The new politics of anger

by Bill Emmott on November 24, 2016 at 11:07 am in: Democracy, Inequality, Resilience
by Bill Emmott on November 24, 2016 at 11:07 am in: Democracy, Inequality, Resilience

Anger is, by common consent, the most important emotion among citizens in the West. At least, that is the popular conclusion being drawn from the Brexit referendum and from the election of Donald Trump. But anger about what? If public policy is to respond to this anger, it needs to work out answers.

It is too easy to say that voters are angry with “the elites”. No one has a problem with elites in sport, music or any other walk of life. Admiration of success has, if anything, increased in recent decades. By contrast with more socialist times in the 1960s and 1970s, competition and the full fruits of victory in it now seem much more acceptable, not just in America but also Europe.

So there’s the clue: success. The key point is that elites – by which is really meant governments and those with political power – have not been delivering success. They have not done a good job either in planning ahead – building infrastructure, nurturing education, encouraging innovation – or in coping well and equitably with immediate pressures.

For that reason, voters are right to be angry. They are even right to say, as did Trump and the Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, that “the system is rigged”. For political power has indeed become more concentrated in the hands of billionaire party donors and corporate lobbyists. The democratic ideal of equality of political rights and voice has been placed in severe doubt, even danger.

By contrast, simple, linear, “it’s the economy, stupid” explanations look inadequate to explain voters’ anger, especially in bringing a complete political neophyte such as Trump to the White House. However much he has played on the issue, the explanation cannot simply be poverty, as such: this is low or has been declining in Britain, America and other seemingly angry countries. Nor can it be unemployment: that might explain anger in France, where joblessness tops 10% of the labour force, but not in Britain, where it fell to 4.8% in August, nor America, where it was 4.9% in October.

Depressed incomes could explain it better, for in both countries median household earnings took a hit after the financial crisis of 2008, but have been on quite a strong upswing during 2015 and 2016. People, ordinary people, have borne the brunt of the financial crisis, but recently things have been looking better.

Nor is it simply that globalization is the target. A pan-European study presented by the UK think-tank Demos along with pollsters at YouGov found in October 2016 that support for globalisation’s benefits actually remains high.  But trust in governments, both national and at EU level, is low.

Brexit is a good place to start to understand this more complex picture of anger. Admittedly, Britain’s referendum was somewhat sui generis in electoral terms, since the decision about whether or not to leave the European Union was a complex one, born of many motives. Moreover, voters had one year earlier re-elected the incumbent Conservative government, a choice which did not suggest anger.

It is true that voting turnout of working-class voters was much higher on June 23rd than had been the case in the 2015 general election, which might imply that the angry “left behind” had come out to vote, but statistically this is still not enough to explain the vote.

The trend that the Brexit vote may represent better is one that one can then see in even greater clarity in America’s election. It is disappointment, or to use a stronger word, alienation, with government, especially government that feels unaccountable. The European Union has been doing badly, with a poorly performing economy and clear signs of dysfunction in its response to the migrant crisis. Few voters feel they have any real say over EU decision-making, rightly or wrongly. It feels distant, a characteristic that comes to matter hugely when it also feels incompetent and even damaging.

Combine that with a longstanding British suspicion about allowing political decisions to be taken by foreigners, and you have a recipe for Brexit: for “taking back control” as the Leave slogan so powerfully put it.

This is a general story, not just a British one. Since the 2008 crash, the worst financial calamity the world has seen since the 1930s, government has been having – and has been seen to have been having – a very bad run. Never mind that fiscal and monetary interventions successfully prevented the crash turning into a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Voters rarely reward governments for the things that didn’t happen. What did happen was economic pain, fiscal austerity after about 2010, and a continued rise in inequality.

The rise in inequality matters because it has fuelled a strong feeling of unfairness. In Britain, conventional measures of income inequality actually show it falling since 2010. But, as in America, Gini coefficients may not capture what is truly important. The important rise in inequality has been an inequality of political power and voice, which comes especially from wealth and the ever-rising role of campaign finance and lobbying.

Under the Obama administration, hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on rescuing bust American banks. Meanwhile 15 million residential mortgages were foreclosed upon. Some federal money was put aside to help those at risk of losing their homes, but not nearly enough to make a big difference.

So come 2016, what does the Democratic Party do? It puts up a candidate who had been at the centre of American political life for 25 years, and who served in the Obama administration as Secretary of State. Coming from the political mainstream, Hillary Clinton naturally had close ties with Wall Street and other lobbyists and donors.

To be angry at governments’ failure to deliver is right. To be angry about a political system that has become severely distorted by lobbies, especially from banks and Wall Street, and by billionaire donors, is also right. To be angry about a gross, and worsening, inequality of political voice is right.

The question now is what are really the right responses, the right solutions, for this anger.

They must involve greater equality. They must involve better delivery. But they must not throw away the openness, the international collaboration between like-minded countries, the basic democratic values, that have done so much to make the West prosperous, stable and secure.

The Data
    • Overall:
    • Demography:
    • Knowledge:
    • Innovation:
    • Openness:
    • Resilience:
    Demography
    Knowledge
    Innovation
    Openness
    Resilience

    Demography
    Knowledge
    Innovation
    Openness
    Resilience

    Demography
    Knowledge
    Innovation
    Openness
    Resilience