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After Trump, What Next for the Left?

10/11/2016 12:05

By Richard Carr and Bradley W. Hart

Let's concede something straight off: virtually no one expected this. Not the Trump campaign which, according to CNN, believed it had lost when the early returns started coming in. Certainly not the Clinton campaign, which was about ready to start its victory celebrations when the polls began closing on the East Coast. Not the media, which reflexively believed its own polling. Indeed, one of the few people who called this was the filmmaker Michael Moore, who predicted almost this exact outcome months ago after nearly a decade out of the mainstream spotlight.

How did all this happen? What does it mean?

There are several key patterns that we can identify from Trump's startling victory and they're not unique to the United States.

First off, the bonus of Florida aside, this was only possible because of the Upper Midwest. Nowhere else. This is a region that's been hit hard by deindustrialization and the 'trade deals' the President Elect so often excoriates. In fact, it's exactly the area where he said he would win the election. That doesn't make him a great political tactician, but it does mean that he was correct about his message resonating there.

The same phenomenon has taken place in both England's industrial north and socially conservative coastal towns in the south, where former Labour Party voters have gradually defected to UKIP since the great economic crash. From Macomb County, Michigan to Clacton, Essex the old divides of left and right have fallen by the wayside. Trump Democrats and Red UKIP are two sides of the same coin.

The fact of the matter is that the centre left has lost these voters, and without them it cannot expect to win on either side of the Atlantic. And without power it cannot achieve anything bar carping in the wilderness. End of story.

So, what does it need to get these voters back?

1. Picking the right leader

It's time to face facts. Hillary Clinton, like Labour's previous leader Ed Miliband, was an ineffective party leader and an even weaker candidate, and not only because of the (mostly exaggerated) email scandal that plagued her until the end. Democrats, like Labour, largely deluded themselves to this fact.

The widely-spread social media assertion that she was 'the most qualified Presidential candidate in history' may have been a minor point, but it spoke a wider truth. If liberal America could not remember that two-term Vice Presidents Al Gore and George H.W. Bush (the latter a former head of the CIA and a World War Two veteran) were also 'the most qualified candidates ever', then perhaps a truly critical analysis of Hillary's flaws was too much to ask. Re-tweeting #ImWithHer to the politically likeminded replaced substantive analysis of America and what could be done to improve the lot of millions of voters. Dignity in defeat does not change that.

Picking the wrong candidate is scarcely the preserve of the Democratic primaries. Following the selection of Miliband as Labour leader in 2010, the British left had to endure five years of having to pretend that a man with a penchant for phrases such as 'pre-distribution' and 'the relational state' had a real connection with the electorate.

Moreover, his replacement with Jeremy Corbyn suggests Labour have repeated the mistakes of their loss to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 - getting rid of a bumbling social democrat with a man far to the left of even Miliband's unelectable position. At the same time, whilst François Hollande had enough to get past Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, he holds scarcely any realistic prospect of retaining the French Presidency next year. Leadership remains key across the west. With the arguable exception of 1988 in the US and 1992 in the UK, the most charismatic candidate has emerged at the top of both nation's elections since at least the 1970s. The left needs a convincing salesman or woman more than ever.

2. Revising perspectives on identity politics

Leaving aside the identity-politics assertion that Hillary somehow deserved to win on account of her gender, the patchwork strategy many on the left held of 'middle class liberals added to ethnic minorities' must now be consigned to the dustbin of history. Occasionally a Barack Obama may emerge capable of mobilising these demographics by the force of his charisma, but this is the exception, not the rule. Around 30% of Latino voters in the US appear to have cast their ballots for a man who is promising to build a physical barrier with Latin America. The appeal of right-wing populism cannot be overcome simply by relying on people to vote with 'their group'.

Again, Donald Trump won this election with the support of white voters in the upper Midwest. The pivot by the left in recent years to talk about 'white privilege' and deconstruct its implications certainly does not resonant with white voters who feel economically dispossessed and hardly see themselves benefitting from racial privilege. That is not to say that it is an invalid construct, but it's one that doesn't win many votes. The notion that the elites are not 'for them' and instead will prioritise 'protected groups' has now seen both Trump and Reagan over the line. When Middle Class Dreams lay in tatters, the 1960s can no longer be the entire inspiration for social attitudes on the left.

The fixation on identity politics has had a number of odd outcomes. In 2015 the British Labour Party went into the General Election able to commit to a gender equal Cabinet of about twenty people but unable to say whether it would legislate for a Living Wage for millions of working Britons. Whilst their general economic platform saw Labour lose ground to the Tories, it is unlikely the four million UKIP voters who backed Nigel Farage cared much about the number of women in boardrooms. These issues may well be settled on the left - if so, it needs to move on to more day-to-day concerns.

Labour's pre-2015 work on reforming the welfare system through a carrot-and-stick jobs guarantee offers some hope here (oddly resembling the America Works programme of House of Cards' Frank Underwood), and the left cannot just be a force of soothing words. Voters have overwhelmingly rejected that, while at the same time expecting the state to preserve the programs that benefit them (Medicare and Social Security, in the US). It's no accident that Trump has bucked with GOP convention to say that he'll actually increase funding to those programs rather than enact cuts. This will itself attract some Democrats to his governing coalition, possibly for the rest of their voting lives. This may very well not be a unique event.

