Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Now is not the time to try to lessen the anger of Farage and Trump devotees

The EU Referendum is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest.

The big event for me personally this week is not Theresa May finally giving up or explicit Remain parties easily beating explicit No Deal parties in the European election. It was the belated launch of my book to nearly 500 people at Kings College London in an event superbly organised by the Progressive Economic Forum. But don’t worry. This article is not going to be an account of that meeting or a summary of my book, but an attempt to give a fuller answer to a question from that meeting.

The questioner had just witnessed at first hand the passion of a Brexit party meeting, also well described by John Harris, Sky’s Lewis Goodall, Owen Jones and other journalists. She asked what can be done to diffuse that anger? Thinking about the answer I gave afterwards helped me understand more clearly the overall strategy implicit in much of what I write. This does not focus on the people who attended first UKIP and now Brexit party meetings, but instead the less committed voter who voted for Brexit, the classic marginal voter if you like. Let me give you an example of something that is discussed in the book but using a new chart, from the Berkman Klein Center.

It shows the number of sentences in the US mass market media on different issues (source) during the 2016 election period. This is not just Fox News, but also reflects an odd obsession by publications like the New York Times or Washington Post about Clinton’s emails. (Some of the current administration also use their private email to conduct official business and it is hardly mentioned.)

A recent video in Vox by Carlos Maza explains brilliantly one reason why this happens. What Fox News does time and time again is create a story out of very little and obsess about it. The non-partisan media feel obliged to cover it to disabuse the right wing image of a liberal media. You can see exactly the same thing happen in the UK where the right wing partisan press often sets the agenda for our broadcasters. You can see it after the European elections, where the broadcasters focused on seat totals for the party that hopes seats will not be taken up rather than the 40% or more who voted for explicit Remain parties compared to less than 35% who voted for explict No Deal parties.

Trying to stop the non-partisan mainstream media from doing this might influence the marginal voter (as I note in my book, more voters trusted Trump rather than Clinton before the election), but it will not influence those who attend Trump or Brexit party rallies, who consume Fox news or believe the right wing UK press. You might persuade the non-partisan broadcast media that their practices lead to bias and should stop, but doing something about the partisan media and the economic and social issues that are their lifeblood requires political change.

You will only get that political change by changing the mind of the marginal voter, because it is much more difficult to change the mind of a Trump or Brexit party supporter by rational argument, or by trying to expose who Trump and Farage really are. Trump once boasted he could shoot someone in 5th Avenue and not lose his core support, and that is not far from the truth. Showing Farage’s background and income and associations will likewise do little to influence his core following.

This is why so many who voted for Brexit are prepared to Leave with No Deal. As Kirby Swales writes in a joint NatCen and UK in a Changing Europe report:
“The EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest.”

The underlying causes that are the fuel behind Trump and Farage are not exclusively non-economic, but deindustrialisation due to globalisation is a small part of the economic story. I have talked elsewhere about the growing divergence between the towns and the large cities since the 1980s. In the US you have the same thing, but it is talked about as a rural urban divide. This is the result of a new source of economic dynamism in service and IT dominated industries that is actually assisted by the diversity that those in the towns and countryside find threatening.

To bring more of that wealth out of the cities requires abandoning neoliberal platitudes, and so requires radical political change. But a large part of the fuel behind the Leave vote and Farage and also Trump is not economic, but instead reflects a clash of values and culture. It has been noted many times that many Leave voters have a deep nostalgia for an imagined past, and this is coupled with a desire to bring back hanging, corporal punishment and reverse other aspects of what we call a liberal society.

Anti-liberal views may have deep psychological roots, roots that may also be linked to being attracted to authoritarian figures, which in turn goes with irritation with a pluralist democracy. If these people are calling the shots, a pluralist democracy is fragile. Here the partisan press can be important at legitimising these authoritarian and anti-liberal views, as is appeasement by centre and left politicians, but it would be a fantasy to believe they would go away in their absence.

The extent of social change in the UK and elsewhere over the last 60 or more years is perhaps unprecedented. Here the left and liberal ‘elite’, as their enemies refer to them, have been outstandingly successful. But as James Curran argues, liberals and the left in the UK have hit strong headwinds on the question of race, with he suggests a stubborn 25% of the population expressing racist views.

I like to stress the importance of beliefs about whether immigration causes lower real wages and puts more pressure on public services (probably not and the opposite is true, respectively), but once again this is something that influences the marginal or changeable view on immigration. There will always be a core where hostility stems from racist attitudes. Again a two stage approach makes sense. You focus on changeable views by providing facts and an alternative narrative, so you can elect a left liberal government. Only then can racist views be stigmatised and income and spatial inequality reduced to help the ‘left behind’. We can also, as Maya Goodfellow pointed out at my book lauch, start telling a more accurate history that goes beyond WWII.

