Brexit, Trump and the 2016 revolt against the elites, The Economist

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016

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·       Revenge of the “deplorables” The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index provides a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories. This covers almost the entire population of the world and the vast majority of the world’s states (microstates are excluded).

·       The Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

·       Based on their scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types of regime: “full democracy”; “flawed democracy”; “hybrid regime”; and “authoritarian regime”. A full methodology and explanations can be found in the Appendix.

·       This is the ninth edition of the Democracy Index. It records how global democracy fared in 2016.

However, such a powerful rebuke to the political class

 

“You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it….Now, some of these folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

 

Hillary Clinton, September 9th 2016

The title of this year’s report refers to the popular revolt in 2016 against political elites who are perceived by many to be out of touch and failing to represent the interests of ordinary people (“political elites” refers primarily to governments, legislatures, state institutions and political parties, though it also encompasses the media, expert bodies and international organisations).

It was a revolt that was foretold in recent editions of the Democracy Index, which have focused on the growing disconnect between political elites and the people that is particularly evident in the world’s most mature democracies.

The UK’s vote in June 2016 to leave the EU (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 sent shock waves around the globe.

Both were an expression of deep popular dissatisfaction with the status quo and of a hankering for change. A triumph of democracy or a threat to it? This was the question posed by the dramatic political events of 2016. The answer from many was unequivocally negative.

The Brexit vote and the election of Mr Trump were for many liberals nothing more than outbursts of primal emotions and visceral expressions of narrow-minded nationalism. Countless commentaries following the shock results blamed popular ignorance and xenophobia for the Brexit and Trump results and implied that those who voted for these outcomes were at best political illiterates who had been duped by “post-truth politics” or, at worst, bigots and xenophobes in thrall to demagogues.

The intensity of the reaction to the Brexit and Trump victories is commensurate with the magnitude of the shock to the political system that they represent and the strength of feeling on both sides of the political divide. A strong attachment to the post-war, liberal, democratic order makes it difficult for those on the losing side to come to terms with what happened in 2016.

In recent decades, political elites have become unused to having their worldview challenged and have largely assumed that the values represented by the liberal democratic consensus are shared by the vast majority of the electorate.

The events of 2016 have proven that this is definitely not the case in the UK or the US and the populist advance elsewhere suggests that it is probably not true for many other democracies in Europe.

Shock at the results and fear of the changes that they denote may help to explain the reluctance of some opponents of Brexit and Trump to examine fully why they lost the political argument.

Instead of seeking to understand the causes of the popular backlash against the political establishment, some have instead sought to delegitimise the Brexit and Trump outcomes by disparaging the values of those who supported them.

Even when they acknowledge that Brexit and Trump supporters had legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the status quo, some commentators suggest that their views and/or their choices are illegitimate. This negative interpretation of the seminal political events of 2016 fails to see anything encouraging in the increased political engagement and participation of ordinary people. The two votes captured the contradictions besetting contemporary democracy. They were symptomatic of the problems of 21st-century representative democracy and, at the same time, of the positive potential for overcoming them by increasing popular political participation. Insofar as they engaged and mobilised normally quiescent or absentee voters—and the UK referendum campaign was especially successful in this regard—the votes were a vindication of democracy. In their different ways, both events expressed a desire, often inchoate, for more democracy, or at least something better than what has been on offer in recent decades. The same can be said to a great degree of the increasing support in Europe for populist or insurgent political parties which are challenging the mainstream parties that have ruled since 1945. Of course, one referendum campaign or one populist victory at the polls does not change anything in and of itself. Popular engagement and participation need to be sustained to make a substantive difference to the quality of democracy. Populist victories may raise expectations of change that end up being dashed (the recent experience of Greece is a case in point), demoralising those who voted for it and encouraging more popular cynicism with the functioning of democracy.

The predominant response among political elites to the events of 2016 has been to rue the popular backlash against the democratic order and to interpret it as a threat to the future of liberal democracy.

Some have even questioned whether ordinary people should be trusted to make decisions about important matters such as the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet the popular backlash against the established order can also be seen as a consequence, not a cause, of the failings of contemporary democracy. We explore the various factors that led to the 2016 backlash in the section entitled The roots of the contemporary crisis of democracy.

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A trust deficit causes the US to become a “flawed democracy”

Trust in political institutions is an essential component of well-functioning democracies. Yet surveys by Pew, Gallup and other polling agencies have confirmed that public confidence in government has slumped to historic lows in the US. This has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democracy in the US, as reflected in the decline in the US score in the Democracy Index. The US president, Donald Trump, is not to blame for this decline in trust, which predated his election, but he was the beneficiary of it. Popular confidence in political institutions and parties continues to decline in many other developed countries, too.

