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  • Published in Analysis
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The vote for Brexit and for Trump have their similarities but do not represent a lurch to the populist right argue Sean Ledwith and Adam Tomes

In the aftermath of the two political earthquakes of 2016, a narrative is emerging in some quarters of the left that the votes for Brexit in the UK and for Trump in the US are equally disastrous and represent twin harbingers of a new and darker era of reactionary populism. The two events are being lumped together as decisive shifts in the political centre of gravity to the right and from which progressive forces can derive no benefit.

Millions of ordinary voters in both countries who defied the blandishments of their respective neoliberal political establishments - plus the combined weight of international institutions such as the IMF, Nato and the EU - are collectively caricatured and denounced as racist, uneducated, small-minded bigots who have unthinkingly plunged their societies over a precipice. If the left is to progress in the coming months and years it needs to come to terms with the reality of these two votes and avoid duplicating the simplifications that litter mainstream accounts.

The two votes are undeniably similar in some ways. They both reflected anger and disillusionment with the existing political establishment. It does reflect the inability of the centre ground to understand or react to the crises faced by ordinary people. The social devastation caused by technological advances in industry, free trade and savage neoliberal economic policies have left the US and the UK sharply divided between a shrinking well-paid and securely employed middle class and a mass of insecure and poorly paid service workers.

Neoliberalists' view that they had the “long term economic plan” or that America was already great, were bound to fall on stony ground in their appeal to the voter.  People have seen through the idea that somehow the problems of the last 30 years, brought to a head in the global crash of 2008, were caused by the ideas of social democracy. It has become clear that neoliberalism is just the ideological sound produced by a giant sucking of wealth hoovered upwards to the rich. 

However the differences are also there for all to see - it is pretty clear that those who voted for Brexit, would not have voted for Trump. In the latest YouGov poll, 19% of people in the UK hold a favourable view of Trump whilst 70% of people hold an unfavourable view. The Brexit vote was not, for the vast majority of voters, about voting for the kind of vile, illiberal, bigoted nonsense that Trump pedals.

It should also be noted that the same voters would also not have wanted to vote for Hillary and her policies for the rich, hidden beneath a charade of liberal values. Even in the US, the vote was not primarily about Trump – the vote was about a collapse in the belief in the policies of the centre. After all, under President Obama, the Democrats have lost almost a thousand state-legislature seats, a dozen gubernatorial races, sixty-nine House seats and thirteen in the Senate in 8 years.

In wider terms, this is not some lurch to the populist right in which bargain basement demagogues like Trump or Farage wins vast swathes of votes. This can be seen in the widespread protests against Trump, the opposition to Theresa May’s obsequious visit to the US that sold morality at the door for just the promise of a knock-off  trade deal and the widespread disgust of the Tory U-turn on the Dubs amendment to allow in refugee children. Populism of the right has a lot in common with neoliberalism, particularly in its disparaging view of the ability of the voter.

The right-wing populist taps into public anger for its own ends - to win power, where it feels it can then betray the very voter that put it there. The issue for the populist right is when its positions run into wider debate and public opinion. Recent polling in the US shows this with 59% to 38% opposing building a wall with Mexico, 61% to 29% opposing the lifting of regulations intended to combat climate change and 50% to 37% arguing for more regulation of the banking sector and these positions run in direct opposition to Trump.

The real area of interest may be not in how the public has reacted but how the establishment has reacted. In both countries, it must be the fault of the voters. In the UK, the pro-EU elite likes to tell itself the voter swallowed the lies of the official Brexit campaign about the £350m for the NHS that adorned the Battle Bus or that they did not fully understand the economic impact. This shows just how detached those living in the Westminster bubble and media ivory towers are. The voter was voting against the establishment, the status quo and the vicious inequalities of the neoliberal UK.

In the US, it is suggested the voter was somehow racist and misogynist and whilst it may be the case for some voters, and these voters should be challenged for where they stand, does that fully explain the result? The rustbelt states that won it for Trump, had voted for Obama twice - perhaps the problem was the last eight years of Democrat government and the promise of eight more years that would be same! Take Michigan as an example- it has lost half its auto manufacturing jobs since 2000, falling to 35th in per capita income amongst the US states. New auto-manufacture jobs start at $14 per hour today, which is half what they used to pay in 2000.

This ties into the larger picture that came out from a Reuters/Ipsos poll on election day that showed 72 percent of Americans agree "the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful', whilst 68 percent agree that "traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me' and 76 percent believe "the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth." The extreme centre of failed neoliberalism blames everyone but itself -the clear symptom of an ideology that is dying.

The Trump presidency has no redeeming qualities, apart from the widespread opposition it has created in the UK, US and globally. However, the Brexit vote was a vote against an unelected EU bureaucracy and so creates the space for debates about the meaning of democracy. Every issue now comes up for debate as Britain looks to shape its post-EU future. This means raising fundamental questions about the type of society we all want to live in. Now is the time for a bold, alternative strategy that speaks to the truth and to justice.

The real failure is to not be bold enough, because then a divisive, degenerate form of dog whistle politics can win. The time has come to frame the argument in terms of the kind of just, equal, ecologically sound society where all have access to decent and rewarding work and a guaranteed wage. Voters have been convinced that they do not want neoliberalism and inequality so now is the time to present the case for a radical democracy where solutions for the future are shaped in the interests of all not the few.

Instead of focusing on the perceived mistakes of the past, progressive forces should be concentrating on how the anti-establishment dimension of both votes is partly coalescing in the form of the Women's Marches in the US and the campaign to prevent the Presidential state visit in the UK. Together these two hugely impressive and inspiring movements have demonstrating the potential for a populism of the left to take on the fake alternative of the right.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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