Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 29 December 2016

Left and Right in 2016

Before the Christmas break David Blanchflower asked me a question on twitter: “why do you think we have seen the move to right-wing rather than left-wing populism?” This is my reply. I’ll just talk about the US and UK because I do not know enough about other countries. (Here is an interesting analysis of populists in Eastern Europe.) I’ll take it as read that there are currently well understood reasons for people to want to reject established politicians, and the Blanchflower question is really about why that rejection went right rather than left.

In my answer I want to distinguish between two types of people. The first are those that are not that interested in politics, and are therefore not well informed. They depend on just a few parts of the MSM for their information. The second are those that are interested in politics and are well informed, using multiple sources which are not just confined to the mainstream media (MSM). I want to argue that this distinction is crucial in helping us understand what happened in 2016.

I also want to use the term populist for policies in its most simple form, as policies that are likely to be immediately popular with the public, without the negative connotations that I discussed here. Populist policies on the left would focus on measures to curb financialisation and the power of finance (‘bashing bankers’), and measures to reduce inequality (which are popular if expressed in terms of the 1%, or CEO pay). Right wing populist policies include of course controls on immigration, combined with constant references to national identity. The need to control international trade can be invoked by left and right.

Among those who are well informed, there is no evidence that dissatisfaction with existing elites broke right rather than left. Indeed membership of political parties in the UK suggests the opposite is true. Party members in the UK are almost by definition likely to be much more interested in politics than the average citizen, and will not be dependent on one or two elements of the MSM for information. As the Labour party leadership has shifted left and adopted some of the left wing populism I’ve described, its membership has exploded. The figures are remarkable. The Labour party currently has a membership of over half a million. This is probably [1] at least three times the membership of the Conservative party. UKIP, the populist party of the right, has a membership of only 39,000, which is below the membership of the Greens.

The Sanders campaign indicates both the popularity of left wing populism among political activists in the US, but also that left wing populist policies can be as popular with voters as those from the right when they get a national platform. Sanders put greater taxes on the rich and additional Wall Street regulation at the centre of his platform, as well as opposition to trade agreements. The campaign was largely funded by individual donations, in contrast to the other campaigns. With the exposure that an extended election process gave him, Sanders’ brand of left wing rhetoric got national coverage and proved pretty popular. Sanders claimed, with some justification, that he actually polled better against Trump than Clinton, and it remains an open question whether a populist from the left might have done better against Trump than Clinton, who epitomised the establishment.

During the Sanders campaign left wing populist ideas did get wide coverage in the MSM, but this is the exception rather than the rule. After the financial crisis there was a brief period of about a year when these more left wing themes were a major media focus, but since then they appear only occasionally in the MSM. In contrast parts of the MSM in both countries has for many years produced propaganda that supports right wing populism, and the non-partisan elements of the MSM have done very little to contest this propaganda, and on many occasions simply follow it.

Let me put these points in a slightly different way. For the few of us that do attach great importance to the media in understanding recent events, it would be a major problem if on occasions where alternative ideas were given considerable coverage in the media they were ignored by voters. It would also be a major problem if those who were much less dependent on one or two MSM sources for information behaved in the same way as the average voter. But fortunately for us both the Sanders campaign and UK party membership suggest neither problem arises, but instead these pieces of evidence provide support for our ideas.

So in both the US and UK, among those who are exposed to left wing populism or who access a much broader range of information than that provided by the MSM, there is no puzzle of asymmetry. Left wing populism continues to appeal. The asymmetry at the level of the popular vote, that gave us Brexit and Trump, can be explained by asymmetry in the media. Right wing populist ideas not only get much more coverage than left wing populist ideas, but sections of the MSM actively promote these ideas. Given that this focus on the importance of the providers of information is intuitive, it is really up to those who think otherwise to provide both theory and evidence to support their view that the MSM is unimportant.

[1] I say probably because the latest data we have for Conservative party membership is 2013. However I think it is reasonable to speculate that lack of publication means numbers have been going down, not up.  


  1. Which elements of the MSM are you claiming supported Trump?

    Which elements of the MSM are you claiming support Ukip? (The Express?)

    Something has changed. Trying to explain that change through the influence of the MSM (which has rapidly declined) seems an unlikely hypothesis.

  2. While I think you're basically right, you can't demonstrate that you're right. The same results could also be explained by those who are Europhiles seeking out other media in response to the Eurosceptic bits of the MSM.

    1. I agree that in principle that is a problem, but it is just not credible that 80% of tabloid readers are fiercely anti-EU.