3. Accepting Iraq is no longer the be-all and end-all

The electoral effects of Iraq were always opaque. After all, George W. Bush and Tony Blair were able to comfortably win re-election in 2004/5 despite the controversial nature of the conflict in both America and Britain. But it has certainly inhibited the foreign policy offering of the left. Labour's long standing regret for the Iraq War saw it lose votes amongst the middle class to the Liberal Democrats in 2010, before Ed Miliband's opposition to the bombing of Assad's Syria in 2013 appeared, to some, to put tactical advantage before the national interest. A return to post-9/11 liberal intervention may indeed be beyond the pale, but some greater muscularity on diplomacy maybe needed for presentational as much as policy reasons.

On the other hand, foreign policy itself hardly even featured in the American election, beyond Trump's innuendoes about Benghazi and statements about how the US should 'take the oil' from ISIS (an increasingly irrelevant point as it loses territory on a daily basis). Voters have concerns they feel are more pressing than foreign policy at this point. Migration has trumped Mosul, and social security is more important to voters than the plight of Syria. Here again Corbyn's Labour - whose base was forged in part in anger at the War on Terror - is ill at ease.

4. Resolving the free trade versus tariffs dilemma

Economically, the debate goes back to early twentieth century dilemmas over free trade versus the imposition of tariffs. Nearly all mainstream economists agree that tariffs are ultimately damaging to national and world economies, but that message doesn't resonate with voters who have seen their local industries dry up and jobs 'go overseas'. We are entering a new age of protectionism, and that has major implications. The day after the US election, US Steel's stock price skyrocketed more than 19%. Part of that is probably the expectation that 'building a wall' with Mexico would require a huge amount of steel, but it also suggests that investors expect it to be built with American steel. That's the same reason people in former manufacturing regions voted for Trump. Elites can scoff at the notion that steel will ever be a viable industry in urban Pennsylvania or point out that new manufacturing methods have made large foundries obsolete. Trump's voters don't care.

For Britain, the position is complicated by the imminent exit from the European Union. As yet, the UK government has not yet made it clear whether it will prioritise remaining within the free trade European Single Market or forgo these economic benefits in order to claim full autonomy over its borders. There is an argument for either - the former would see more play amongst Conservative voters in the south of England, the latter help claw back some northern English voters who have turned to Nigel Farage and UKIP.

What there is no argument for is the present sympathy John McDonnell, Corbyn and others on the British hard left clearly have for universal open borders being combined with an antipathy towards free market capitalism. This is the worst of both worlds - and certainly the latter goes steadfastly against the 1990s pragmatism of a Clinton or a Blair.

What the British left will do if Theresa May indeed goes to the front of Donald Trump's queue for a new free trade agreement remains to be seen. Trump himself is a well-known Anglophile and has extensive corporate interests in Scotland. He will have a strong inclination to do business with Britain, especially if it gives him a chance to demonstrate his ability to negotiate 'great' trade agreements that benefit his constituents.

5. Realising that whilst Millennials may control the future, they don't control the present.

Millennials voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. And had almost no impact at all on the overall outcome. Our Facebook feeds are overwhelmed with young people talking about how 'everything they believed was true' has suddenly been smashed. A lot of memes and retweets did not deliver the outcome many considered inevitable.

The problem here is that those assumptions were fundamentally wrong. Educated young people increasingly live in a self-referential, cloistered world of social media users who think like them, eat like them, shop like them and vote like them. That's not most people in the US, Britain, Europe, or anywhere. The world has become better connected but at the same time more socially isolated. The shock at the Brexit victory or that of Trump is not just an error of polling, but a product of the near certainty young liberal voters have that the world thinks as they do. This then applies a pressure on politicians to view the world through a similar prism regardless of the facts on the ground.

The fact that many Millennials couldn't be bothered to even cast ballots -- exit polling suggests only 19% of the electorate was under the age of 30 -- also does little to generate sympathy. By Wednesday morning a hypothetical map was circulating in various corners of the Internet showing what would have happened if only Millennials had voted (an overwhelming Clinton win) and suggesting that this is the 'future' of the United States. That may be a comforting sentiment for the left, but it's hardly an inevitable outcome unless those voters actually go to the polls and can attract support from the country's other demographic groups. Trump's votes came overwhelmingly from voters over the age of 45 who saw his flaws but backed him anyway. Yes, these voters are on the older end of the spectrum. But they will remain a political force for the next several decades at least, and that means it's essential to form an inter-generational coalition that can unite to actually win.

We don't know what the consequences of this election will be, but it's probably fair to say that as with Brexit, the world has just pivoted slightly on its axis. This is the original meaning of the term 'Revolution' as it was understood by the Enlightenment philosophers.

In that sense, we are in the beginning phases of a revolution leading the West in an uncertain direction. The left better come up with some more effective answers, and quick.

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