Global Governance

Stop blaming the rise of populism on economic angst

Demonstrator Wiley Drake attends a rally in support of President elect Donald Trump outside of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California

It’s the economy, stupid – or is it? Image: REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker

Glen O’Hara
Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Oxford Brookes University
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Politics is a key topic at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2017. Watch the session on 'Politics of Fear or Rebellion of the Forgotten?' here.

The US election results came as a shock to many people, and immediately led to soul-searching on all sides. The Left are already pointing the finger at globalization, elite economics and rising inequality, along with the disappearance of good, highly-prized blue collar jobs.

Given that Hillary Clinton lost this election in just three rustbelt states plagued by manufacturing decline – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – there is prima facie some evidence for this. Trump’s constant inveighing against trade deals that have “cost America jobs” (they probably haven’t), as well as his attacks on “global elites”, often in the shape of thinly-veiled antisemitism, will undoubtedly have gained him votes here. There was a swing away from Democrats and towards Republicans among lower-income voters. There’s something there. It’s important.

This is not, however, the whole story – or even, in my view, the main part of it. Elections are above all complex things – a meeting-place and a storehouse of narratives, interests, loyalties, identities and clashing conceptions of individual and state that cannot possibly be contained in a vessel marked “economic decline” or “economic anxiety”.

What economic revolt?

First things first: say what you like about all this, but Clinton won the popular vote – probably, in the end, by two percentage points or more. Not much of an economic revolt there, at least overall, and especially in states where people of colour – the group worst hit by the Great Recession – live in great numbers. Clinton made Georgia and Arizona quite competitive, and even pushed forward in deeply red Texas.

Map of US election results
Results as of 17 November 2016. Image: Politico

What use is our economic analysis if it can’t make sense of the (admittedly suspect) opinion polls that tell us voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on economic issues? Or the fact that those hurt most grievously by inequality voted for Clinton in the same proportion as they did for President Obama? Yes, it does seem that African-American and Hispanic turnout fell, but here again, there’s been little analysis of the role that Republican-inspired voter identification laws played.

A politics of fear

The rush to pin the rise of populism on the forces of globalization also ignores another trend that is supported by a whole library of social science evidence: people (and in particular older, whiter, less educated male voters) tend to be drawn towards the new wave of Right-wing populism when they too hold authoritarian views, and when they experience feelings of cultural isolation.

Reacting to a feeling of cultural threat, surrounded on all sides by what appears to be a whirlwind of change, many older white men have, in recent elections, been seizing on conjoined visions of the nostalgic and the radical. Nostalgic, because the noise given off about race, sexuality, gender and crime takes them back to an imagined and settled past; radical, because they feel in their hearts that, so vast are the upheavals, big steps will be needed to get there.

Jay Mears, (L),  a supporter of Republican Donald Trump as President of the United States, chats with passing protesters at a demonstration at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Sears - RTX2U1K8
Image: REUTERS/Phil Sears

There’s a huge amount of data about a declining sense of white privilege and white authority, hostility to immigration, dislike of multiculturalism, and the backlash that this election – in part, and only in part – represents. Not everything is about jobs.

The political climate on Main Street

Another factor downplayed in economic analyses of the US election is the peculiarities of American culture. Only rarely do we get a bottom-up analysis of events seen from the grassroots, witnessed from that semi-fictitious Main Street of Middle America that is such a powerful draw precisely because it almost always exists only in idealized (or, sometimes, dystopian) fiction.

Where are our European annalists going in and out of the bars and backstreets of North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa – all states carried by Obama, but lost by Clinton? Where are the writers who understand the appeal of the American Hero, alone, unsupported by class and party, coming to save the day – assuredly one more element in the rise of Trump, an independent insurgent who has seized control of a whole party?

Where is the understanding of why the Big Beneficent Plutocrat might be preferred to the Narrow, Mean Professional? Clinton failed to evoke hope, change, a better future – those key elements of that clichéd, but imaginatively very real, American Dream that Obama understood so well, but could not in the end use to help his party. She failed to outline what her America would be like. She wasn’t crystal clear, with just a few key lines. So she lost. Not everything is about the decline of the manufacturing industry.

