Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Stop saying that Trumpism is about economics


The election of Donald Trump to serve as President of the United States (above) came as a shock to many people (though not, of course, if you've been refreshing this page). The reaction to that shock in Europe, including the UK, has been some pretty justified concern, and even fear, as to what President-Elect Trump will do with all that power. Will he undermine NATO, plunge us into trade wars with China, and use his bully pulpit to poison race relations across the Western world? Or will things turn out a bit calmer than it seems right now? Possibly a bit of both, though as you'd imagine we tend towards the former interpretation.

In any case, the next and inevitable line of the reaction was the immediate analysis - that natural and understandable stage of contemporary history which sees people asking 'how on Earth did that just happen?' On the Left, one big answer became: this is a judgement on globalisation, on elite economics, on rising inequality, and on the disappearance of good, highly-prized blue collar jobs. Given that Hillary Clinton lost this election in just three rustbelt states plagued with manufacturing decline - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - there is prima facie some evidence for this. Mr Trump's constant inveighing against trade deals that have 'cost America jobs' (they probably haven't), as well as the thinly-veiled antisemitism of his attacks on 'global elites', will undoubtedly have gained him votes here. There was a swing towards the Republicans, and away from the Democrats, among lower-income voters. There's something there. It's important.

This is not, however, the whole story - or even, in our 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'. And so it was with this election - one fought as much between the urban and the rural, and coalitions of imagined 'future' and 'past', ascendance and restoration, as it was between the economics of success and failure.

First things first: say what you like about all this, but Hillary won the popular vote. Following on from an administration which helped to create jobs at a not-inconsiderable pace - and had just got to the stage of raising wages from their pre-crisis baseline. Secretary Clinton is probably going to win the whole thing by two percentage points, or even more. Having already run past Mitt Romney's vote total, she's surging on to rack up the highest number of actual votes anyone not named 'Barack Obama' has ever won. Not much of an economic revolt there, at least overall, and especially in states where people of colour - the group by far worst hit by the Great Recession - live in great numbers. Secretary Clinton made Georgia and Arizona quite competitive, those states taking their next steps towards the Democrats' blue column, and even pushed forward quite a long way in deeply-red Texas. Where is our economic analysis when it cannot make sense of the fact that admittedly-suspect opinion polling tells us that Hillary won voters asked specifically about the economy, when she still captured the majority of the most disadvantaged Americans, when those hurt most grievously by inequality mostly voted for her in the same proportion as they did for President Obama? Yes, it does seem as if African-American and Hispanic turnout did fall, but here again there's but little analysis - for instance in vital North Carolina and Wisconsin - of the role that new Republican-inspired voter identification laws played in that process.

Next: there is an absolute stack of social science evidence that shows that the propensity to vote for the new wave of Right-populism is correlated, not so much to income and economic class, but to the extent to which voters hold authoritarian views themselves, and to feelings of cultural isolation among older, whiter, less educated male voters. It's as simple as that. Reacting to a feeling of cultural threat, surrounded on all sides by what appears to be a whirlwind of change, many older white men - in Britain as well as in the US - will seize on conjoined visions of the nostalgic and the radical. Nostalgic, because the noise given off about race, sexuality, gender and crime take them back to an imagined and settled past; radical, because they feel in their hearts that, so vast are the upheavals, huge steps will be needed to get there. We've got data coming out of our ears 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. Apparently it's all about jobs, though.

Thirdly: economic analyses of elections in the United States seem to give nothing but a passing nod to 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 idealised (or, sometimes, dystopian) fiction. Where are our European annalists who've been in and out of the bars and backstreets of North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa - all states carried by President Obama, but lost by Secretary Clinton? Where are the writers who understand the appeal of the American Hero, alone, unsupported by class and party, riding out of the sunrise to save the day - assuredly one more element in the rise of Mr Trump, an independent insurgent who has seized control of a whole party? Where is the understanding about exactly why the Big Beneficent Plutocrat might be preferred to the Narrow, Mean Professional? You'd think that all those years of cultural studies and the linguistic turn would have engendered at least some awareness of the American mythos. Mrs Clinton failed to evoke hope, change, a better future - those key elements of that cliched, but imaginatively very real, American Dream that President Obama understood so well, but could not in the end use to help his party. She failed to outline, clearly enough, what her America would be like. She wasn't crystal clear, with just a few key lines. So she lost. Supposedly everything is about manufacturing, though.

Further: wealthier Americans continued their adherence to the Republican Party, despite a bit of weakening here and there where suburbanites and highly-educated citizens decided that they just could not face voting for a candidate as grotesque and unqualified as Mr Trump. Party trumps everything else, apparently - especially with at least one, and perhaps one or two other, seats 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, crudely in fact so rich and so ripe for autocracy, that they think that the Republic will always stand, that capitalism will always serve their interests, that chaos can't ever come to their door. Well, if this experiment in demagoguery goes wrong, they are about to find out just how wrong they are, aren't they?