    2. Are 80% of the tabloids fiercely anti-EU rather than just Eurosceptic? The Sun campaigned for Remain. I dunno the Mail's editorial position and I presume the Mirror was from Remain rather than "Lexit".

      There's a split among the Tories themselves, and I don't mean among MPs. 75% of ConservativeHome users said in a poll they'd vote Leave. Clearly not reflective of party policy.

  3. «Left wing populism continues to appeal.

    Actually it is not «left wing populism" that appeals, because neither B Sanders nor J Corbyn are in some way populists; they describe themselves correctly as "democratic socialists".

    «The asymmetry at the level of the popular vote, that gave us Brexit and Trump, can be explained by asymmetry in the media.»

    But there are some studies that show that the media influence voting but only at the margins, as in 1-2%. Also the media in the USA were by a large majority ferociously anti-Trump, especially during the primaries.

    More plausibly to me the story is that centre-left (socialdemocratic) politics have been for too long simply not an option because "end of history" and "There Is No Alternative" strategies: the B Sanders campaign in the USA was most likely sabotaged, and most of the Labour MPs to be far from being democratic socialists, and many of them are hardcore neoliberals/neocons (Alan Johnson stood side-to-side with D Cameron during the "Remain" campaign). Even right-wing populism as in D Trump and N Farage was vigorously opposed by "the establishment", and only survived to only-just victory because it kept being funded by very rich people at variance with the rest of the establishment.

    So for me the story is not the media, but the lack of effective representation for mild-left voters, who have then voted for right-wing populists holding their noses or abstained if they could not.

    Someone observed that D Trump's was elected thanks to B Obama, in particular the lack of delivery on the "hope and change" promise. Somewhat similarly the year of unremitting hostility to J Corbyn from the thatcherite/mandelsonian labour MPs must have persuaded down-and-out Labour voters that mild-left

    A very telling quote about thatcherite/mandelsonian Rachel Reeves:
    «Mass immigration had changed her Leeds constituency, she said. She could not go into white council estates to argue for Britain to stay the EU during the referendum campaign. She knew she would not change a single mind. Canvassing would just remind working-class voters to get out and vote ‘leave’ on referendum day. The nearest she came to seeking working-class support was at a meeting at the largest employer in her constituency, a packing and delivery business. Reeves tried to explain why it was in the workers’ interest to stay in the EU, but was met with unremitting hostility to freedom of movement.»

    Consider also:

    Owen Smith's constituency: 57% for "Leave"
    Alan Johnson's constituency: 60% for "Leave".
    Tristram Hunt's constituency: 65% for "Leave".

    Corbyn's constituency: 75% for "Remain".
    Corbyn's national result as Labour leader: 63% of Labour voters for "Remain".

  4. The US and UK media seem more biased towards right wing and populist ideas (or slogans) than western continental Europe because of tabloids and cable tv. I hope that french media won't follow that path with Marine Le Pen. Also an important factor in Brexit and Trump is the support from Cambridge Analytica which can help target political ads very accurately. I hope they won't do the same with Le Pen, considering the solidarity and mutual help there can be between populist movements accross countries.

  5. What we saw in the calling of the 2016 EU referendum and in the battle to become presidential candidate for the Republican Party was/is conservatism in its own civil war.

    The question is how does a conservative respond to the 2008 economic crisis, knowing full well that finance overwhelming votes for and funds major rightist and the neoliberal parts of leftist parties, and that most people have a newly-found dislike of financiers?

    How does a conservative party and its neoliberal allies stop some form of economic socialism benefiting from the 2008 crisis?

    Having watched 2008-2016 in politics and journalism, I think we now know the answer.

    However, if there are economic problems in the UK and/or the US in 2017, it is difficult to see where conservatism goes from that point other than into a further bout of civil war but this time having run out of other people and institutions to blame.

  6. Well, here is an analysis of sorts:

    The real problem with your analysis is that you make out the voting public to be automatons, reflecting the news they are fed. Has it occurred to you that these people might have agency (you know, the kind of thing that supposedly is at the heart of economic theory, i.e. rational actors)--those on the Right are seeking right-wing news outlets to double down on their beliefs.

    You could bemoan the lack of critical thinking, which I'd certainly agree is a valid point, as well as non-critical news coverage. But to reduce the dispositions and preferences of those who continued to hold to right-wing populism to the media content is superficial. These people want this kind of resentment politics--maybe not the policies per se, but the general gist of giving the middle finger to non-whites, academics, feminists, etc. (those who tell them they are wrong and can prove it). In a way, it's the conflict of a badly-understood idea of "democracy" (I have the right to think what I want to think) versus technocracy (evidence trumps rights).

