I am writing this on Wednesday evening while looking at the front page of the BBC news website. I cannot believe that the events of the last 24 hours are real. There was a moment, at about 4am on Wednesday morning, when I was confronted with the full ghastliness of what was happening and my sleep deprived brain decided that it was not true. This is just a dream, I thought and spent a good few seconds trying to wake myself up. It did not work. Reality remains stubbornly real. We now have to accept that we are living inside our worst nightmare.
Oscar Wild once said that “when the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” This sums up the perverse way that I feel responsible for what has happened in America. For years I have wished that all the people oppressed by the neoliberal status quo would get together and throw their weight behind an alternative. Then we could rock our economic system to the foundations. This is what has happened, but it was not supposed to be like this.
The first question that came to mind is, how did an uprising against global hyper-capitalism come from the far right and not the left? How did we get to a point where millions of Americans are willing to vote for a candidate who is openly racist, has ties to Vladimir Putin, lies through his teeth, brags about sexually assaulting women, flirts with the alt-right, is supported by neo-Nazis and the KKK and shows contempt for democracy itself? Who is to blame for this?
It is a complex question. False equivalence is certainly a factor; the media and individuals on social media have created a myth that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are equally flawed candidates and this is simply not true. I am not the biggest fan of Clinton but she is a million times the better option than Trump. How partisan politics has become is also to blame. Despite Trump being obviously awful, millions of people could not bring themselves to vote for the candidate of the other party. There are the left behind, the people whose wages and living standards have declined over the last thirty years, who desperately want change. There is the overt racism spreading amongst the white population. There are other factors. It is not an easy question to answer.
There are obvious parallels to be made with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June of this year. Two distinct interpretations of Brexit have emerged. The first is that this was a rebellion against the unequal distribution of the economic growth caused by neoliberal globalisation. Jobs, wages and living standard have declined in post-industrial areas of Western economies. Many of these areas have been thrown under a bus in the dash for the market liberalisation, free movement of capital and financialisation of the economy - the tenets of the neoliberal capitalism embraced by both major parties. People from Flint, Michigan to Boston in Lincolnshire are angry about how bleak their future is. We need to listen to them and take steps to improve the quality of life in such places to stop radical, right wing populism spreading.
The second interpretation is that white Western people are becoming increasingly hostile to multiculturalism and the mingling of different races. They are angry at the loss of privilege that being white once brought. And men, who over-index in support for the populist right, are angry about the loss of male privilege. Racism and xenophobia are spreading in a backlash to social liberalism that has been adopted by all mainstream politicians. This needs to be directly confronted to create a more harmonious society. What is overlooked in many of these discussions is that this populist, right wing rebellion against the status quo can be both of these things at the same time. The two are intrinsically linked.
The radical populism of the right is a response to the changes in society that we have seen over the last thirty years. It is a response to the changes in social structures that have given more status to women and ethnic minorities, which some people believe is at the expense of white men. It is a response to globalisation, which has given increased freedom to business, created economic growth but also created huge inequalities. It is a response to changing economic landscape, the location of jobs, the types of jobs and sectors of employment. It is a response to the increased number of people living cities and the increased numbers of people holding degrees. It is a response to the way the whole world is changing by the people who want to tell “STOP” at the top of their voice.
This has led to the emergence of a new political spectrum. It is not left wing versus right wing, but those in favour of these changes versus those opposed to them. For now, we call these two groups globalists and nativists, but clearer definitions will emerge in time. This new spectrum cuts across existing political divides. That is one reason for the success of Trump, he reaches across the Republican/Democrat split and appeals to non-voters because he is the alternative people wanted to the way the world is going. The same can be said for the leave vote in Britain or a vote for Marine Le Pen in the upcoming French presidential elections or a vote for the AfD in Germany or a host of other new nativist movements.
What does all this mean for the left? It does show that there are many people who are opposed to the globalist status quo, but Trump and the Tories under Theresa May are already shifting to occupy this territory. Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders’s traditional left wing politics do not fit into the new political spectrum. They are anti-globalist, but not nativist. By not fitting into this spectrum they risk alienating people at both ends of it.
New politics needs new politicians and new policies. People schooled in the changing political discourse. The left needs something new. The technocratic neoliberalism of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has been rejected by voters, but the old left politics of Corbyn and Sanders is not gaining much traction. I do not know what this something new will be, but it should contain a healthy amount of social liberalism and skepticism of globalisation with a thirst for the future and a politics that looks forwards to a more hopeful tomorrow and not back to a lost golden age.
The problem is that the left does not have much time to decide what this something new is before we cease to be relevant altogether. We need to get active and resist the populist right now, because I do not want to spend the rest of my life trapped inside a nightmare that I cannot wake up from.