Pitching a Big Tent on Shifting Sands
Watching Democratic Party primary debates in which Bernie Sanders calls for the biggest voter turnout America has ever seen, Amy Klobuchar tries to trawl the centre-ground, and Pete Buttigieg waxes blah blah unity, I am reminded of the U.K. Labour Party’s current leadership battle. Unite is the word on every pragmatic leftist’s lips. But most of the Western world over, nobody really knows how.
Of course, it would be wrong to lump any two Western countries together. Between the “special relationship” duo alone, there are varying histories and origin stories, distinct social contracts. The U.S. is a constitutional republic, the U.K. a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. Both countries have a form of “first past the post” voting, but the U.K. has constituency MPs and the U.S. the Electoral College. On the other hand, though the U.K. is closer to some European countries in terms of its social welfare and healthcare systems, many western European countries operate with a proportional representation electoral system, which is nothing like what the U.K. and the U.S. have.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the party of the liberal-left is searching for its figurehead. The Labour Party picks a leader for the foreseeable future and is unlikely to face an election for another four years, unlike the Democratic Party which, because of the primary process and its urgent need to get rid of Donald Trump, can barely squint past November.
But despite these distinctions, there are striking trends across much of the West; challenges that can be sketched across borders — even though they metastasize nationally in idiosyncratic ways. Will Jennings, eminent political scientist and Co-Director of British think tank the Centre for Towns, told me:
There are many parallels between the experience of the Democratic Party and Labour. Do they opt for the candidate that speaks most to the values and concerns of its new core vote (younger, more liberal voters), or seek to retain support among older, rather more socially conservative voters that might allow (them) to build a larger electoral coalition?
The conundrum faced by centre-left parties is how to collate a still-emerging set of groups with different priorities, in a landscape in which cultural politics is increasingly important. This is laid out comprehensively by Jennings and another esteemed British political scientist Robert Ford in a new paper on the shifting political “cleavages” across many Western countries. Massive expansion of higher education, ever more cultural and ethnic diversity after decades of immigration, ageing populations and generation gaps that appear to be yawning ever wider, not to mention “geographical cleavages” (liberal metropoles versus small-town heartlands), are making it ever more difficult to know quite what “left” and “right” mean these days.
Or, as Nick Cohen wrote recently:
The evidence is overwhelming that culture is creating divides as wide as sectarian religious differences. Values have trumped class. The politics of culture war has routed the hard truths of economics.
As something of a materialist, I have to live in hope that bread and butter will resurge and win the day. Traditional left-wing thought and sloganeering has tended to hold that reason tells us where our primary interests are, at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
But this is more than what motivates people, clearly. In the U.K., the Labour Party could tell working class Leavers all day long that the Tories didn’t care about them and a hard Brexit would take their jobs, but it was meaningless to millions who saw an attempt to cancel their vote. Increasingly you hear former Labour voters, wheeled out onto every politics program montage, say “the Labour Party isn’t for the working class anymore.” What that actually means is still being picked apart, and it’s a prime piece in the current leadership elections of both Labour and the Democrats, as the contenders go head to head on who can sound the folksiest. Meanwhile the “folks” whose votes they are trying to win back have opted for two rich kids with a penchant for tax cuts.
We know that for much of the 20th century, manual workers shared socioeconomic interests and rallied around social democratic parties. But as traditional industry became automated or moved away, unions and community institutions declined in influence and historically left-wing parties moved centre-ward; the erstwhile labor component of the labor-capital cleavage began to disperse, leaving it for the taking politically. Into this vacuum have stepped right-wing identity-based parties, in Europe. In America, the Republican Party has had the Trump makeover, in the making for years. These political movements have, Ford and Jennings write:
capitalized on the threat white school leavers perceive from the rise of immigration and ethnic diversity, and the alienation produced by their demographic decline and political marginalization, to mobilize them into the basis of a new, identity-and values-driven group. … This generates a growing dilemma for center-left parties. The long-term decline of working-class electorates encourages them to seek additional support from middle-class progressive and ethnic minority voters, yet the socially liberal and cosmopolitan values of such voters is at odds with the authoritarian nationalism of their traditional working-class electorate.
