Framing the populist revolt
In the industrialized Western world, we are living through a great age of populism. There’s no doubt about that now. The trigger for it was the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 and the knock-on European Sovereign Debt Crisis a couple of years later. But, politically, we are living with the repercussions today – and will continue to live with them until politicians understand the issues and address the problems.
I was thinking about this at the weekend. And it struck me that ‘Take Back Control’, the pro-Brexit slogan of 2016, is the perfect metaphor for what people are craving: control.
Let me frame the issue for you, because I take a different take than most. Here’s how I look at it: every economic or political crisis is different, with different local triggers and root causes. And so it makes sense that most people react by looking for the specific ‘localized’ root causes to blame.
For example, some would argue that the US housing crisis was caused by a combination of low interest rates used to overcome the tech bubble and an environment of lax regulation which allowed easy money to induce liar’s loans and no-doc mortgages. That’s a fine analysis as far as it goes. But why was the crisis global in nature. And why are we still seeing a level of political populism everywhere in the industrialized west we never saw before the crisis, a full 10 years after the crisis?
This is where my frame is different. For me, it’s about a loss of control. Let me give you an example. Whenever I go to central Pennsylvania or northwest Pennsylvania to visit relatives like I will for the holidays, I am always struck by how rundown everything looks. I am talking about towns like Warren, Bradford, Huntington, Altoona, and York. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, these towns were powerhouses. Wikipedia says of Huntington:
The borough is located on the main line of the Norfolk Southern (formerly Pennsylvania) Railway, in an agricultural and outdoor recreational region with extensive forests and scattered deposits of ganister rock, coal, fire clay, and limestone. Historically, the region surrounding Huntingdon was dotted with iron furnaces and forges, consuming limestone, iron ore and wood (for charcoal production) throughout the 19th century.
But when I drive through Huntington, the thing I see that dominates the landscape is the Huntington State Correctional Institution, “a close custody prison in Pennsylvania that houses approximately 2,100 adult male inmates.” According to Wikipedia, at the last census, the population was 94.6% white and the median income for a household in the borough was $35,057.
It reminds me of the once picturesque Cumberland, MD, a town in the Allegheny mountains at the end of the historic C&O canal that we sometimes go through on the way to Pennsylvania. WIkipedia says of Cumberland:
Historically Cumberland was known as the “Queen City”, as it was once the second largest in the state…
Industry declined after World War II. Much of the later urban, business and technological development in the state has been concentrated in eastern coastal cities. Today the Cumberland, MD-WV Metropolitan Statistical Area is one of the poorest in the United States, ranking 305th out of 318 metropolitan areas in per capita income.
Take Back Control
All of these places have been ‘hollowed out’. And industry simply isn’t coming back to these places. The farms in the agricultural communities in the area simply aren’t big enough to operate at scales to support wage-earners. So people aren’t working on farms. And as distances are great and public transportation infrastructure is weak, people are overweight and unhealthy. The opioid crisis runs deep.
What do these people want? They want to ‘take back control’. They want to make America great again, if you will. And they are willing to cast a populist vote to voice that opinion. When I am in the industrial heartland of Germany, I think the same thing too. In fact, I reckon the Red Wall districts in the UK that went for the Conservatives in the last election share many of these same characteristics. That’s why Friday’s post on the UK election stressed the ‘anti-globalization‘ tenor of the outcome.
In short, my frame is global. Why are we still seeing a level of political populism everywhere in the industrialized west that we never saw before the crisis, a full 10 years after the crisis? Because people in areas like this are having their lives upended, with no hope of that changing.
You know what triggered this post? It was a post on Axios saying “these Obama/Trump voters in Michigan are just Trump voters now“. I don’t know that area of Michigan. But I am familiar with Pennsylvania. So I thought I would check the electoral map from the 2016 presidential election. Here’s what it looks like, with Trump dominating the rural areas and Clinton taking the urban ones.
It didn’t look anywhere near as stark in 2012. And that shows the quintessential Obama/Trump voter that Axios is speaking to. And it also goes to the areas I am telling you about that I have seen hollowed out.
So, when I watched the UK election results and saw the split on educational and economic lines…
…my thought immediately went to globalization.
