there's a sucker born every minute, as Barnum once famously said. However whining on about how Trump voters are stupid, thick and too dim to realise that they've just voted for a billionaire con-merchant will achieve absolutely nothing. Of course they know that he's a billionaire who doesn't want to pay his taxes just as much as they know that he's a foul-mouthed boorish oaf who boasted about groping women. But for many who voted for him all of that is secondary to the fact that he offers something that seems different to the mainstream politicians of both left and right who have failed to address their economic concerns. Too many commentators on the left are content to just point out the ridiculous irony of all of this and go no further.
Liberal free-trade and globalisation are felt to have thrown whole communities open to worldwide competition. Jobs are believed to be moving to where labour is the cheapest, for example from the US to Mexico, and cheap labour is believed to be being imported in to keep the labour costs of US workers down. Of course the reality is much more sophisticated than that however, just as in the UK, real wages have declined since 2008 in many areas. The big puzzle is why many people in the US and the UK do not seem to place the ultimate blame for all this on the right-wing neo-liberal policies of the Reagan-Thatcher years or the banker-created crash of 2008 and indeed are rushing to vote for right wing politicians rather than the anti-establishment left.
Except that it isn't really a puzzle at all, it is surprisingly clear why this is happening. Since the downfall of communism, the mainstream left has struggled for an identity and has consciously sought to adopt huge chunks of the neo-liberal agenda. Blairism, Clintonism or whatever you want to call the centre-left has pursued policies of privatisation, PFI deals, deregulation and liberalisation of free trade and free movement. This shamelessly pro big business agenda has left whole communities adrift in a sea of decline. Moreover the centre-left has recast itself as being mainly about 'identity politics' , or rather this is how it seems to many. So the image of the left seems to be mainly about rights for minorities, diversity, opposing hate speech, safe spaces and political correctness. What the left has failed to do is to advance an alternative economic strategy to neo-liberalism. It's as if they threw their hands up in the air (collectively of course) in 1991 and said, "Ok, we've lost the economic arguments, but we have something else to offer instead." Bad move. As Bill Clinton himself once said, "It's the economy stupid". Identity politics has absolutely achieved great things and made the world a better place. A sizeable chunk of Trump voters in the swing states also voted for Obama, the first black president. However without an economic plan for those damaged by neo-liberalism a vast opportunity for the right has been opened up.
Moreover, Trump and Brexit are not the same right as Thatcher and Reagan. They have much in common of course however Trump has championed protectionism in his speeches. The whole idea of Brexit makes no economic sense in neo-liberal terms and for all her hand bagging of European leaders and 'no, no, no' rhetoric, Thatcher saw the EU as being about free trade. What is happening is that the right is appearing to offer a kind of interventionist kicking of the neo-liberal elites on the economic issue. While the left remains tainted by the Clinton and Blair years.
Some centre-left commentators are taking comfort from the generation gap and pointing out that older voters tended to vote for Trump and Brexit while younger voters backed Clinton and Remain. So all they have to do is wait for the old to depart this mortal coil and all will be well. Very complacent thinking. In the US election only 54% of millenials backed Clinton, 6% down on those who backed Obama. Millenials also remain the age group least likely to vote in both the US and UK. Part of this may be down to the inability of an 'establishment' candidate like Hillary Clinton to turbo-charge her core age group in the same way that Trump did his. Yet it is still surprising that more of them didn't get out there and vote when they are so liberal on rights issues that they seem to exist in a perpetual state of being bitterly offended by something or other. To the easily bruised millenials, Trump must seem like the devil incarnate, hell's vile intelligencer, the incarnation of the beast. Again it comes down to the failure of the mainstream left in the US to offer a convincing or engaging enough economic alternative. Bernie may have done it, but Bernie wasn't on the ticket. There is no guarantee that millenials will have the same political outlook in twenty years time that they have now. Consider what happened to the baby-boomers. Also it is facile just to lump all millenials together as a homogeneous group. A middle class student at Berkeley will see things very differently to an unemployed labourer's son in Allentown.
It is clear also that voters today are less partisan. The old 'left-right' paradigm is fading away and people are more likely to switch their allegiances, including the millenials. Terms such as 'left-wing', 'socialist' and so on are not so much toxic as obsolete to many. Even Momentum has chosen a non-ideological brand name for itself.
So what now? If the so-called progressives on both sides of the pond want to stop the march of the right, and they certainly do, then they must start listening to those people who are voting for the right, particularly disaffected people from working class communities. Middle class progressives will have to pay more tax, it is as simple as that. The middle classes must give a greater proportion of their wealth up to those underneath them and the liberal-left sections of the middle class will need to make this happen. This will necessitate a fundamental shift in their thinking away from the neo-liberal consensus of the last 35 years. They will need to acquire the popular touch, which is an anathema to many on the left of politics. Unfortunately the opposite of being popular is being unpopular. Get it? Above all they will need to stop talking down their noses at ordinary people and their concerns.
It is essential to advance an economic agenda which clearly challenges neo-liberalism, de-regulation and big business while offering economic security. For Greens, this means showing how renewable energy, conservation and the green economy can revive communities while a universal citizens' income will provide greater security. It means challenging the nonsense offered up by the likes of Trump that tax cuts and welfare cuts will make the marginalised better off. Above all it means offering an alternative to both Trump and the grey political establishment.