    1. More people trusted Trump than Clinton, even though Clinton received more votes. Where does that come from?

    2. It's because she had been in the public eye for decades, and was especially politically active as a first lady, with her failed attempt at getting a health care plan, that was attacked by conservatives and in the end kibboshed by her own party.

      So there were a huge group of people (mostly Republican leaders) who had been told for literally decades that they should really dislike and not trust her. Also there were a lot of democrats who remembered her health-care failure, and felt let-down enough by that to lean towards not "trusting" her.

      The email story (though mostly ridiculous) surely served to heighten those earlier untrustworthy feelings.

      Trump is a businessman with more than his fair share of business failures. Failing at business doesn't really mean you're untrustworthy. There never was a corresponding decade-long concerted campaign to demonize Trump, because the centre-left in the US just doesn't operate that way.

    3. crf: I agree, but the fact remains that during the campaign Trump lied repeatedly, in a way that was easy to demonstrate. That was very different from Clinton. Yet TV news focused on those emails.

    4. There was nothing ridiculous as crf says about the "emails" (private server). Mishandling of classified information, such as taking it out of work on a thumb drive, or a secret computer, is a crime and people have been imprisoned for it, including under Obama. The majority of the public thought Clinton should have been prosecuted. Trump was not being investigated by the FBI for a felony. Comey said in his public speech that there was "evidence" that Clinton committed a crime, but that for some reason no prosecutor would pursue it. In other words, she wasn't a member of the armed forces, who would have been convicted and jailed for the same offence like the others.

      As for easy to demonstrate lies, so are these from Clinton: the private server was allowed by the State Dept, other secs of state did it (Powell used a private email account, not a server, and he kept all classified into on a State Dept computer instead), that is was a security inquiry (it was a criminal investigation as Comey confirmed), that none of her staff had been interviewed yet (they had before she spoke), that there was no info marked as classified (there was and she knew it at the time), that she would cooperate fully with the investigation (she wouldn't be interviewed, unlike the past secs of state).

      The failure of TV news was during primary season, when it gave far more coverage to Trump than to Clinton and Sanders. They completely turned against Trump during general election season, totally backing Clinton, and it is wrong of you (SWL) to conflate the two by saying "TV news focused on those emails". Trump's lies were even exposed using captions on the screen by CNN e.g. "Trump says he never said Japan should have nukes (he did)"!

      Further lies, easy to demonstrate because the evidence was on public record, were that Clinton said she was a critic of NAFTA (when she helped pass it), that criminals' guns in New York were mainly from Vermont, etc. She has been known as a pathological liar for decades like Trump, the best one being "we landed under sniper fire" (about Bosnia).

    5. Still begs the question. You presume, again, that people are mere reflections of media discourse (crude reflection theory of Marxism). But might the causation run the other way (or both ways)? There have been reports of people not really caring about Trump's lies: either 1) they didn't take him seriously (but some are starting to now, to their horror), and/or 2) they don't care because he is catching a general, vague mood, and the specifics are less important. That's the politics of resentment--you don't care anymore. Now, why this is the case is a different story. Do right-wing media & social media bubbles matter? Sure. Is the real story monocausal? I'd bet my house against it.

  7. I'd argue that it's due to the way politics has unfolded since the financial crisis. In the wake of 2008 the governing consensus and parties were discredited and the initial turn was left-wards in many countries, eg, Hollande, Syriza. The US is different, a two-party system where, realistically, challengers can only rise through the Democrat or Republican parties, but Obama was still elected after an ostensibly radical campaign. Even if it was clear from the beginning he was far more central politically than his campaign managers were making him out to be (the only ones persisting in the belief of a radical Obama being Republicans who find it a useful weapon to attack him with).

    The situation was a little more complicated in the UK, with New Labour governing at the time, yet even here it was the Lib Dems who made the initial gains, not the Conservatives.

    For various reasons, which are unnecessarily lengthy to go into, the record of these groups in power has left their supporters feeling largely disillusioned and to some extent betrayed. So after the collapse of the centre post-2008 there came the collapse of their successors.