This is, of course, not to say either that all working-class whites favour right-wing identity politics or that Brexit and the Trump presidency was made up mostly of their votes — neither of which is true. In November 2016, party affiliation was the strongest predictor of a vote for Trump, and among Americans earning less than $50,000 a year, Clinton won. We find a similar picture on the other side of the Atlantic, where the majority of Brexit voters were Conservatives, and Leave was carried first and foremost thanks to the provincial middle classes. Even so, in both cases, picking up votes from the white working classes brought them over the line.
Pragmatic leftists want to win these votes back. Some on the liberal-left disagree, arguing: all the racists voted for Trump or Brexit, ergo all who voted Trump or Brexit are racist, and conclude let those racists keep their votes. They also know how frequently in history women and minorities have been told by left wingers “let’s just get this one out of the way” and they don’t trust that old logic.
Nevertheless, the mathematics remain. Neither party, as it stands, can afford to do without the red wall or the rust belt.
In Europe the massive expansion of higher education in response to knowledge economies has created something of a graduate class that tends towards liberal values — frequently at odds with the more socially conservative, parochial outlook of many traditional left-wing party voters. In the U.S., however, a year-by-year tracking study of 50,000 university goers appears to show little political realignment from freshman to senior year. There is some suggestion that perhaps those who are already more liberal tend to go to college, but in any case, in 2016 white Americans without degrees were significantly more likely to vote for Trump than Hillary.
Then there is age as an emerging political cleavage. The pensioner component has always been key because the old are far more likely to vote than the young (which is why, on both sides of the Atlantic, right-wing parties tend to be much more generous to them than the working-age workless). But in ageing populations, the “gray vote” becomes increasingly important, and may be at odds with younger voters far beyond an “ok, boomer” quip.
Granted, people tend to move further to the right as they age. But as Ford and Jennings demonstrate, such generation gaps also encompass other key variables that can affect a person’s political interests. Older people are less likely to have a degree, but more likely to own their own home. However, since most are retired from full-time work, they tend to be cushioned from blows to labor markets, which is probably why warnings about Brexit’s effect on the employment landscape didn’t land among pensioners. Indeed many older voters don’t have the same concerns the liberal-left tend to speak to, including climate change — because, quite simply, they won’t live to see the worst of it.
Then there is geography as an increasingly important political cleavage — particularly as it manifests in a perception of urban haves and provincial have-nots. In the U.K. and the U.S., we frequently see the perception that deprivation in small towns and rural areas is due to city elites sucking up resources and political privilege, whether or not this is true in each case. Indeed, one recent British study found that in more sparsely populated areas, people are more politically discontented, even when the relative affluence of said places is controlled for.
These new political cleavages have been incubating for decades and are, in large part, due to the economic models of the societies that bear them. As Ford and Jennings write:
all of these developments in social structure are intrinsically entangled with the contemporary capitalist model in advanced industrial countries: knowledge economies requiring highly skilled labor (and corresponding decline of employment in traditional industries), open economies that rely on migrant labor, and a focus on urban agglomeration as a driver of growth. These dynamics — shaped through the dominant policy model of advanced industrial economies — have driven the growth of the graduate class, the decline and marginalization of the working class, high migration and rapidly rising ethnic diversity, and the growing geographical segregation of populations between core and peripheral areas.
Indeed in the wrangling over Brexit and Trump, fundamental conundrums — that lay in wait for decades — have emerged that no single economic policy or charismatic leader can see off. Amidst this dilemma it might seem to some that candidates try to face both ways. In recent days for example, Lisa Nandy drew the ire of Labour’s liberal metropolitan base by affirming a need to listen to concerns on immigration, before delivering a passionate speech declaring that in fact, past Labour governments had failed to make migrants welcome enough.
This in microcosm is the left’s dilemma: how to appeal to groups of people who so often have been pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and the ear of government.
It is, in my view, also complicated by the new politics of personal expression. The caricature is that identity politics is a left-wing concern, but the truth is that everyone does identity now: the flag-profile patriots, the Gen Z critical theory gabbler, the reasonable centrist, and on it goes. You might point out — correctly — that most of the voting public is not on political Twitter. But studies are showing social capital decline whilst many millions have social media profiles. And we all know the significance of targeted ads in recent right-wing victories.
It is not just, I would venture, that loyalties and priorities are changing, but that in the politics of culture, their interplay is couched as a zero-sum game. These days, it is not enough to try to walk your politics, you are supposed to wear them too. Clearly, all too often, pragmatic affinity is frumpy.