Party loyalties and culture wars

Two more powerful forces were overlooked in most economic analyses of the elections: party loyalties and culture wars.

Despite a bit of weakening here and there, where suburbanites and highly-educated citizens decided they just couldn’t face voting for Trump, wealthier Americans by and large continued their adherence to the Republican Party.

Party loyalties eclipse everything else, apparently – especially with at least one seat on the Supreme Court at stake. It is worth exploring the other side of an economic case that does have a little merit: an upper-middle class and a wealthy, older citizenry that is so sated by superabundance, so secure, so rich and so ripe for autocracy, that they think the Republic will always stand, that capitalism will always serve their interests, that chaos can’t ever come to their door.

As for the culture wars, Trump makes great play of being a values-neutral and ideologically light businessman, up for any deal, so long as it works. But the election was in fact the culture wars election par excellence, pitting a woman against a man, the coasts against the interior, the rust belt against the sunbelt, old industries versus new industries, the universities against the workers, the country against the city.

This, for one thing, fired up hidden sexism everywhere – which, evidence shows, can be even more successful in that high-energy, high-emotion setting Trump and his team deliberately engendered.

More quantifiably, a huge category of “missing whites” – who gave 2008 and 2012 a miss both because Obama was so impressive and because his election seemed so likely (at least the first time round) – showed up in the Upper Midwest. Are these older, less educated, less regular voters really likely to be those angry factory workers so worried that their jobs are moving to Mexico? Or are they likely to be fired up by Washington “corruption” and gridlock, the right to bear arms, abortion, and resentment at the cultural cringe they feel forced to wear? I’d take a wager on the latter. Not everything is about money.

A divisive campaign

The final point that has been omitted from most analyses is the campaign itself. To file everything into that folder marked “economics” leaves out almost all we know about recent contests, in which many more votes are decided late on, and in which very busy low-information voters have to make decisions in a fog of fake news and from within social media filter bubbles that are draining the very heart out of our democracies. One widely spread narrative related to the stolen Clinton emails, which helped paint her as a consummate and scheming “insider” – the worst insult you could throw at a candidate when so many voters were already feeling ignored by Washington.

Then, to cap it all off, the FBI, led by Director James Comey, said they were again looking into Clinton’s emails – opening up all the old wounds about corruption, cover-ups, evasion and possible criminality that have dogged both Clintons since the early 1990s. It was just too much to shrug off when Trump was already well within striking distance. Although the evidence isn’t all in (and might never be), it probably dragged her down just a tiny bit at the end. If I was writing an instant history right now, I would say that the razor-thin margin of Trump’s victory in the key three states would be more than explained by Comey’s letter.

 Chart showing what voters thought of Hillary Clinton in 2014.
Even back in 2014, voters had doubts about Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness. A long and bitter campaign didn’t help.
What the Left just don’t understand

Why does any of this matter? Well for one, the crude economic interpretation that much of the American and European Left are indulging in takes away the electorate’s dignity of choice – voter autonomy, self-possession, individual definition, personal beliefs.

Highly educated Left-leaning politicians and activists in the West, who for many years have increasingly possessed degrees and lived in cities, don’t understand illiberalism. They never will. The long, strong rise of illiberal ideologies and politics across the world – from the “developmental states” of South-East Asia, via the managed Russian autocracy, through to Latin American populisms of both Left and Right – is now more than clear, and will be further strengthened by Trump’s victory.

Muscular, “patriotic” and insular economic policies are in vogue everywhere, often to the detriment of global growth. Decision-makers will just have to deal with that reality.

But across the developed world, the Left is struggling to accept that. It is struggling to change, consumed by a peculiar type of cod-political and sub-Marxist economic determinism that most good undergraduates would rule out of their essays on the 1848 or 1917 Revolutions – a politics, indeed, without much politics in it. It’s so cramped, the “white economic anxiety” headline. So limited. So impoverished. The Left won’t listen, and they can’t hear, and they fail to see. And then they lose: over, and over, and over again.

This article is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on the author’s personal blog.

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