    The result has been the move by some even further left, giving us the rise of Corbyn and Podemos around the same time, and Sanders later to a degree. The main beneficiaries however have been groupings of the right such as Trump, various anti-EU parties around Europe, and UKIP. While the latter are not doing exactly well in their own right, I would argue this is a result of infighting in the wake of Farage's departure and Theresa May deciding to pick up many of their favourite policies as a way to co-opt UKIP, eliminating them as a threat come the general election by preventing them using the post-Brexit situation as capital. Most of these groups had made some gains after the collapse of the centre and made further ones as support dwindled for the left and people looked elsewhere for the answers and solutions they've been looking for ever since the financial crisis. With the centre and much of the left discredited, naturally people have turned to the right. They are rather running out of places to turn to mind... where that support goes next after the right disappoints also is an interesting question.

    Clearly the media has played a role in how these alternatives have been viewed, and thus, to some degree, how successful they have been, but I do feel that a turn rightwards was the predictable third phase of the financial crisis. The record in power of those left and left-leaning parties which largely constituted the second phase is what alienated many of their supporters and sent the swing voters elsewhere. While there certainly is still an appetite for a solution from the left, there is very little appetite for its existing parties and personalities. If even the Lib Dems are showing signs of green shoots after having been wiped out at the last general election, I see it is a sign of desperation and the paucity of alternatives rather than anything else.

    The short version of the above being; the left had their chance and blew it. And I say that as someone who would have preferred that not to be the case.

  8. Look at the Economist/Yougov poll from December on the beliefs of Trump supporters in things that are demonstrably false

    Where do you think these beliefs came from?

    The MSM?

    1. Have you ever watched Fox News, or listened to talk radio?

      The key question is not where they came from, but why so many people think crazy ideas are true. Given that most people get their news from TV, you have to ask why watching TV news allows people to continue to believe these crazy ideas. In that sense I think this data rather proves my point.

      As for the role of the internet as a means of getting news, this has mainly replaced print media in the US, and is concentrated among the young. If only young people had voted, we would have neither Trump nor Brexit.

    2. "The key question is not where they came from, but why so many people think crazy ideas are true."

      Why is that the key question?

      I would have thought the key question is where these false but widespread beliefs come from.

      No doubt the MSM has not falsified them, but I don't think these claims are being broadcast by the MSM even Fox (with the exception of the birther lie).

    3. What seems crazy is subject to partisan bias. You still seem to underestimate the seriousness of Clinton's email server for example, when there was no criminal investigation of Trump. (Or much MSM coverage of his fill-Guantanamo, murder terrorists' families, use torture policies compared to "pussygate".)

      Similarly many grassroots Democrats in America now believe Russia "hacked the election" (one can only hack a computer) and that the result is somehow illegitimate. No evidence that Russia was involved has been made public apart from some Cyrillic characters and a KGB pun in one case. A Russian hacker isn't "Russia". Think of the things made up about Iraq. Why do those voters believe this? Because they can't stand Trump and because the Clinton campaign fed them this line.

    4. If more people (young or old) had voted for Clinton or Remain... if wishes were horses. The job of the politicians is to win, i.e. to get those votes.

      Strange that right-wing policies are explained as justified because of the need to get centrist middle-class middle-aged people to vote, otherwise you lose. Why are left-wing policies not justified when you're losing because you haven't got young people to turn out? A vote is a vote.

    5. If people don't want the "truth," they won't seek it out among different media sources. They might listen to Fox News because it repeats what they want to hear. Take away Fox News, and you still might have that group of people who still won't believe the rest of the media, or you & me, etc.

    6. Let's add another crazy belief of American liberals: half of the Clinton voters in the YouGov poll think Russia hacked the actual voting machines themselves!

      Gone are the days when we could all laugh at the "epistemic closure" of conservatives who trust only Fox News. Clintonians are the new Tea Party, even hoping for the electoral college to overturn the result at the last minute to stop the "fascist" Trump.

  9. I think the left / right model is dead. I have seen no analysis but I would not be surprised if a number of Sanders' supporters ended up voting for Trump. Unfortunately the media that most people are exposed to, however tangentially, frame the debate in these simple binary terms, and your average Joe has (apparently) little alternative but to choose one fork or the other. And is offered no other.

  10. After the referendum result came out I remember feeling surprised so many were willing to make the economic sacrifice involved in "taking back control" this was surprising and alarming.
    Now I realise that few expect to suffer any economic consequences from Brexit. This is even more alarming, though less surprising.

