Liberals are traumatised by the Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s victory in the USA. The margins were very fine in both cases, but that is little comfort. Things weren’t meant to be that close. And more shocks could be to come. It isn’t too late to fight back. But how?
And here there is a lot of confusion. Some want to coopt the tactics of the populists and fight dirtier (like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland); others say that we should stick to the issues and avoid personal attacks (take this piece from Luigi Zingales, building on experience with Silvio Berlusconi); others again suggest that we follow a populist left agenda in the manner of Bernie Sanders; or perhaps stick with the centre right (such as France’s Francois Fillon or Britain’s Tony Blair). Or meet the populists half-way by conceding immigration controls and restrictions on trade.
All of these ideas are flawed. One striking feature of both the British and American situations is just how divided the public has become. Accommodating one side of the argument means creating resentment on the other. Bernie Sanders would surely have lost more votes from Hillary supporters than he would have picked up from Trump ones. Recent polling on Brexit voters show that very few on either side have changed their minds.
We should be careful about accepting the populist narrative: that they represent a rebellion by the public against an elite. Most of the people I meet are on the establishment side of the argument, and are passionately opposed to Brexit and Mr Trump. But they are very far from any elite establishment; we are as ordinary in our way as the rebels. And all any political process does is to exchange one elite for another. As Brexit and the Republicans take over, there are going to be just as many angry and resentful people as before – but they will be different people.
Two ironies strike me here. First is that Mrs Clinton was right when she accused half of Mr Trump’s supporters of being a “basket of deplorables”. Saying so was one of the biggest mistakes of her campaign, and it showed a complete lack of political judgement because it reinforced the idea of a sneering elite. And yet it is hard to see that there will be any reconciliation with people who have convinced themselves that the problem with the US (and Britain) is that an essentially white heritage is being polluted by incomers, and that the country needs to return to the values of the past. But there is the other half of Mr Trump’s supporters, who simply lost confidence in the establishment and just want to shake things up.
The second irony comes from a seminal moment in the Brexit campaign when leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said that people had had enough of experts – because so many experts were advising against change. And yet the liberal side of the argument was badly let down by experts – or those that were advising their campaigns. In America those experts has parsed the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns in minute detail and thought they had cracked it. Poll analyst Nate Silver made his reputation by predicting the result with precision in 2012 long before polling day. And yet the expert strategies in 2016 amounted to picking up pennies from in front of a steamroller. They lost the wood for the trees.
What are the experts saying now? They are very quiet, but I think can I guess what they will be saying. Don’t panic. Use the confusion and resentment emanating from the new ruling elites to build up a protest vote. Normal service will be resumed.
Well the Trump administration and the Brexit-supporting Conservative government will offer plenty of ammunition to opponents. But it isn’t enough. The British Labour Party thought it had the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition on the ropes in the years up to 2015 – such was the popular anger against austerity policies. And yet they lacked a convincing alternative, and all they succeeded in doing was pushing Lib Dem voters into the arms of the Conservatives, while being unable to contain the popular backlash in Scotland. Labour are trying something different now, with a lurch to far left – and the signs are that this will be even less successful. The populists are absolute masters of blaming anybody and everybody else for their problems, and they know how to stir up their supporters and create doubts among the uncommitted.
So what to do? I think that three things need to be at the heart of any fightback: competence; cosmopolitanism and change. Competence because that is what people will soon be yearning for, especially in America as the Trump regime takes control. People like the idea of somebody that creates chaos more than the fact. So any alternative must look like a cool, safe pair of hands. And, I would add, because this goes alongside it, somebody that cares about truth, and can admit awkward facts.
Cosmopolitanism because that really is the only way forwards. The genie is out of the bottle. We are going have to get along with people of different nationalities, races and cultures. There is no future in harking back to cultural distinctiveness. We must grow more confident in our own cultures and learn more from others. Ironically even the populists are doing this amongst themselves. If there is anything that unites the half of the population that is resisting the populists, it is a belief, at some level, in cosmopolitanism. Rallying this group is critical.
Well, Hillary was competent (except at campaigning) and cosmopolitan; and that was not enough. We also need to show that we believe in change. We must accept that the establishment orthodoxy of the 2000s was wrong in many respects. The relentless quest for a narrow vision of economic growth and the crushing of human control in the name of productivity and modernisation must end. All they do is enrich a few lucky people. We need a new vision of modernisation that takes to heart that most successful of Brexit slogans: “take back control.” And our experts won’t be much help here: we need new vision.
So we need new leaders that stand for competence, continuity and change, and are able to see beyond the myopia of experts. Justin Trudeau has done it in Canada. Who will do it in Britain and America? Oh how I wish I knew the answer to that!