Post-Trump thoughts

Wed 16 November 2016

The pollsters were wrong about Trump. This should not have come as too much of as a surprise. I hoped the predictions showing he would lose were correct, but following the 2015 UK General Election and the Brexit vote I was wary of slim margins in times of unusual political movements, especially with contorted electoral systems.

The examples of Trump, Syriza, Brexit, Beppe Grillo's Five Star, the SNP, Corbyn, Podemos and others tell us that electorates are searching for alternatives to established politics. That there are multiple causes behind this that vary from country to country is not in doubt. The timing, however, cannot simply be a coincidence.

I've recently abandoned the belief that politics driven by democratic mass voting will inevitably improve society. I protected the belief for some time with exceptions such "this government is not improving things but this will be only a 4 or 5 year departure" or "this event is inarguably bad but will shake things up and lead to something better". Of course, these can be true and mass democratic voting can drive progress; what I am recanting is my belief in the inevitably of political progress.

As John Gray observed in his introduction to Gray's Anatomy:

Progress in science and technology is a fact, whereas progress in ethics and politics is a fiction.

Yet, hasn't worldwide inequality improved markedly in the last few decades with significant falls in absolute poverty rates? Yes, this is true. But it's not clear this was a deliberate political outcome and, even if it was, it's certainly not one stemming from mass voting. Voters in Europe or the USA never voted for anyone who promised to increase prosperity in China, and voters in China effectively have only one choice.

The change in world inequality came about over decades as labour costs rose in the West whilst people came to expect ever-improving standards of living. And this was coupled with growing world trade driven by technological progress, notably the huge efficiencies of containerised shipping along with advances in air transport and, to a lesser extent, near-instantaneous electronic communication. The net result was that manufacturing moved from West to East leaving an industrial employment hole that has been unsatisfactorily filled with jobs in services, many of which are low paid and precarious.

To a large extent the decline of Western prosperity, from which the wealthiest mostly insulated themselves, was hidden from view by the financial system. The large but invisible bubble of private credit burst in 2007-08 and the debt was shifted into the public sector. Economies such as the US or UK with their own currency and trusted bonds could roll with that punch, but smaller countries, particularly those with importing economies constrained by the Euro endured its full force. Rather than spreading and softening the impact, EU fiscal rules concentrated it on countries with the weakest economies.

Recovery from the 2008-09 recession was atypical by historical standards. There was no growth spurt making up lost ground, instead growth returned in slow and faltering style, with wages falling or remaining stagnant. The details vary from country to country but broad patterns are similar.

And while this happened, people noticed that wealth was continuing to pile up with the top 1% (or 0.1%), and this inequity caused an anger that registered across the left-to-right spectrum of politics. In fact, this is one reason amongst many why the concepts of left and right now seem out-dated.

But we should also realise that most of us in western countries have recently lost only some of the gains from decades of growth, and that we are still relatively very wealthy compared to the workers in China and many other countries. That we have exported our jobs to such places and we import so many of our goods from them should be a strong clue as to what has happened.

In essence, worldwide growth has continued with an increasing share going to poorer countries and less going to low and middle earners in the West. Changes in global trade have also created new international flows of money. The very wealthiest people in the world can straddle national boundaries with ease and so they have adapted their finances to capture a share of these flows in a way that is near impossible for country-bound people on low and middling incomes.

Of course, we humans are not rational. Our instinct is to compare ourselves with those around us, especially those wealthier than ourselves. Also, human nature means that we notice only the relatively sudden recent fall in our fortunes and take for granted the prior, more slowly accrued gains. The result is that the partial but true account of losing out to the 1% has taken hold and obscured the full story of what has happened.

Separate to this is the apparent puzzle of why voters in different countries have reacted so differently. How can global economic anxiety cause one voter to turn xenophobic in north England and vote for Brexit or UKIP, but another voter a hundred or so miles to the north in Scotland vote remain or for the SNP?

Of course, the question is on an absurd premise: economic anxiety via a fall in perceived income or wealth did not cause people to become xenophobic or to support the SNP. Instead, the campaigning in the referendum and elections served to bolster pre-existing views. There's clear evidence that an authoritarian predisposition lay behind anti-EU feeling in England, and that although underlying attitudes to the EU are not that different in Scotland, it's electoral expression was altered by the SNP's vision of independence in Europe.

So the rise of non-mainstream politics in western countries is undoubtedly related to the change in the worldwide economic climate, but manifests itself in each country according to pre-existing local politics. But there is a common element behind all the movements listed at the start: blaming some other, whether it is another political ideology (neoliberalism), another party (Tories), another country (Mexico or China or Eastern Europe), another political power-centre (Westminster or Brussels), or in its ugliest form, another race. In some cases there is an element of truth in blaming the particular other, in others there is none whatsoever.

Several times I've heard the fall-out of Trump's election or Brexit described as a kind of darkness falling across western society and although that is a tad dramatic, it feels apt to me, especially in describing the xenophobic and racist elements. However, it is too simplistic to blame the establishment for this, or to summarise it away as neoliberals getting their comeuppance. Whatever else they did wrong, this darkness did not come directly from present or recently governing politicians. They do however deserve indirect blame insofar as they unwittingly sowed the seeds of this situation, and then upon it becoming manifest, denied its existence. This latter failure allowed it to grow and fester thanks to vote-hungry populist politicians and certain amoral sales-hungry newspaper owners who peddled rhetoric based on identity and grievance.

But although unscrupulous politicians and media outlets exploited it, they were not the source of the darkness either. It came from within society itself. It came from the humans that we live and work with. These people, ones who harbour racist and xenophobic views, are a minority but they have never been classed as one of the minorities, and have felt silenced for years, both in what they could say in public and what they could vote for via the ballot box. Many who were attuned to the liberal mainstream of politics expressed surprise and horror that Britain had become xenophobic and perhaps even racist overnight. There is some hyperbole on this point for sure, but Britain had this element in its society all along. Until recently, it remained quiescent. Now it has found a means of expression that not only enables it to be heard, but has allowed it to influence the UK's government.

And of course, there is no reason to suspect this situation is unique to Britain or the US. Nor is past electoral success from seemingly left or centrist parties (Syriza, Podemos or the SNP) a guarantee against such darkness emerging in the future. The fall in the fortunes of a governing party can lead to a very different party or movement gaining power or influence. Both Brexit and Trump's victories were narrow but their effects were anything but.

What can be done? Trying to understand why people voted for Trump or Brexit is worthwhile, but only so much can be learned from listening to unshakeable beliefs and irrational fears. And fighting irrationality with reason is futile. If that rankles, you are in good company: Bertrand Russell entertained such a notion until it was corrected by John Maynard Keynes and others.

But it's important to realise that there are people who voted for Brexit and Trump who did apply reason and think through their decision. But to brand them as irrational would be a mistake. We have to live in a society with other people whose values we do not share. Telling them their values are invalid or wrong will not help, nor will telling them to shut up. What can be done is to limit the actions of a minority and its expression in political power. That, of course, can work both ways.

It's likely that there's more darkness to come. When it crosses thresholds of households and affects daily lives then those who have chosen irrationally will be forced to reason with reality. Then, I think, or at least hope, matters can improve.