Just when you thought 2016 could not witness anymore seismic geopolitical activity, the biggest shock in modern US political history overwhelmed the Washington establishment on Tuesday night. The Republican Party may have triumphed in Congressional results, but the 2016 election will be remembered as a great revolt by middle America against Washington elites of both parties. The natural pendulum of politics played its part, but the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States also fits into a pattern of populist risings across the Western world. The media and political centre ground still seem at a loss to understand the reasons for this wave that has taken them completely by surprise. Before political leaders can understand the why and what they can do about it they need to grapple with who and how behind this political earthquake.
The who and how behind 2016’s revolution
There was a polling error in this year’s Presidential election, but it was nothing like as large as that in the 2015 UK election, much bigger were the failures of conventional wisdom. The American media could not imagine that a candidate who had behaved as Trump has could be thought fit for office. This led them to refuse to see a path to the White House for the Republican nominee, despite the clues in the polls. Most polls already showed Trump neck and neck in the battleground states, but he won because he breached the so-called blue wall of solidly democratic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If the media had objectively analysed the evidence before them they would have questioned why polling showed Trump up in Iowa by 7 points but down 7 points in Wisconsin, a very demographically and economically similar state.
Blaming the shock result on shy Trump voters is not the answer, although they also existed, a reverse Bradley effect does appear to have come into play. Clinton only won college educated white women by six points, and lost amongst white college educated men, major double digit polling errors from pre-election surveys. Given the media demonization of Trump is it little wonder that such voters refused to admit they were voting for him? Hillary Clinton’s own failings as a candidate also played a part in the result, Trump actually polled less votes than Mitt Romney in his 2012 loss. If Clinton had generated the same enthusiasm and turnout as President Obama in the Detroit area she would have (just) won Michigan and its crucial 16 electoral votes for instance. Trump also out-performed Romney amongst the black population and, shockingly, after his election rhetoric, also won more support than Romney amongst Latino voters. In fact the only voting bloc where Trump significantly under-performed Romney was amongst Mormons, with Utah seeing the biggest vote change of any state in America.
Despite the contradictory evidence amongst minorities, initial findings suggest that Trump has outperformed recent Republican candidates amongst white voters, including younger voters, white millenials were the only racial bloc amongst their peer group to vote for Trump. A surge in white rural voters played a large part in Trump’s overturning conventional wisdom in the Midwest and even Florida, in many urban areas Clinton performed more strongly than Obama in 2012 but it was not enough to overturn the rural tidal wave in Trump’s favour. That almost all the national media live in urban enclaves must surely have played a part in their misunderstanding the state of the race, just as the London media completely missed the Brexit rising outside the capital. Pre-election polling in America also suggested a strong correlation between areas of higher demographic change and support for Trump. That is the rate of change, not the percentage of non-white population, Iowa for instance remains overwhelmingly white but has witnessed proportionally significant demographic changes through immigration. Trump also won white men by over 30% and white women by 10%, he did well amongst lower income groups, but Clinton still won those earning less than $50,000 dollars a year and Trump those over.
Why (is this happening now)
So with the evidence we have, what can we conclude about why Donald Trump won and what does it mean for the future of America and the world? And how can mainstream politicians begin to create policy responses to the clear dissatisfaction voters are expressing with the status quo?
There has been a tendency to oversimplify the causes behind recent political upheavals, much of it based on the commentariat’s own prejudices. Saying poor marginalised voters left behind by globalisation won the Brexit vote was inaccurate, and the same is true for Trump. He won the rustbelt but he didn’t just do better amongst the white working class than traditional Republican candidates, he still won the rich and the college educated, as we’ve seen above. There seems little doubt that his strong results in the Midwest show he did appeal to many in the rustbelt and beyond on economic terms. His campaign focused on attacking free trade and its alleged effects on America’s manufacturing heartland in a way no modern Presidential candidate has.
What effect such economic arguments had on middle class and college educated voters, many of whom have clearly benefitted from free trade is difficult to quantify, but of course the effects of globalisation go beyond free trade. Trump’s cultural war on immigration and political correctness seem to have been designed to rally white voters of all stripes and salaries to his cause in unprecedented numbers. Historians will ask was the US election won on race and how much did gender play a role – was America really ready for a Madam President? Clearly immigration has played a role in motivating voters against the status quo in both America and Britain in 2016, but the forces at play go beyond mere racial division. Both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns focused on a reassertion of sovereignty in similar ways to the recent referendum in Hungary and popular complaints across Europe.
In the 21st century the nation state has been declared no longer fit for purpose. An enduring form of organisation and governance for millennia in various forms, it has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but strong and centralised states have been the norm since their creation in the period of absolutism in early modern Europe. Now, in the last two decades in particular, nation states have come under increasing pressure. Global markets, not governments, control the fate of national economies, supra-national organisations, currencies and trading blocs have eroded national sovereignty in Europe and beyond. Governments of all stripes in America have been unable or unwilling to prevent the flow of millions of illegal immigrants from Latin America, in Europe a similar situation has occurred as millions make their way to the continent from Africa and the Middle East. This great movement of peoples is made all the easier in a world where you can fly from one end to the other in less than a day, and which the internet has shrunk irreversibly. At the same time liberal western values are being consciously spread through cultural and political forums across societies, generations and borders. Our working lives have also become more uncertain and unstable, very few jobs for life exist in the 21st century in the way they were the norm in previous eras.
