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The centre collapses. What should liberals do?

Unlike on 23rd June (the day of the British referendum on the EU) I went to bed with a sense of quiet foreboding on Tuesday night. And that foreboding was confirmed by the shocking news of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election.

It is a bad year for liberals. Some liberals did support the British vote to leave the EU, of course, and persist in saying this was a good thing. Well, maybe, but the campaign was not fought from the liberal centre, it was fought and won by those who persuaded the illiberal to vote in their masses – which is similar to Mr Trump. Meanwhile, illiberal governments face no serious challenge in Hungary and Poland, and in Turkey President Erdogan is crushing all forms of opposition, liberal and otherwise, following the example of President Putin in Russia. It does not seem so far-fetched to imagine that Marine Le Pen will take the French presidency next year. There are major populist uprisings in the Netherlands and Italy.

All this points to a collapse in the political centre. What do I mean by that? The centre is a set of political assumptions about the way the world should be run which has become the conventional wisdom of our governing classes, and which is shared by many political groupings. Those who did not support this centre used to be branded as extremists and pushed to the margins. Or sometimes parties would talk as if they were challenging the centre, but quickly adopted its principles once in power – France’s François Hollande comes to mind. Centrist principles incorporate free trade, free movement of capital and free movement of workers – an unmistakably liberal combination. Globalisation, and the economic growth that went with it, were embraced. Social liberalism ran alongside these principles, with the promotion of diversity at all levels of society. In Britain, Tony Blair’s enthusiastic embrace of these centrist values was the key to his taking the Labour Party to three election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The Conservative victory in 2015 largely came about because it persuaded electors Labour had turned away from the centre – though, in a portent, the avowedly centrist Liberal Democrats were crushed in the process.

But Mr Trump’s campaign was based precisely on a rejection of the centre. He painted a picture of a politically corrupt and complacent elite who had let people down, and imposed social liberalism onto unwilling subjects. This brought previously apathetic voters out of the woodwork, and persuaded many who had voted for the left in the past – blue collar workers in particular – to change allegiance. By comparison Hillary Clinton struggled to raise enthusiasm for her campaign; this apathy may actually have been more important than enthusiasm for the insurgents. It would be wrong to blame that on her personally. She was in fact a strong candidate, but she represented a ruling philosophy that people have lost faith in. President Obama may be more charismatic, but his intervention seemed to have little impact. He seemed to be part of the problem.

Could the left have achieved a similar success with its own anti-establishment campaign? This is what Democratic contender Bernie Sanders attempted; and it is what Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn seeks to achieve. Like all counterfactuals this is impossible to prove. Many of the criticisms against Messrs Sanders and Corbyn – their lack of so-called “credibility” – seemed to positively benefit Mr Trump. But I think the rebellion is about more than changing personalities and attacking the political elite. There are overlaps in policy; Mr Sanders wanted to clamp down on free trade and attack big business – just as Mr Trump  does. But he also stood for big government and social liberalism. These do not resonate with the disaffected. It might rally a lot of younger, urban people – but not the white working class. It would not have been hard for the Republicans to paint Mr Sanders as in fact being part of the liberal elite, who would bring with him socially liberal values, more interference in people’s daily lives, and higher taxes.

But for all that, the liberal left shares a disillusionment of the conventional centre with the conservative insurgents. They see the economic gains going to a lucky minority, while working class, and many middle class, people face increased insecurity – especially if they are young. The trouble is that the left lacks a convincing policy agenda to address it. Their solutions have a lot of the “same old” about them. And in particular they lack ideas on how to promote a thriving business environment, beyond more active demand management through fiscal policy, also promoted by Mr Trump, it has to be said.

So how to respond? Of course Mr Trump and his associates equally lack a convincing policy agenda to address the concerns of the left-behind. They will throw them some socially conservative red meat, but it is hard to see their economic policies making them better off. Meanwhile many social benefits, starting with health insurance, will come under threat. This gives the left the raw ingredients for a fightback. The developed world is becoming more socially liberal, so liberals must hold their nerve. And as conservative economic and foreign policies fail to gain traction, there will be more sticks to beat the conservatives with. Competence may come back into fashion.

But the left still needs a convincing policy agenda of its own. The old centrist agenda needs to be picked apart and put back together again. In my view this means a strengthening of local communities. Somehow a flourishing global economy needs to cohabit with flourishing local economies. Our hope must be that as Mr Trump as his conservative allies test their economic ideas to destruction, it will open people’s minds to fresh ideas. But those fresh ideas need to be fleshed out.

 

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