President Trump and Brexit – some lessons for the liberal left
Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic will have their heads in their hands today. How on earth could one of the best prepared candidates in American history be defeated by a loud mouthed, pampered extremist with no government experience? On the back of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union 2016 is going to be the year two liberal nightmares became reality.
This is a rude wake up call for every liberal, progressive centre left politician and commentator in the USA and Europe. Liberal and social democrat (let alone socialist) parties and governments are struggling everywhere, with the notable exception of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party government in Canada. Brexit and Trump’s victory has shattered the cosy consensus among the political establishment, including for this purpose the centre right conservative and Christian Democrat parties, that globalisation and mass immigration were necessary and beneficial for all advanced economies. It also exposes the feeling of many people, especially white straight men, that the equal rights given to women and various minorities are a challenge to their status. Many people are fed up with being told what they can’t say and do. Rather like at the end of Gladstone’s great reforming ministry in 1874, the people may have “grown tired of being improved” by their liberal masters.
What are the lessons that must be learned by liberals and other centre left thinkers? I think the main one is that we should listen more to and understand more about people’s concerns, as they feel them and choose to express them. If you are well educated then rapid change in the economy and society is something that you’re well equipped to adapt to. You may even find it exhilarating. But if your formal education stopped at school leaving age then rapid change is more of a challenge. It’s something that alarms you, rather than something that you want to embrace.
Globalisation has brought about a collapse of extractive and manufacturing industries in many communities such as my own native South Wales or Tyneside in north east England. The same is true in parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump and Brexit campaigners exploited the resentment that jobs that were once secure and generally well paid had been offshored to China and Eastern Europe. Globalisation has also seen a massive expansion in financial and ancillary services. But these jobs are in London and New York and are for the well-educated. When they had an economic crisis in 2007-10 they were bailed out by the taxpayer. When steel, mining and manufacturing faced a challenge the result was closure, unemployment and boarded up shops.
Liberals need to say loud and clear that they know some groups have been hurt by rapid economic change. An interventionist industrial policy should spread the new jobs that come from the digital economy and other new industries to parts of the country that have felt the loss of traditional jobs. Trump will soon be exposed for not being able to “bring back the jobs” that have been lost to Mexico or China. But if he’s as “smart” as he says then he will put in the infrastructure spending and tax incentives to get new well paid jobs to Detroit and Pittsburgh. In Britain the Coalition government made a start on developing regional centres and Vince Cable developed a series of industrial strategies, seeking to copy Germany. The new Tory government will have to go further to make sure Brexit doesn’t widen Britain’s economic divide.
Liberals also need to appreciate that some people are troubled by the rapid social change of the last few decades. We shouldn’t retreat from advances made for women and minorities. Overt sexism, racism or homophobia must be faced down. But if people complain about housing allocations, school places, waiting to see a doctor or say they don’t like the way some immigrants don’t integrate, then their concerns should not be ignored or dismissed as racist or ignorant. We must understand some people feel that others have seen their status rise while their own self esteem has fallen. In ‘Mississippi Burning’, the film about racism in the deep South, Gene Hackman’s FBI character tells a colleague that his daddy poisoned a black farmer neighbour’s cow as if he “wasn’t better than a negro, who was he better than?” Resentment can lead to prejudice and bad behaviour. But the cause of the resentment needs to be addressed, as well as telling someone that prejudice is wrong.
Finally, the behaviour of liberals themselves has made it easier for demagogues to succeed. Liberals, social democrats and socialists are pretty vicious to each other. If a progressive in government compromises in order to get most of a policy into law or fails to achieve 100% of a manifesto then it must be a betrayal and a sell-out. The British Labour Party in 2016 prefers to be led by the purist Corbyn and largely disowns its most successful leader Tony Blair. Bernie Sanders helped make Hillary Clinton toxic to many young voters.
When the comrades aren’t stabbing each other in the back they like nothing better than to dance on the grave of a liberal. Seeing off progressive rivals is often seen as a higher priority than defeating conservatives. I understand this is jokingly referred to as “business before pleasure” inside Labour. This attitude will make it harder for the Liberal Democrats to defeat the Brexit supporting Tory Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by election. The local green party have behaved more constructively than their American standard bearer Jill Stein whose candidacy in Florida and New Hampshire has helped Trump in the same way as Ralph Nader helped Bush in 2000. We must all learn that belittling and toxifying each other only helps the conservatives in politics.
So if liberals and other progressives are to recover the political initiative then we need to listen to people’s concerns and reassure them where they are valid. When the concerns are wrong or the benefits of globalisation in terms of cost of living, new products and new opportunities are not appreciated then we should redouble efforts to stand up for the benefits of a more open society. We must have credible answers that deal with their anxieties about their social and economic status. And we must find ways of cooperating with like-minded politicians and thinkers, abandoning petty tribalism. If liberals don’t respond quickly to the rise in support for demagogues then the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen will set the agenda for the next decade.