An interesting question is how much we should worry about those still spooked by the rapid pace of social change. We know that this is concentrated among those over 60, but is this a cohort effect of those brought up in the repressive 50s who were untouched by the 60s revolution happening in the cities, or is it some inevitable consequence of age? If it is the former, perhaps the best policy is containment until the problem goes away.

The upshot is that I don’t think liberals or the left, who are in opposition in the UK or US, need to worry too much about convincing those who go to Trump or Farage rallies. What we do need to worry about right now is that those same people have been given power with the help of appeasement and an unbalanced media. As we watch the sickening spectacle of Brexiters choosing our next Prime Minister what we want above all else is to take power away from these people. Changing minds, if it is possible, can come later.


  1. So are you saying the marginal voter is swinging to anti-liberal authoritarianism? You change the focus halfway thru this article. Perhaps instead the marginal voter is angry that all mainstream parties have turned their backs on the proletariat, and only the angry extremists offer a viable choice to them.

    I say this because I find a very self-congratulatory streak in bourgeois intellectual commentary on the shift in political climate, which tries vigorously to "other" the proletariat, nowadays by conflating them with reactionaries, instead of asking the working class why they're swinging toward these right wing movements. As long as the "left" keeps doing this they're going to continue losing.

  2. The key Brexiteer view is that the EU is an imposition, the EUSSR, the Fourth Reich etc etc. (which is why they claim it is necessary to leave even if there is no agreement with the EU and thus plunge the UK into chaos). It is difficult to disabuse the core Brexit Party vote of that mistaken belief but it is vital to show to marginal voters that it is a fallacy. It is an issue that most politicians do not address.


  3. What's long been missing in these discussions is an adequate consideration not only of the intellectual but of the psychological, moral and spiritual maturity of the voting population. As a rough start, I propose we distinguish between three levels: tribal, traditional, and rational. Modern liberal democracy is the child of reason, but only a minority of the population is at the rational level. This means that only a minority will be moved chiefly by facts, evidence and arguments and be guided by a universal, "enlightenment" ethic. The better end of political and media culture used to uphold rationality as a norm, and so those below that level were taught to aspire to it. This worked not least because the many traditionalists were mostly Christians, and thus were enjoined to adopt a universalist ethic based on love and respect for others. Indeed, there is considerable overlap between tradition and reason.

    What's happened recently, however, is that, with the decline of tradition, people have not automatically risen to the level of reason: instead, it seems clear that many have fallen back to the tribal level. This has become apparent now that journalists, politicians and other opinion-formers who appeal to tribal sensibilities have massively increased media access (Internet, private radio and television channels, etc.); rational norms, indeed basic norms of decency and truthfulness, are now simply ignored and even derided. What appeals to the tribal mind is the politician as tribal leader: the strongman who rallies the troops, appeals to a sense of belonging, and regards opponents as enemies, to be triumphantly defeated on the way to a promised paradise. To those at the tribal level, examination of his claims and promises hardly matters; what counts is the rightness - and righteousness - of the feelings. Tribalism is, by its nature, "authoritarian" and "anti-liberal". The absence, for example, of even an outline of what a post-no deal Brexit world would and should look like, and the lack of any real interest in it by so many of the Brexiters, is as telling as it is still shocking. In the age of smartphones and AI, much (I don't know how many, and more research should be done in this area) of the population remains, or has indeed regressed to, mainly the tribal level.

    This may mean that, in the short term anyway, those who wish to uphold rational debate and values must find ways to appeal to the tribalists: not to manipulate, like their "populist" leaders, but to achieve the considerably more difficult task of unpacking complex truths in clear, simple terms, and do so in equally convincing language. And there need to be COMMON forums for that. "Question Time" and "Any Questions", for instance, seems to me to have had their day: only two or three minutes' time to respond to a number of questions, and then no comeback. Instead it should be only ONE question per show, and plenty of time given to respond, to discuss, and propound a view in greater context, but with an insistence on concision and clarity of expression. Personal attacks, claims known to be factually false and similar should immediately be called out by the moderator.

    I agree that, in order to appeal to those Brexiters who may yet be swayed, a compelling narrative, based around the most consequential and personally relevant facts, needs to be found to counter that of the tribalist leaders. All this, however, is already very late in the day.

  4. Prime ministers come and prime ministers go.
    They are just another MP with a hat labelled "leader".
    Fact is, nothing gets through the commons unless most MPs agree with it.
    And the Lords acts as a check against populism.