And for me, it goes to the same outcomes I see everywhere: in the Netherlands, in Germany, in the US, and in the UK in particular. People in ‘hollowed out’ regions and in ‘hollowed out’ industries feel like central governments are not taking their needs seriously. The only way to deal with that sensibly is to ‘localize’ the government apparatus to give people greater control over what services and supports are delivered.
The message to me is that centralization -as in the EU, for example – is undesirable in a world in which people feel buffeted by global forces. And, if they can vote for platforms that stress localization, protectionism, populism, anti-immigration or even downright xenophobia, they will. They will not vote for parties that look to be co-opted by the needs and concerns of large urban metropolitan areas filled by the urban elite and their urban poor servers and servants. That is a lifestyle that doesn’t have any relevance for them.
So when Jess Phillips,a pro-Remain Labour MP in a 60% leave district, wrote about the failings of her party, I noticed the imagery attached to the article.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is surrounded by his constituents from Islington, who look like… constituents from Islington, the melting pot that the UK has become and that woke progressive urban voters lionize. Like it or not, that doesn’t resonate. Without overtly playing identity politics, it is easy to see how identity politics becomes the big hidden theme.
For her part, Jess Phillips styles herself as someone who “thought [she] was quite posh [but] realised [she’s] basically a scullery maid”. That’s how a Remainer wins in a 60% leave constituency.
For the social democrats of Europe and the Democratic party in the US, the Third Way won’t work. That was how Blair, Schroeder and Clinton won power some 20 to 25 years ago But now that is seen as an abandonment of the working class.
And to be clear, Obama, who sold himself as a change agent in 2008, was from that mold. We saw this immediately when he chose Summers and Geithner to lead his economic team, picked Rubinite advisors and ended up not prosecuting any bank executive for the worst crisis in three-quarters of a century. He was more about the status quo, with changes around the margins.
Obama won in 2008 because of a crisis. Obama was then able to hold on against the blue-blooded Mitt Romney and his ‘binders of women’ and ‘47%’ in 2012 because he was more change than Romney would have been. Hillary Clinton was a literal throwback to the Third Way era of her husband, which is part of why she lost.
Jeremy Corbyn represents a different tack, one to the more socialist, government-heavy side of things. And he has lost twice now. Why? I think it’s because the way he’s sold his programs doesn’t “take back control”; he didn’t stress localization, protection of traditions, or protection of British workers. His thematic was more about inclusivity and multi-culturalism. And that simply didn’t sell in the de-industrialized north. See
Democrats in the US have some of the right messaging. For example, their stress on leveling the playing field to give ordinary workers a fair shot is spot on. But my sense is that they too run into the inclusivity and multi-culturalism problem too. Take decriminalization of the border, for example. That’s exactly the opposite of what voters concerned about globalization want to see. Or take the reporting that Fox News is doing around Sanders; the headline reads “Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare-for-all’ plan includes health care for illegal immigrants“. How does Sanders defend himself against that claim without alienating Hispanic voters?
My view: some of this is about messaging and some of it has to be explicitly about redistribution. The message is that ‘big government’ doesn’t work, that voters know what to do with their own money better than government does. And so, taxes have to be lower and services have to be more local. But, at the same time, that shift will be for the many, for the working and middle classes and not for the wealthy and corporations. The tax breaks will be for ordinary people.
Because globalization isn’t going away. We can’t shut down the borders. But we can insulate people against the negative effects. We can also allow people to take back control by giving them back more of their money and by redistributing some important government decision-making and government funding to a local level.
In the meantime, the message has to be that western governments will fight for a fair global trading environment that also safeguards the economic and national security interests of its citizens. What exactly that entails policy-wise is the big question.
As I see it, left of center parties fail to message the part of taking back control and focus excessively on multi-culturalism and inclusion in a way that appeals only to voters in large metropolitan areas. And right of center parties focus wrongly on anti-immigrant messaging without addressing the need for redistributing government decision-making and funding or direct taxation support for the working and middle classes to reduce income inequality.
There has to be someone or some party that can bridge this gap! Until we see her though, expect the revolt of the working class to continue.
P.S. – a large part of this is gender-based too because working class men have suffered a loss of face that is greater than for women, because of the traditional male identity as bread-winner. The loss of status is acute for working-class men and they are willing to turn to violence to make their disenchantment known.