Now, a great revolt against the revolutionary changes of the last few decades is spreading across the Western world and beyond. In part this can be explained by the cyclical nature of politics and societal norms, but it is more than just an automatic reaction. Of course, the fact that this is all following in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 cannot be ignored, but financial crises are rarely the cause of dramatic political changes, rather they act as catalysts. This was true in the 1930s as it was true in the 1640s, when the run of bad harvests helped propel but certainly did not cause the English Civil War. Voters of all classes seem to have tired of the dramatic changes of recent times, people appear to want more certainty about the future of their lives, their jobs and their societies and the nation state, as ultimate guarantor of stability, may have been prematurely written off.
Race is clearly a part of this. Large parts of ‘Native’ populations, to use a problematic and often contradictory term, or segments of predominant racial groups, have clearly felt under threat from rapid demographic change. This has been difficult to talk about, hence why mainstream politicians and much of the media avoided addressing high levels of immigration head on in public discourse. The result of that avoidance has been that the vacuum has been filled by populists peddling hate. But neither Brexit nor Trump are as simple as race. Large areas of many western countries have seen the collapse of traditional income sources which have not been replaced by new sources on the same scale. The financial crisis has precipitated a howl of rage from voters in these areas, who, rightly or wrongly, blame globalisation and the new industrial revolutions in the developing world for this change. Beyond economics and immigration, other cultural changes have also left many of these voters feeling out of their comfort zone and unable to express their emotions. FiveThirtyEight’s reporters interviewed many Trump supporters in the run up to November and asked about their motivations; one was honest enough to express what many others also felt, that “everything that I learnt as a child was wrong is now right”.
What (if anything) can politicians do to react?
How on earth do mainstream politicians begin to address these concerns? Is it even possible to? Trump’s programme for government is almost non-existent beyond a few slogans, so we must wait to see if Trumpism means anything more beyond MAGA populism. Early signs include a Keynesian jobs and infrastructure programme, proving that if you wait long enough in politics everything comes back into fashion. History teaches us that protectionism impoverishes, but if Trump carries out on his threats to withdraw from NAFTA and other trade agreements the era of unquestioned free trade is over. The signs have already been there across the west, with growing opposition to TTIP in Europe and in the difficulty the European Union had in even signing a relatively small free trade deal with Canada.
The European reaction to both Brexit and Trump has been characterised by a certain smugness and a dismissal of the chances of it happening on the continent, despite the warning signs everywhere. Who knows how understated and shy support for Marine Le Pen is in France or for the AfD in Germany given the historical cultural sensitivities there and the pressures on living standards in both countries as well as recent immigration-related tensions. What can and should politicians do to prevent such uprisings and to address voters concerns, particularly around cultural issues where many of us on the centre ground have been horrified by growing intolerance and bigotry.
Time will heal some divisions, other concerns can be addressed through a robust attitude towards intolerance of women’s and other rights and freedom of speech amongst radical elements of immigrant communities. The growth in faith-separated education, whilst respecting parents’ right to choose, would not seem helpful in the processes of integration. The growing emphasis on national security and strengthening national borders is almost certainly here to stay, and as supranational organisations with limited democratic and popular support likely fail to survive future turbulence, the return of the nation state is probably part of the natural turn of events. In some places, such as Russia, it was never in question. A return to harder borders should be used to help foster support for legal immigration and politicians need to be braver in selling the hard economic benefits for all from immigration that meets labour market demands.
Economic questions raised by 2016 are not really any easier to answer than cultural ones, defending the benefits of free trade – the greater availability of cheaper consumer goods and food for ordinary families than previous generations, for example – must be part of the long-term solution. Facts over myths. But governments of all colours have failed areas, generations and people deeply impacted by globalisation. Re-skilling has not happened anywhere near quickly enough and the growing automisation revolution presents huge challenges – robots will soon be able to do the work of millions of white collar workers. What are all these people to do? The digital revolution presents enormous opportunities but also challenges, but providing sufficient infrastructure to enable it is arguably, despite its Keynesian quality, one area of necessary change Trump has correctly identified at the start of his Presidency.
It is an obvious truism is that no politician or political party can have all the answers to today’s problems, in part thrown up by the most rapid rate of change in the history of human civilisation. The problems of 2016 may signal a longer and deeper malaise than any of modern times, and the search for solutions may outlast the lifecycle of any democratic government, but history suggests that whilst progress is not continual and that there will be bumps in the road ahead, human ingenuity and capacity for change has yet to reach any limit. A suitably Trumpian line on which to finish.