Last Brexit to Trumptown?

If a week is a long time in politics, the month since Donald Trump’s ascension from idiot savant to President Elect feels like a lifetime. We have seen the global markets convulse, rally and convulse again. We have seen widespread direct action in US cities. The divisions raked over during his campaign have worsened. We have also seen a shift away from many of the policy pledges which we are reminded daily brought him to power.  In all but one arena: race. The newly dominant right claims this as a victory of ‘normal’ people against the forces of international capital and the depravity of socially liberal urbanites. All of this despite the obvious fact, that the ‘new’ elite have long been proponents of neoliberalism. The shrinking of the state, dismantling of collective bargaining, rapacious privatisation are all hallmarks of our erstwhile populists’ policy platform. Can we accept that they, and the electorates that elected them, have rejected these concepts wholesale? Looking at polling data from both the EU referendum and US presidential election, historical analysis of British and American electoral behaviour and we critique the prevailing analysis of the populist upswing in mature western democracies. The burning question is: does this mark the end of (neo)liberalism?

As events unfold a rather strange rhetorical alliance has been born. The rush to understand the victory no one wanted to believe would happen has given succour to two groups: two old adversaries -the transatlantic ‘left’ leaning intelligentsia and the brash new men of Western politics; elite iconoclasts. Pundits now rush to revise their previous scepticism, falling over themselves to a new dawn, a departure from the politics of old and the death knell for (neo)liberalism. Liberal and conservative wags have jolted to life, the Fourth Estate cries that more than four months connect Brexit and Trump – that the white working class has struck a blow back against urban elites. Those on the left or liberal side of this marriage of convenience have used the political perspective which most suits their agenda – (neo)liberalism failed post-industrial Britain and America. Those on the right claim that Brexit and Trump represent a high-water point for the New Right. Both groups argue that it is the failure of managerialism and (neo)liberalism which has brought us here. There is a problem with this analysis however.

Despite the demonstrable similarities in both campaigns and the eagerness of the erstwhile winners to cosy up to one another; attitudinal data from Trump and Brexit supporters does not bear this theory out. As Eric Kaufman highlights in his excellent critique of the ‘left behind narrative’ (1), both Trump and Brexit supporters were unequivocal in their reasoning. Attitudes to race, immigration and terrorism were better predicators of support for Trump and Brexit than inequality, the economy, healthcare or education. These factors are most prominent in ZIP codes and wards which have seen the highest rate of change in racial or cultural dynamics; in short, those which formerly had few or no non-white, non-British inhabitants. Why is this significant? It makes lie of the claim that it is deindustrialisation, inequality and core-periphery dynamics which brought about Trump and Brexit. The demographic breakdown of Republican and Leave voters just does not tally with the anti-globalisation ‘left-behind’ narrative peddled by liberal and conservative pundits like so many disposable cameras. A throwaway snapshot. Exit polls demonstrate that that 53% of Americans voting Democrat earn $30,000 or less a year. The figure for Republican voters was 41%. However, if we look at middle to high income brackets we see that the vote share between the two parties is roughly equal:

  • $50,000 – $99,999: Democrat 46% – Republican 50%
  • $100,000 – $199,999: Democrat 47% – Republican 48%
  • $200,000 – $249,999: Democrat 48% – Republican 49%
  • $250,000 or more: Democrat 46% – Republican 48%(2)

Despite this Republicans were more likely (78%) to believe that their family financial situation had worsened (2). This represents no change on polling data from the 2012 Presidential Election. In short, the outcome of the election merely confirmed existing trends. A similar trend in the geographic demographics of the EU referendum exists; the overlap between economic integration and trade dependence with the EU and high Leave vote share. 15% of East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire GDP is generated through trade with the EU. Yet, 65% of voters chose to leave the EU (3).  A number of other observers have addressed the non-sequitur of the ‘left behind narrative’. I believe something different is influencing British and American political views and behaviour.

If we accept that Republican voters were, on average, wealthier than their Democrat voting counterparts and that Brexit voters were more dependent on trade with the single market, how do we explain their claims? What is the justification for their sense of loss? The last five months of political commentary has ignored the cyclical nature of these trends. US productivity growth slowed markedly between 2006 and 2009 (4). Growth in British productivity has been inconsistent since the 2007/08 financial crash (5). Times of crises, economic or political, produce extremes. Most often this is manifested in the form of social intolerance. The emergence of fascism in 1920s Europe and its closest analogue in the US, Klu Klux Klan membership of 6 million occurred during periods of severe economic stress. The emergence of the National Front in the UK was not only predicated on immigration, but decolonialisation and the Gulf Oil Crisis. Those of us in western economies are living through a period of stagnation, politically and economically.  It isn’t simply that ‘things aren’t working’, but that people feel like things aren’t working.

Many on the left or liberal side of political commentary have spoken in dramatic terms about the parallels to earlier populist surges. What has been ignored in this however, is a clear definition of British and American nationalism. Brexit is rooted in a European nationalism. This is not to deny the patent ethno-cultural nature of the apparent resurgence of the European Right. However, Brexit is best framed in the European nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the history of nation building in Europe. The Leave vote is a vote for British exceptionalism. Just casting our eye over the motley crew of toff caricatures in driving the Leave campaign (off the white cliffs of Dover) understand the appeal to the British. These were characters straight from the pages of Jeeves and Wooster. I find it difficult to believe that large portions of the British electorate are so naïve that they would vote for Nigel Farage (his policy platform at least) the literal embodiment of British banking on the assumption that he would set about vigorously defending the little guy against Big Business.

