Pensioners and pop­ulism

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

If Don­ald Trump loses the US elec­tion, will the tide of pop­ulism that threat­ened to over­whelm the world af­ter the Brexit vote in June be­gin to wane? Or will the re­volt against glob­al­i­sa­tion and im­mi­gra­tion sim­ply take an­other form?

The rise of pro­tec­tion­ism and anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment in Bri­tain, Amer­ica and Europe is widely be­lieved to re­flect stag­nant in­comes, widen­ing in­equal­ity, struc­tural un­em­ploy­ment, and even ex­ces­sive mone­tary eas­ing. But there are sev­eral rea­sons to ques­tion the link be­tween pop­ulist politics and eco­nomic dis­tress.

For starters, most pop­ulist vot­ers are nei­ther poor nor un­em­ployed; they are not vic­tims of glob­al­i­sa­tion, im­mi­gra­tion, and free trade. The main de­mo­graphic groups be­hind the anti-estab­lish­ment up­surge have been peo­ple out­side the work­force: pensioners, mid­dle-aged homemak­ers, and men with low ed­u­ca­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tions re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity pay­ments.

In Bri­tain, where de­tailed analy­ses of the votes ac­tu­ally cast in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum are now avail­able, the group most di­rectly af­fected by low-wage com­pe­ti­tion from im­mi­grants and Chi­nese im­ports – young peo­ple un­der 35 – voted against Brexit by a wide mar­gin, 65% to 35%. Mean­while, 60% of pensioners who voted backed the “Leave” cam­paign, as did 59% of vot­ers with dis­abil­i­ties. By con­trast, 53% of full-time work­ers who par­tic­i­pated wanted Bri­tain to re­main in Europe, as did 51% of part-time work­ers.

The Bri­tish data sug­gest that cul­tural and eth­nic at­ti­tudes, not direct eco­nomic mo­ti­va­tions, are the real dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures of anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion vot­ing. Asked whether “so­cial lib­er­al­ism” is a “force for good” or a “force for ill,” 87% of “Re­main” vot­ers said it was a force for good, while 53% of Leave vot­ers called lib­er­al­ism a “force for ill.” On “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” the dif­fer­ence was even starker – 65% of Leave vot­ers were against it, while 86% of Re­main­ers ap­proved. An­other anal­y­sis pub­lished by the BBC af­ter the ref­er­en­dum found one of the strong­est pre­dic­tors of a Leave vote to be sup­port for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

In Amer­ica, polls sug­gest that gen­der

is an even more im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of sup­port for Trump than age or ed­u­ca­tion. Early this month, when Trump was only a few points be­hind Clin­ton in over­all sup­port, a Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC poll com­pared vot­ing in­ten­tions with the 2012 elec­tion. It found not only that white men backed Trump by a mar­gin of 40 per­cent­age points, but also that their sup­port for Trump was 13 points higher that it was for Mitt Rom­ney, the 2012 Repub­li­can nom­i­nee.

White women, by con­trast, marginally sup­ported Clin­ton and had swung by 15 per­cent­age points against the Repub­li­cans. Among vot­ers with­out a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, the gen­der dif­fer­ence was even starker: less-ed­u­cated white men favoured Trump by a 60% mar­gin and had swung in favour of the Repub­li­cans by 28 per­cent­age points, while women had swung by ten per­cent­age points in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and only marginally sup­ported Trump.

It seems, there­fore, that the con­flicts gen­er­ally as­cribed to eco­nomic griev­ances and glob­al­i­sa­tion are ac­tu­ally the latest bat­tles in the cul­ture wars that have split Western so­ci­eties since the late 1960s. The main rel­e­vance of eco­nomics is that the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis cre­ated con­di­tions for a po­lit­i­cal back­lash by older, more con­ser­va­tive vot­ers, who have been los­ing the cul­tural bat­tles over race, gen­der, and so­cial iden­tity.

The dom­i­nance of free-mar­ket ide­ol­ogy be­fore the cri­sis al­lowed many con­tro­ver­sial so­cial changes, rang­ing from in­come in­equal­ity and in­ten­si­fied wage com­pe­ti­tion to greater gen­der equal­ity and af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, to go al­most un­chal­lenged. “Pro­gres­sive” so­cial lib­er­al­ism and “con­ser­va­tive” free-mar­ket eco­nomics seemed to be two sides of the same coin. But when free-mar­ket eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism failed in the 2008 cri­sis, po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges to so­cial lib­er­al­ism could no longer be de­flected by in­vok­ing im­per­sonal eco­nomic laws.

But if so­cial change can no longer be le­git­imised as the nec­es­sary con­di­tion for eco­nomic progress, it seems un­likely that democ­ra­cies will now vote to re­in­state the so­cial con­di­tions be­fore the as­cen­dancy of eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism and glob­al­i­sa­tion. Racial and gen­der equal­ity are now backed by clear ma­jori­ties in the US, Bri­tain, and most Euro­pean coun­tries, and even ap­par­ently pop­u­lar poli­cies such as trade pro­tec­tion­ism and strict im­mi­gra­tion con­trols rarely muster more than 30-40% sup­port in opin­ion sur­veys. Why, then, did Brexit win, and why is it still pos­si­ble that Don­ald Trump will be the next US Pres­i­dent?

Both Brexit and Trump were pow­ered by an un­sta­ble alliance be­tween two very dif­fer­ent, even con­tra­dic­tory, move­ments. The bulk of their sup­port­ers were in­deed so­cial con­ser­va­tives and pro­tec­tion­ists who wanted to undo the so­cial changes that be­gan in the late 1960s.

Two of the most ef­fec­tive slo­gans of the Brexit and Trump cam­paigns have been “Take back con­trol” and “I want my coun­try back.” But the so­cial con­ser­va­tives in­spired by such atavis­tic and au­thor­i­tar­ian sen­ti­ments do not make up ma­jori­ties in any Western coun­try. On its own, so­cial con­ser­vatism could never mo­bilise more than 30-40% of vot­ers. To achieve ma­jori­ties, the so­cially con­ser­va­tive pro­tec­tion­ists had to unite with the rem­nants of the Thatcher-Rea­gan lais­sez faire move­ment, who re­sent the in­ter­ven­tion­ist eco­nomic man­age­ment of the post-2008 pe­riod and want to in­ten­sify the com­pe­ti­tion, dereg­u­la­tion, and glob­al­iza­tion that so­cial con­ser­va­tives re­sent.

This un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal com­pound is now dis­solv­ing in the US, and also in Bri­tain, where Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s govern­ment is di­vided be­tween ide­o­log­i­cal na­tion­al­ists and eco­nomic lib­er­als. If the US elec­tion on Novem­ber 8 con­firms Trump’s fail­ure to bind so­cial con­ser­va­tives and eco­nomic lib­er­als into a win­ning coali­tion, sim­i­lar dis­in­te­gra­tion is likely among Euro­pean pop­ulists, too.

In that case, the Brexit vote will be­gin to look like an aber­ra­tion – not the start of a pow­er­ful new trend to­ward na­tion­al­ism, pro­tec­tion­ism, and de-glob­al­i­sa­tion, but the end of a back­lash against moder­nity by an un­sta­ble alliance of so­cial au­thor­i­tar­i­ans and lais­sez faire mar­ket lib­er­als. It will be the last gasp of an ag­ing gen­er­a­tion that tried to im­pose its nos­tal­gic parochial­ism on an in­creas­ingly cos­mopoli­tan younger gen­er­a­tion, but suc­ceeded in only one un­for­tu­nate coun­try.

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