New rules are turn­ing pol­i­tics on its head

Cen­trism is dead, trib­al­ism is back and iden­tity is ev­ery­thing – and not just in Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica, writes Allister Heath.

The Press - - In Depth -

It used to be so easy. When the econ­omy did well, the in­cum­bent party won; when it did badly, it was the op­po­si­tion’s turn, with vot­ers switch­ing their al­le­giance with the ups and downs of the cy­cle.

Fis­cal at­ti­tudes were equally straight­for­ward: richer, mid­dle­class and as­pi­ra­tional peo­ple voted for tax cuts, and those trapped in poverty or oth­er­wise de­pen­dent on the state voted for spend­ing in­creases.

‘‘It’s the econ­omy, stupid,’’ as the strate­gist James Carville put it in 1992, and in those days he was largely right. There were oc­ca­sional ex­cep­tions, but his dic­tum re­mained the clos­est thing to the golden rule of demo­cratic pol­i­tics.

Fast-for­ward 25 years and the land­scape has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion al­most ev­ery­where. The United States econ­omy is do­ing re­mark­ably well, and yet the Repub­li­cans lost the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Cru­cially, the bet­ter-off and highly ed­u­cated moved even more markedly to the Left, and the poor to the Right. Sub­urbs with lots of younger grad­u­ates em­braced the Democrats, as did most non-white Amer­i­cans, whereas blue-col­lar work­ers, the re­li­gious and ru­ral dwellers voted Repub­li­can. The peo­ple most likely to ben­e­fit from Trump’s tax cuts of­ten voted against them, whereas those who may have gained from the Democrats’ predilec­tion for re­dis­tri­bu­tion backed Trump.

What is go­ing on? Here are what I be­lieve to be the five most im­por­tant rules of the new pol­i­tics, not just in the US but in many Western democ­ra­cies.

First, the class-based, eco­nom­i­cally de­ter­min­is­tic world of yore is be­ing su­per­seded by the rise of ‘‘iden­tity pol­i­tics’’ and the emer­gence of new, cul­tural and value cleav­ages. Ide­ol­ogy is back, but in a man­ner that cuts across the old Left and Right: mil­lions vote in a cer­tain way ei­ther be­cause of their own per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics, such as their gen­der, race, re­li­gion or oc­cu­pa­tion, or be­cause they be­lieve in par­tic­u­lar noneco­nomic val­ues.

Such vot­ers are in­creas­ingly in­flu­enced by their at­ti­tude to na­tion states and in­ter­na­tional tech­noc­ra­cies, their opin­ions on im­mi­gra­tion and eth­nic change, their views on fam­ily struc­tures and gen­der, and on whether they like the way the world is chang­ing. Pol­i­tics has be­come a form of self-po­si­tion­ing, a fash­ion state­ment rather than a means to an end, even an in­di­ca­tor of sta­tus akin to a lux­ury good, tur­bocharged by so­cial me­dia.

It also feeds into a need for be­long­ing in an in­choate uni­verse: we want to vote for ‘‘peo­ple like us’’ and against ‘‘peo­ple like them’’. Trib­al­ism is back, as is class war; but the groups pit­ted against each other are now very dif­fer­ent. Wel­come to cul­tural war­fare in a dig­i­tal age.

In the United King­dom, Brexit has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant di­vid­ing line, though both main par­ties’ lack of clar­ity is blunt­ing a full realign­ment. In the US, many rich bankers, most tech work­ers, men­tal-health work­ers and taxi driv­ers voted Demo­crat; most sur­geons, den­tists, fos­sil­fuel work­ers and truck driv­ers voted Repub­li­can.

In­come no longer mat­ters as much: it’s all about sub­cul­tures. The UK is for­tu­nate that its cul­tural wars haven’t yet cen­tred on race: some mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing Hin­dus, now vote Tory. In the US, most non-white vot­ers vote Demo­crat.

Sec­ondly, cam­paigns are now more about fir­ing up sym­pa­thetic groups and mak­ing sure that they vote, rather than try­ing to change minds. Dra­matic shifts do take place: there is wide­spread sup­port for gay mar­riage. But shifts in opin­ion more com­monly fol­low changes of iden­tity: for ex­am­ple, as peo­ple start to feel less ‘‘Bri­tish’’ and more ‘‘English’’, they be­come far more likely to vote Tory. In the US, mar­ried women with chil­dren vote Repub­li­can, while unmarried women with no chil­dren vote Demo­crat.

Thirdly, par­ties are po­lar­is­ing in ex­treme ways, and the cen­tre is van­ish­ing. No­body seems to care about wa­ver­ing vot­ers any more. It’s not just Trump’s Repub­li­cans: the

‘‘Pol­i­tics has be­come . . . a fash­ion state­ment rather than a means to an end.’’

Democrats are em­brac­ing openly so­cial­ist poli­cies for the first time in their his­tory and sup­port al­most open bor­ders.

In Ger­many, the old or­der is im­plod­ing: the cen­tre-Right CDU and the cen­tre-Left SPD are in ter­mi­nal cri­sis, re­placed by the neo-com­mu­nist Linke, the hardLeft Greens and the an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion AfD. In France, Em­manuel Macron isn’t a real cen­trist, and in any case his pop­u­lar­ity is in freefall, with ex­trem­ists on the rise.

In Bri­tain, Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party is the most ex­treme Left-wing op­po­si­tion in the coun­try’s his­tory. The Tories are the odd ones out, with lit­tle dis­cernible ide­ol­ogy apart from on Brexit, where they stand dis­as­trously di­vided.

Fourthly, pas­sion is back. Voter turnout surged in the US midterms, with both sides des­per­ate to stop the other. Pol­i­tics mat­ters again, and some ob­servers are be­gin­ning to feel nos­tal­gia for the apa­thy of the post-Cold War, pre-fi­nan­cial cri­sis in­ter­lude.

Last but not least, both sides in­creas­ingly hate the other. What was once ri­valry has turned into loathing and op­po­nents no longer be­lieve in the other side’s le­git­i­macy.

Al­most all of the changes trig­gered by the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics are bad for lib­eral democ­racy; but the rise of the pol­i­tics of per­sonal de­struc­tion, the be­lief that those with whom we dis­agree must be evil, is un­doubt­edly the worst. It goes hand-in-hand with a re­jec­tion of the main­stream me­dia and of the idea that poli­cies should be judged on the ba­sis of facts, not merely ide­ol­ogy.

In­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics is in a state of flux, and no party can af­ford to cling to the old norms.

– Tele­graph Group


The midterm re­sults sug­gest the Se­nate is poised to be a Repub­li­can bul­wark, act­ing as a re­ac­tionary ru­ral veto on an in­creas­ingly cen­tre-Left coun­try.

Angela Merkel

Cor­byn Jeremy

Em­manuel Macron

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