  11. Thank you for this article which I very much agree with, I take the view that left wing populism appeals to most people and the evidence in support of that is the propaganda produced by right wingers that appeals directly to left wing voters; such as the Brexit Bus slogan claiming they would use the £340 million weekly contribution that funds the EU would be spent on the NHS, then within 24 hrs of winning the vote reneged on that promise.

    The right in politics understand only too well the real appeal of left wing politics which is why they smear and character assassinate its proponents.

    What has become more apparent over the last ten years by the populace at large is the distrust of the MSM, hence the rise of the social media where people can debate and judge for themselves what is fact and fiction, the MSN continue to obfuscate and triangulate thinking that you can fool people all of the time.

    The BBC recently commented that this would be the crunch year for funding and its impact could see a catastrophic failure, saying disingenuously inferring that demand would outstrip its ability to cope and no matter how much money is thrown at it.... as they say it has already received a 4% increase in expenditure, without taking real regard to the actual money taken out of the service over the last 6 years of in the first four years of £20 billions (efficiency savings) and now a further £22 billions and the disputed £10 billions of increase due to claims of Simon Stevens that it could not sustain the service otherwise. The OBR of course put the real reinstatement of cash at £4.5 billion. So in reality the NHS has had its budget reduced over a period of six years by something in the region of £32 billion at a time when they also claim demand for the NHS is rising.

    This is the real story behind what some are calling the period of post truth. The government is creating the economic climate so that it can dismantle public provision and replace it with an unacceptable private sector, which the public at large, has itself long since Thatcher rejected... which is being maintained by deception.

  12. Because the globalist takes away a person's nation and gives him nothing in return but cultural invasion.

    Because the left used to be sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but is now nothing but boring, gender confused self-flagellation.

    In short: leftist people are unappealing and leftism is low energy.

  13. The left populism agenda promoted by Sanders included, 'restriction of international trade': in other words, protect US worker jobs by tariffs and other protectionist instruments: a bit like Tony Benn's 'siege economy' prescriptions in the 70's; and not unlike the direction of a Brexit May-led government is likely to go asthe Tories promote themselves as the 'workers party'.

    Protectionism, save for specific evidenced responses to anti-competitive exercises, such as dumping or hidden state subsidy, is a backward step that will reduce long term wealth and opportunity for all: short-term job savings will simply delay more pain later (unless combined with focused and effective retraining programmes). As way of example, should we limit Bangladeshi cheap clothing imports in order to protect our remnant textile industry (if it exists). What would be the long term gain of doing so?

    I'd be more interested in seeing Simon utilising his intellect and knowledge laying out a policy agenda that is both economically efficient and socially just, linking it a viable political strategy, rather than getting too bogged down in media politics. I know, tall order, but the right wing 'popular' press has existed for decades (remember untrue smears against Harold Wilson). A fresh but - in evidential terms - hard, left response is desperately needed; otherwise, as above, nothing but more whinging self-flagellation will remain on the social democratic plate.

  14. Partly because Jeremy Corbyn is the weakest Labour Leader ever as evidenced by his lowest leader ratings ever recorded in UK political history and the catastrophic low 14% PM preference figure
    (YouGov) Brexit showed his poor communication skills and failure to reach many regional Labour voters or even articulate in a populist manner the economic horrors which now await the UK.

  15. It's possible that the majority of voters decide how to vote as a consequence of collectivist - familial and community based - decision making processes that also include appeals to tradition.

    It is very doubtful that most voters decide how to vote on the basis of their own individual acumen - whether based on fine analysis or narcissistic prejudice.

    The debate about whether individualism or collectivism isn't going to resolved but it's unlikely that the MSM is creating a network of chauvinistic and anti-immigration ideas that are then picked up by passive recipients.

    The differential regional successes of Trump and Clinton (Rust Belt and California) had less to do with millions of voters aligning themselves on the basis of individual decision making. It was ultimately much more to do with membership of political and socio-economic communities where appeals to tradition, including traditions of resistance, were important. Some of these communities were capable, up to a tipping point, of containing potentially competing and even contradictory arguments (immigrants are good for the economy versus immigrants are depressing wages). For what it's worth, I think Hilary Clinton's reference to the "basket of deplorables" was probably a pivotal turning point in pushing a hitherto fluid equilibrium that could have gone either way, to the right.

    Brexit wouldn't have happened had austerity not been pursued. It's also unlikely that it would not have happened had the Conservatives not won the 2015 election.

    It's interesting that, aside from Scotland, the areas of England and Wales that voted solidly for Brexit were those areas that have fared especially badly from an uncompetitive labour market and a London centric GDP.


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