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March 01st 2016 print

John O’Sullivan

The Year of Pitchforks and Brands

Americans have seen living standards stagnate, habits of neighbourhood co-operation undermined, job opportunities reduced and their sense of moral equality with the new American educated class decline. The establishment grasps as much, but only Donald Trump stands poised to exploit it

pitchforksAustralians and New Zealanders, like most people outside the United States, have been gazing with a kind of bafflement, amused or horrified according to taste, at the early results in America’s season of primaries and caucuses. Donald Trump’s dominance in the Republican early primaries, though shaky, seemed to be spreading to more and more groups in the broad Republican coalition; and Senator Bernie Sanders won the first primary and tied in the first caucus against the well-funded but scandal-haunted favourite, Hillary Clinton, by drawing high levels of support from white progressives and young voters with a campaign rooted in undiluted socialism.

Both party leaderships (or “establishments”, as it has become fashionable to call them) have been rattled and undermined by these results. Mrs Clinton enjoyed the barely concealed backing of the Democratic machine, but it was unable to deliver the votes it once did. It modestly compensated for this failure by giving her most of New Hampshire’s Democrat office-holders as “super-delegates” to the Convention. Having been beaten better than sixty-to-forty by Sanders, Clinton left New Hampshire with more delegates.

Carnage was far greater on the Republican side. Most of the establishment’s starting candidates—governors, senators, CEOs—did so badly that they pulled out of the race before and after New Hampshire. The most establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, who is also the best-funded one, struggled to remain fourth or fifth in the polls and has now called it quits as well. And the two self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidates, Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, between them have about the same support as all the other candidates put together.

All this could change, of course, as different states hold primaries. But the big picture remains a kind of stable instability. Sanders is pulling even with Clinton nationally, buoyed by polls that show his supporters and half the Democrats believing in socialism. Trump seems to be consolidating his lead (and Cruz his second place) in a field divided among too many moderate opponents for any single one to challenge the leaders effectively. And political certainties are crashing with every poll release:

• Does money dominate US politics? Candidates in both parties who spend the least are winning the most. Clinton is embarrassed by her ties to Wall Street and high lecture fees. And the moderate GOP candidates who stuck with liberal immigration reform in obedience to “the donor class” (another variant of establishment) watched helplessly as Trump soared past them by responding to long-ignored voter concerns on the scale and illegality of immigration. Money has insulated the political class from the voters.

• Are women destined by gender and demography to vote for “the first woman presidential candidate”? Apparently not. Hillary Clinton lost the women’s vote to Sanders in New Hampshire by 11 per cent—and by a landslide among women under thirty. She won only among wealthy women over sixty-five (or to people so like herself as to constitute a club rather than a demographic).

• Is youth the key? Hardly. Sanders at seventy-four is far and away the candidate most popular with young voters on the Left. And Senator Marco Rubio, the latest young Kennedy-style wonder, promoted by the pundits as the most “electable” Republican, has yet to do better than third place. Voters are less impressed by his eloquence and energy than suspicious of his co-operation with the Democrats over liberal immigration reform in 2013.

The voters are rejecting conventional politics. They have concerns that the parties ignore or gloss over or refuse to discuss. The parties stress issues the voters think secondary, in language that seems either simplistic or academic. And the voters end up feeling that politics is an insider game for a self-interested political class from which they are excluded.

Charles Murray, in a powerful essay on the Trump phenomenon for the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the voters are fully justified in these views. For the last few decades, ordinary Americans have seen their living standards stagnate, their habits of neighbourhood co-operation undermined, their job opportunities reduced, their sense of moral equality with the new American educated class decline, and their feeling of a special American identity mocked and abandoned. They feel that they have lost out and that no one gives a damn for them. The Democrats are the patriots of a new post-American multicultural America with fewer places for them; and the Republicans have replaced the flag with the balance sheet. The political parties no longer reflect the real social divisions between the new ruling classes and the old working ones.