American nationalism, as observed by Benedict Anderson, is not founded in the parochial ethno-linguistic rivalries of European nations. While language and print-capitalism drove straight to the heart of European nationalism, nationalisms in the Americas were not underpinned by these differences. Latin American and North American nationalisms were both uniformly Spanish and English in expression. Lack of vertical growth for ‘creoles’ (European natives settled in the Americas) fostered antipathy toward the Spanish and British empires. Despite this, their status was derived from their inherent superiority to Native Americans and African slaves. It is easy, in this context, to see how ‘white nationalism’ became the predominant form of nationalism in the United States. While European nationalisms were inextricably linked to increasing political enfranchisement of the people, American nationalism can be characterised as an oppositional nationalism; in the first instance by race; Native American, Hispanic and Black slaves. Later this morphed in to a form of authoritarian populism defined by its opposition to the Soviet Union and communism. What none of these nationalisms demonstrate is a rejection of capitalism. Should we believe that roughly 50% of the American electorate are so disconnected with their own country that they fail see Donald Trump as a living, breathing monument to muscular American free-market capitalism? What is apparent in all of this is an old form of nationalism best articulated by Benedict Anderson: ‘Who will willingly die for Comecon or the EEC?’ (6)

Why is it important to dissect the ‘rejection of (neo)liberalism and globalisation’ narrative? It is important for all of us passive observers to understand Brexit and Trump as a transferral of power between two elites. A land grab. Why have the ‘working classes’ on each side of the pond world voted for right-wing fiscal conservatives at every election since 1979? Why is there no clamour regarding the failure of collective bargaining in Britain and America? Britain has consistently voted for market deregulation, privatisation and latterly austerity policy platforms since 1979. The winner of every general election since 1979 has campaigned explicitly shrinking of the state, rolling-back of the welfare state, reductions in taxation, market liberalisation and tax incentives for business (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12). Further, the Conservative manifestos of the 1980s all take aim at the powers of collective bargaining available to British workers. The British have not rejected (neo)liberalism in the period 1979-2015. So why then should we presume that they have awoken to the ills of (neo)liberalism in the year since the last general election? This question is almost irrelevant in the US; a country which has not had a cohesive leftist political movement since the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s. I certainly don’t believe that the all-American working man has discovered the merits of collectivism and rejected individualism in 2016. Voting trends in America merely confirmed existing patterns; middle-to-high income earners in smaller urban centres and rural counties voted Republican. Voters in urban areas and those with college degrees voted Democrat. The demise of liberalism appears much like the hegemony of liberalism.

Thankfully the falsehood and misrepresentation of the populist right will likely become their Waterloo. When out of power bold claims and bluster are an effective way of generating attention and support. In power rhetoric needs to be replaced by action. Neither the Conservative party or Trump offer their constituency a true change. Chris Grayling is doggedly pushing forward with his attempts to privatise the rail network through the backdoor; his reward for gutting the prison system. Donald Trump is nearly two months from his inauguration, yet it is rumoured that he intends on privatising social security, Medicare – even the Veterans Administration! While I wouldn’t expect many of the middle-income, middle-class Americans that turned out for Trump would balk at the idea of Medicare and social security privatisation, I would expect all red-blooded, patriotic Americans to reject any attempts to make profit from US Veterans. Right-wing populists of the 1920s and 1930s offered an alternative; albeit a hellish reinterpretation of the social compact but a decisive change. How long will Donald Trump or Theresa May last once they are outed as conmen, as charlatans, hucksters and snake oil salesmen? The Republican establishment would like nothing more than to hear Trump exclaim: ‘Et tu Mike?’. Theresa May seems to have already seen the writing on the wall. She has an impossible mandate to carry out. With at most 3 years until a general election, she is expected to carry out successful negotiations and immediate ‘Hard Brexit’ without crippling the economy or compromising on immigration. Something has to give; probably her bid for election in 2019…

Next week I will compare voting behaviour in Britain and the US with trends in language, education and media narratives – why do conspiracy theories gain so much traction?

Works Cited

  1. LSE Blog. Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid. [Online] November 9, 2016. [Cited: November 26, 2016.]
  2. New York Times. Election 2016: Exit Polls. The New York Times. [Online] The New York Times, November 7, 2016. [Cited: November 29, 2016.]
  3. Financial Times – Blog. Brexit: voter turnout by age. Financial Times. [Online] Financial Times, June 24, 2016. [Cited: November 2, 2016.]
  4. Trading Economics. United States Nonfarm Labour Productivity. Trading Economics. [Online]
  5. —. United Kingdom Productivity. Trading Economics. [Online]
  6. Anderson, Benedict. Creole Pioneers. Imagined Communities. 1991.
  7. Conservative Party. Conservative Manifesto – 1979. [Online]
  8. —. Conservative Party Manifesto – 1983. [Online]
  9. —. Conservative Party Manifesto – 1987. [Online]
  10. Labour Party. Labour Party Manifesto – 2001. [Online]
  11. —. Labour Manifesto. [Online]
  12. Conservative Party. Conservative Party Manifesto – 2015. [Online]

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