By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.
Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people. It is one that has delivered escalating inequality and stagnating or falling living standards for the majority, both in the US and Britain.
This is a rejection of a failed economic consensus and a governing elite that has been seen not to have listened. And the public anger that has propelled Donald Trump to office has been reflected in political upheavals across the world.
But some of Trump’s answers to the big questions facing America, and the divisive rhetoric around them, are clearly wrong.
I have no doubt, however, that the decency and common sense of the American people will prevail, and we send our solidarity to a nation of migrants, innovators and democrats.
After this latest global wake up call, the need for a real alternative to a failed economic and political system could not be clearer.
That alternative must be based on working together, social justice and economic renewal, rather than sowing fear and division. And the solutions we offer have to improve the lives of everyone, not pit one group of people against another.
Americans have made their choice. The urgent necessity is now for us all to work across continents to tackle our common global challenges: to secure peace, take action on climate change and deliver economic prosperity and justice.
This was the statement made by Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, in response to the Trump victory in the American presidential election. If progressives are to respond to Trump’s victory, Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and other democracies including Australia and parts of Asia the leader of one of Europe’s most successful and long-established social democratic parties might reasonably be expected to be on the right track. Unfortunately he is not. Corbyn falls down both in his diagnosis of what is happening and in the wooliness of his solutions.
Misunderstanding the problem
In terms of diagnosis the issue is that neither Trump nor Brexit – let alone other versions of right-wing populism – have built their electoral coalitions based on those left behind by economic change alone. They mobilise a bloc of disaffected working class voters and combine them with conservative supporters of from better-off households. Brexit won the day by combining traditional rural and suburban Conservative voters with more disaffected working class support in urban areas that have experienced economic decline over many decades. Trump won because he managed to peel away enough working class white voters while retaining the middle-class and rural Republican base. A classic pattern of support for right-wing populism follows the shape of a V-curve with most support coming from either end of the political spectrum: the relatively deprived and the relatively well-off.
Most of these voters do not reject the current economic system. Rather they want to be better placed within it. It is long-term employment and wage stagnation that is driving this economic discontent. Beyond that economic discontent how does right-wing populism pull together the two sides of its coalition? It gives people someone or something to blame for that sense of losing out. Populism relies to a great degree on the capacity of leaders to manipulate exasperation with social change, for example ‘by portraying “ordinary people” as the victim of an alliance between those at the bottom (needy immigrants and asylum seekers) and those at the top (the wealthy elite who aspire to even greater wealth and political clout)’. It adds issues of social identity, status and antagonism to the mix to create a distinctive politics of resentment.
There are three lessons to draw from this alternative diagnosis; none of which are central to Corbyn’s analysis. First there is no “unmistakable rejection” of the current economic system; although there anything that can be defined as the political establishment is given a kicking. Second unlocking the V-curve of support for right-wing populism is not a straightforward task because it mixes economic and social resentments. Arguing that we need an economy that works for all will be treated as the vacuous statement it is. In any case it will not cut through the wider sense of resentment against others. In politics there is no real or imagined nature to resentment there is just resentments and whether progressives like it or not they have to be addressed. Third, the only future for building an alternative winning electoral bloc is not simply to appeal to the left behind but to build a wide coalition of support drawn from those who are both winners and relatively speaking losers from a complex dynamic of economic change. In short do not believe the rhetoric of right wing populists about standing for the left behind. Look at what they do to win.
Coming up with solutions
Here the challenge faced by progressives is that modern global capitalism is – as ever– creating a dynamic of winners and losers. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These centres are marked by their intellectual assets, cultural strength and the capacity of their infrastructure to attract people, ideas and skills. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Such places will be further advantaged by trends of robotisation and automation in the labour force, and a shift towards service and knowledge economies. At the same time, other towns, cities and regions are experiencing an outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, human and physical infrastructure decays. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity (reinforcing the cycle of decline) and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.
These developments are not temporary or transitional. The scale of change is such that the processes that are in operation go beyond cyclical explanations of growth and decline, since the entire system of production, distribution and consumption is being restructured, generating new divides that have an air of solidity. The situation is such that the position of cosmopolitan cities is self-reinforcing but not without challenges. While not all left behind cities, towns and rural areas can easily be dragged into the slipstream of dynamics of the creative economy by policy interventions.
We are only in the foothills of being able to grapple with the policy issues created by this dynamic of social and economic change. It would be better for progressives to accept that they are far from clear about what to do rather than mouth platitudes about social justice or argue that more investment in infrastructure, housing, education and training will do the trick. Some of these types of interventions have been tried yet they appear to only partially stem the tide of change. To argue for more of such interventions without reflecting on what should be done appears misguided. A display of humility from politicians and experts around the political establishment might encourage voters to listen to them again.
We need action both locally and globally. The importance of a local focus and a commitment to local power is that the right solutions for different areas are likely not to be the same. For cosmopolitan areas of growth the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those areas they can join the new economy as latecomers then a clear specification of the niche and focus of their ambition as well as targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training would be required. We may also have to accept that some areas will be forever left behind and develop a planning system capable of managing decline and embracing the potential of declining growth in terms of climate and lifestyle gains. Globally the challenge is how to sustain free trade while tackling its social and environmental impacts. This probably means revisiting the global architecture of regulation set up after the Second World War. There is no quick fix and it is important for progressives to be honest about that.
The final reason why progressives need to work hard on solutions in that those offered by right-wing populists will fail. Controlling immigration will not solve the problems of left behind places such as Rotherham, Yorkshire or Flint, Michigan. Leaving the EU will not save the NHS for Britain. Imagining a global economy where you trade freely and yet you impose barriers on others or where you can access markets without following rules agreed by all others does not make it a reality. The fallout from those failures will be massive but progressives should not assume they will be the automatic beneficiaries. Populists will be good at the blame game. The challenge for progressives is both to offer an accurate diagnosis of what is going on and work in depth on solutions to respond. Corybn’s statement should be a cause of concern, rather than hope.