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.
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First, the class-based, economically deterministic world of yore is being superseded by the rise of ‘‘identity politics’’ and the emergence of new, cultural and value cleavages.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.