    Many conclusions can be drawn from the EU 2019 UK input.
    The turnout was low. That Brexit Party garnered only less than 40% of those who did vote. That does not mean more than 60% are remain.

    My point? The UK has a robust form of democracy in politics.
    The EU arguably has a better one, with proportional representation.

  5. “It has been noted many times that many Leave voters have a deep nostalgia for an imagined past, and this is coupled with a desire to bring back hanging, corporal punishment and reverse other aspects of what we call a liberal society.”

    This is ageist stereotyping which is as abhorrent as racism.

    People who think Stalin was a good bloke are likely to vote Labour. People who think Hitler was a good bloke are likely to vote Tory. However very few people admire Stalin or Hitler so you cannot conclude that people who vote Labour are in favour of Stalinism nor that people who vote Tory admire the Nazis.

    In the referenced research , Prof Eric Kaufmann claims “the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20% for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70% for those most in favour” So if the half of the country were strongly against the death penalty and half strongly in favour, we would predict that only 45% of people would vote to leave the EU. Given that 52% voted to Leave the EU it must follow that most people in this country want to bring back the death penalty. Really? Personally, I don’t actually know anyone who wants to bring back the death penalty. The analysis appears to be nonsense.

    (In practice, I have simplified the argument here. A less simplified argument would still reach the same conclusion. The referenced analysis appears to be nonsense and contrary to the actual referendum result unless you believe that the number of people in this country who wish to bring hanging exceeds the number of people who don’t.)

  6. The reason more coverage was generated by "Clinton's emails" (private server) was that she was being investigated by the FBI for crime! In no case was that true of any of the Trump scandals listed, and while Trump may be guilty of sexual assault (even rape of his previous wife), he has not admitted this, and the tape could have been an empty boast. Clinton on the other hand really did have a secret server, her own campaign staff were appalled when they found out, and it did contain classified info without permission.

    Why don't the private serves of the Trump admin draw fire? Because by the time he took office, Clinton had been let off, so it was pointless to pursue.

  7. Big problem with linking racism and Brexit is that while Brexit may be number 1 with racists, and with "hang them high" people, most Leavers are not going to be either. The fact you can win despite these things was shown in 1975.

    67% of people voted to remain in the EEC so why is 25% of the population still being racist a barrier? 67% then. 49% now. Did we become more racist and more in favour of hanging?

    By Curran's own figures, in 1975 most people were against interracial marriage and well over a third admitted they were racially prejudiced.

    The EEC/EU failed to increase the growth rate, despite big promises about "dynamic effects". In defending this you've previously resorted to stuff like "it's good for the services based UK" (we were promised that manufacturing would not only survive but thrive due to dynamic effects).

  8. Glad I read that before the thought ever entered my head of paying money to read more in the form of a book! Is it any wonder our country is in the state it is with our current crop of inept politicians having left Oxford with degree in PPE and a head full of that shite?

  9. For me, the distinguishing feature in this cohort is distrust, not authoritarianism. It explains the self-belief, simplism, nostalgia, fear, racism and attraction to moral outrage.

    However, it doesn't explain the inordinate level of trust invested in clearly false hack politicians - or does it? Perhaps their level of distrust precludes no one, including their heroes Trump and Farage. They know their idols are dirty - more than the rest of us do - but choose to overlook the fact as, according to their cynical viewpoint, everyone is dirty, but some saviours are at least honest on some issues, some of the time.

    This creates a very fluid basis of fact, approving of some people some of the time, as long as their ideology is broadly acceptable for the discussion at hand. Philosophical and political belief systems are no longer necessary if the cause of the distrust can be identified and blamed, even if no clear solution has been identified.

  10. Simon,
    It's disappointing that your response to the question was to exclude any rationality to Brexiteers (& Trumpettes?) and replace it with a psychological morbity: nostalgia, racism, age decline...As a way of dealing with an anger and vehemence it can only result in them concluding this is simply a power confrontation, a power exerted by a largely London-based elite in their own interest. With the familiar 20th century consequence of a populist rebel to lead the fight to replace them, as no argument is taken seriously, only relativized to a malevolence. I have no convincing argument that the U.K. will be worse or better out of Europe, in the long run( who can see that?); we have certainly done better by being out of the Euro, and perhaps the consequences of the Brexit vote have kept us out of the deepening European economic malaise. And i have yet to see a pro-Europe argument that isn't a prolonging of our current relationships. Can there be a "remain" argument that accepts the European failures and can promise in a convincing way that these will change? Or is the only one, that implied in your answer: like it or lump it?

  11. "40% or more who voted for explicit Remain parties compared to less than 35% who voted for explicit No Deal parties."

    So you accept that 35% voted No Deal. Do then have the integrity to accept that any second referendum must include a 'No Deal' option?


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