These feelings, subterranean until released (almost by accident) by two political entrepreneurs, Trump and Sanders, have produced rebellions against the two mainstream parties that nonetheless draw on the two parties’ traditions. Sanders’s rebellion stresses economic equality, Trump’s patriotic solidarity. But both are pouring new wine, called populism, into the old bottles, called Republican and Democrat.

If this strikes us as odd and even outrageous, that is probably because it is occurring in the relatively familiar context of American politics where we can see that something new and novel is on the table. In fact similar developments are occurring elsewhere.

 

Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have all seen massive political upheaval since 2009. Moderate governments of Left and Right have been defeated; social democratic parties have been weakened and even destroyed; extreme Marxist or idiosyncratic Left parties have risen to power; riots have become frequent. These upheavals arise directly because these countries joined the euro at an overvalued exchange rate and the “austerity” policies needed to sustain it have given them six years of low growth, high unemployment and political instability. All these things generated hostility to the “troika”—the European Union, IMF and ECB officials—which enforces compliance with “austerity” on behalf of (mainly official) creditors. That in turn toppled successive governments in these countries and fostered a politics of Left populism that (not unreasonably, given this history) wants Germany and Brussels to finance their borrowing.

Populist rebellions in the rest of Europe, especially Central Europe, tend to lean Right rather than Left. They arise from several sources. In the last year they have been driven by opposition to the policy of welcoming mass migration into Europe launched (seemingly thoughtlessly) by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and then enforced by the European Commission with compulsory refugee quotas. Anti-immigration parties have risen across Scandinavia and Western Europe in protest. Denmark, Sweden, France and Germany itself have imposed “temporary” border controls.

Even before the migration crisis, Central Europe was rebelling both against specific European policies and against the general drift of powers and sovereignty from national capitals to the European Union. These rebellions came not from small insurgent populist parties but from the mainstream conservative governments—notably Fidesz in Hungary. Its policy stances, notably the closing of Hungary’s borders, have had three revealing effects. They have strengthened and stabilised the government internally as defenders of social order and the national interest. They have made it unpopular in Brussels as hostile to “European values”. And they have made it the leader of the Central European countries in arguing for a different approach to the migrant crisis that stresses giving generous help to refugees in countries next door to their own rather than welcoming them to Europe.

Different though they are, these crises and the populist responses to them are united by a single theme: opposition to an undemocratic technocracy in Brussels. This reality became clearer after the 2014 European elections when, in response to the advance of Eurosceptic parties, the two main centre-Left and centre-Right groups forged a de facto alliance in the European Parliament to continue pushing through integrationist policies. It looks like an immovable object.

But Euro-austerity is still keeping Mediterranean Europe in stagnation and crisis, and it seems unlikely that Brussels will be able to force Central Europe to accept migrants it doesn’t want (especially since the EU’s own rules allow them to hop on the next train to Berlin). So European populism will continue to advance as long as Brussels exercises unaccountable power not very intelligently. And Brussels will defend itself by saying that populism is a bigger danger to democracy than itself, which seems exaggerated as well as self-serving. A Europe without populism would be an even more undemocratic place.

What of the Anglosphere, where populism has usually been a regional phenomenon? Fraser Nelson in the Spectator warned a year ago that an angry Left populism was advancing in Britain as in Mediterranean Europe. David Cameron’s election victory restored a dubious complacency—too soon. That victory was the result of good organisation rather than a swing of opinion; angry Left populists are gradually capturing the UK’s second nation as well as its second political party; and even though Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would probably lose a UK election even after a crash, it will inevitably drag politics to the Left, making some left-wing issues respectable, some right-wing ones taboo. If in addition Cameron should fight a Euro-referendum campaign that keeps the UK in the EU by a narrow margin, he will divide the Right further and likely midwife an indignant Right populism less restrained by the fading liberal tradition of a Britain subject to Europe’s statism.

For all its flaws the populism of Trump and Sanders is being expressed through America’s two great parties. It and they will change each other for the better, but maybe not right away.