Fifth: has everyone forgotten the culture wars? Mr Trump makes great play of being a values-neutral and ideologically-light businessman, up for any deal, so long as it works - a good display of a very cynical and regressive ideology in itself, in fact, though we'll let that pass for now. But the election just past 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 that inconvenient thing, actual evidence, shows can be even more successful in that high-energy, high-emotion setting Mr Trump and his team deliberately engendered. More quantifiably, a huge category of 'missing whites', who gave 2008 and 2012 a miss both because President Obama was so impressive, and in the former case because his election seemed so likely, showed up in the Upper Midwest - just as they had in the 2014 mid-terms, the last time we saw a US polling miss on this scale. Much more research is required here. Are these older, less educated, less regular voters really likely to be those angry factory workers so exercised that their jobs have, or might be about, to move to Mexico? Or are they likely to be fired up by what they often say they are - Washington 'corruption' and gridlock, the right to bear arms, abortion, resentment at the cultural cringe they feel forced to wear? We'll take a wager on the latter, thank you very much.

Sixth and last: what about the campaign? To shove everything into the file marked 'economics' leaves out almost everything 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. In case you hadn't noticed, one widely-spread set of stories on Facebook were the stolen Wikileaks emails out of the Clinton campaign, which although they were for the most part stultifyingly boring, helped to paint Secretary Clinton as a consummate and scheming 'insider' - that worst of all insults if you're looking at this from (for instance) the Florida Panhandle and you feel Washington has forgotten all about your views and your morals.

Then, to cap it all off, the FBI said that they were looking into Clinton's own emails - opening up all the old wounds about corruption, cover-ups, evasion and possible criminality which have dogged both Clintons since the early 1990s. It was just too much to shrug off when Mr Trump was already well within striking distance. Although all the evidence is not in (and might never be in), it probably dragged her down just a tiny bit at the end. If we were writing the history right now? The razor-thin margin of Mr Trump's victory in the key three states would be more than explained by Director Comey's letter. And if Hillary had narrowly pulled through, with just fifty or sixty thousand votes swinging it the other way, everyone would be saying 'oh, it was the demographics, it was rising wages, it was the jobs miracle of the Obama years that won it'. The narrative can be spun on a sixpence. Don't let anyone do that. The Russian government that helps to sponsor Wikileaks, and the FBI that blew up a big story about what it then admitted was nothing, played a key role here. Focus on the economics? You miss the whole trick.

So here's what the economic interpretation misses: the economics of success as well as failure; the psychological and emotional drivers of Right-populism; the whole context of American history and culture; the actual structure of the Republican vote; culture and gender's role in the whole debacle; and campaigning politics themselves. So pretty much everything, really.

What is most galling about all this is that the crude economic interpretation that UK Labour and some of its allies appear to be indulging in takes away the electorate's dignity of choice - the voters' autonomy, self-possession, individual definition, personal beliefs. Yet again, this is the Left saying: 'you must have been desperate to do that'. 'You must be raging against something'. 'You must be victims'. 'What were you thinking?', they say, in the same slick metropolitan tones that lost them all those votes in the first place - leaving an implicit sneer and disqualification in the air that will do just as much to normalise and validate Mr Trump as will all those conservatives who choose to serve in his administration. Highly-educated Left-leaning politicians and activists, who for many years have increasingly possessed degrees and lived in cities, don't get illiberalism. They never will. So they say it has to be all about fear, loss and self-interest. Perhaps it's not. Perhaps it's because you don't talk like anyone who most people have ever heard in person. Ever considered that?

So there you have it. It is abundantly evident that the European Left cannot cope with complexity, nuance, change, uncertainty. It is even clearer that it is being consumed by a peculiar type of cod-political and sub-Marxist economic determinism that most good A-Level students would rule out of their essays on the 1848 or 1917 Revolutions. 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.

3 comments:

  1. ....but they don't lose over and over and over again. The left (do we really regard Clinton as the left?) will win again in the US in four or eight years time. It's partly just cyclical. People get sick of one lot eventually. Obama was far from the worst, but he hardly delivered on the 'Hope' he promised. There wasn't wage growth, the jobs aren't what they used to be etc.

    In suggesting that one analysis is too simplistic, are you not also being simplistic? For instance, there is likely to be a correlation between cultural isolation and economic isolation. These reinforce each other.

    There are also lots of different cohorts of voters, who are motivated by different things. Especially in a close election, ALL of these things could be decisive...anything that shifted a few hundred thousand votes in keys states will be important.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your blog post. I just have two questions:

    '[The Left] 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.'

    Are these undergraduates good because they rule out Marxist economic determinism from their essays?

    ‘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.’

    More so than market failures in which individuals and firms avoid paying the full costs attributable to them by shedding their liabilities outside the market? (If social justice is central to our conception of democracy that is?)

    Thanks, Prof O'Hara!

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  3. Good article. It is obvious that the left in Europe as well as in the USA is losing. Do you have any suggestions on how the left could change that? Or can you point to an article more focused solutions and less on the causes of the problem?
    Thanks, Cyrille

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