Alec MacGillis, at Pro Publica, wrote a piece that was typical of how we thought before the election. There was fear that Donald Trump would win over blue collar Democrats and non-voters and ride into office on the backs of the economically marginalised, those left behind by globalisation. It did not happen. According to Shane Bauer, Senior Reporter for Mother Jones, Trump supporters earned on average $11 thousand a year more than Hillary Clinton’s supporters.
This shows how divided America is politically. Millions of Republicans would not support Clinton despite the racism and sexism of the Trump campaign. However, rather than a divide between the haves and the have-nots, the divide is between those who like the way American culture and society is changing and those who are hostile to it.
This is an important fact about the state of contemporary politics in the West. Brexit has been described in similar terms, however, 59% of leave voters were middle class. As David Wearing, at the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, has argued: "The Leave vote correlates much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class."
Wearing goes on to show 81% of leave voters think multiculturalism is a hostile force and that 74% dislike feminism. 26% of the U.K. population (slightly less than the percentage who voted to leave the EU) agree with the statement that “the government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain)”. Taken together this paints a picture of people who are motivated primarily by hostility to multiculturalism and not economic anxiety.
70% of Brexit voters say they would make an economic sacrifice to leave the EU, which indicates that Leave supporters are not living on the breadline. As Wearing says: “If the white van man has become the iconic Brexiteer, it appears that what's more pertinent is the whiteness of the man rather than the van (and the fact that the van is more likely to be an Audi).” The key point is that the election of Trump and the Brexit vote were not caused by economic hardship, but a rejection of multiculturalism.
Why are so many people opposed to multiculturalism? For many on the left support for multiculturalism is self-evident. If many people are alienated by it then it must be because we are going about seeking equality the wrong way. The goal is fine, but the methods are wrong. People who hate identity politics, political correctness, safe spaces and privilege checking are responding with an anti-liberal backlash.
Recently Stephen Kinnock argued that Labour must stop “obsessing” over diversity or face the same defeat as Clinton. Kinnock argues for a one size fits all approach to social justice, saying that: “Every group is actually struggling with the same problems of social mobility, the same problems of disempowerment, the same problems of feeling that they are being left behind. It doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is or what your background is. What matters is that you’re poor and you’re disadvantaged and we’ve got to be there to help and engage with every single one of you - not just those who seem to have been taking priority over others.”
Tackling poverty and disempowerment should be a priority of the Labour Party, but Kinnock is misrepresenting the growing political division as economic and not social. In Britain 48% of adults hold authoritarian, populist attitudes and 26% support a statement that is a clear definition of prejudice. This division cuts across economic groups and is a rejection of multiculturalism itself, not how we package it.
Prejudice and right wing populism is spreading. The victims will be immigrants and ethnic minorities. Already one in four people believe that you are not properly British if your parents were immigrants. Hostility to Muslims is spreading. A significant number of people believe that acceptance and tolerance of other cultures is a force for social ill. On the left we need to stand up to this. You can call this standing up for identity politics or political correctness or whatever you like, but it is what we need to do. It is not enough to have a one size fits all policy on equality, because we are not all the same. Some people suffer more discrimination than others. On the left we need to specifically stand with the people suffering from the backlash against equality. That is doing identity politics.
People who feel alienated by identity politics, political correctness, safe spaces and privilege checking are people who do not like the way that ethnic minorities or women ask for equality. Identify politics is the mechanism through which emancipation from prejudice is achieved. If someone feel uncomfortable with this, it is because they benefit from the systems of privilege that run through society and realising this is a painful experience.
We need to stop spreading the view that the disaffection of the poor created Trump, Brexit and the backlash against multiculturalism, because they wanted jobs and healthcare. This is simply not true. The root of this backlash is dislike of how our society is changing. It is a dislike of equality.
The growing backlash against equality needs to be directly confronted and not pandered to. People need to know that it is unacceptable to hold racist and xenophobic beliefs to stop holding them. To legitimise them in any way is encouraging racism and xenophobia. Identity politics, political correctness, safe spaces and privilege checking are all parts of this.