Brexit, Trump and the 2016 revolt against the elites

The parallels between the June 2016 Brexit vote and the outcome of the November 8th US election are manifold. In both cases, the electorate defied the political establishment.

·       Both votes represented a rebellion from below against out-of-touch elites.

·       Both were the culmination of a long-term trend of declining popular trust in government institutions, political parties and politicians.

They showed that society’s marginalised and forgotten voters, often working-class and blue-collar, do not share the same values as the dominant political elite and are demanding a voice of their own—and if the mainstream parties will not provide it, they will look elsewhere.

This is the main lesson for political leaders facing election in Europe in 2017 and beyond.

Donald Trump’s victory was stunning

Donald Trump’s victory was stunning because it was achieved

1.      in the face of the unremitting hostility of the entire political establishment, including in his own Republican Party,

2.      big business,

3.      the media (only one major newspaper and one major TV channel backed Mr Trump)

4.      and the cultural elite.

This was even more the case for Mr Trump than for the “Leave” campaign in the UK, which had the support of sections of the establishment and some daily newspapers. Mr Trump’s campaign cleverly used social media, especially Twitter, to flatten the media and reach out to people directly.

The thing that mainstream commentators said disqualified Mr Trump—his lack of political experience—was what qualified him in the view of so many who voted for him. He appealed to the angry, anti-political mood of large swathes of the electorate who feel that the two mainstream parties no longer speak for them.

Exit polls on the day of the election revealed that a desire for change, for a break with the political status quo, was a major factor in determining voting choices in the election.

This has been the message coming out of countless surveys of US voters from the Pew Research Centre, the Gallup polling agency and the World Values Survey reports, which have revealed a longterm trend of declining confidence in political institutions and elites (see Box: A trust deficit is undermining democracy page 14). Pew surveys show that less than one in five Americans think that “you can trust the government to do what is right” all or most of the time. In June 2016 only 9% of US respondents expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, according to Gallup.

During the Brexit campaign similar surveys revealed a huge divide in levels of trust in government, politicians and experts between Remain and Leave supporters. The same trend of falling popular trust in institutions has been evident in Europe in recent decades, as confirmed by the regular Eurobarometer surveys. The populists are mobilising people The populists are channelling disaffection from sections of society that have lost faith in the mainstream parties.

They are filling a vacuum and mobilising people on the basis of a populist, antielite message and are also appealing to people’s hankering to be heard, to be represented, to have their views taken seriously. Populist parties and politicians are often not especially coherent and often do not have convincing answers to the problems they purport to address, but they nevertheless pose a challenge to the political mainstream because they are connecting with people who believe the established parties no longer speak for them. A striking and much-remarked upon feature of the populist upsurge, in both Europe and the US, is its increasingly (but not exclusively) working-class or blue-collar character.

It is a revolt by large sections of society who feel that they have been abandoned politically, economically, socially and culturally by the mainstream political parties to which they used to give their allegiance.

The noncollege educated, white vote was firmly for Mr Trump, with large percentages of the pro-Trump vote coming from “forgotten” voters in left-behind towns in the rust belt. A similar trend was evident in the UK, where working-class voters, including many who had not bothered to vote in recent general elections and some who had never previously bothered to vote, made it their business to cast their ballots for Brexit. The turnout in the Brexit referendum was above 72%, indicating that the electorate was motivated to turn out because they believed that their vote could change something for once. Similarly, in France Marine Le Pen of the Front national (FN) refers to the France beyond Paris of blue-collar workers, small farmers and low-level employees as the “France of the forgotten”.

She is hoping to build on the momentum provided by the Brexit and Trump victories and persuade disenchanted French voters to break with the mainstream parties and vote for change as represented by the FN. The political class against the “deplorables”

In Europe and the US, the political class seems increasingly out of touch with the people they purport to represent and often seems to express contempt for sections of the electorate. Hillary Clinton put half of Mr Trump’s voters in her “basket of deplorables”.

In the UK, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) picked up support from workers in the Midlands and the north of England who no longer feel much connection with the Labour Party, the traditional party of the working class. Mr Trump deliberately drew on the popular revolt against the political order epitomised by the Brexit vote. He visited the UK the morning after the vote and hailed the result as signifying “independence day”. He drew the parallel often at his campaign-trail rallies. He invited Mr Farage to the US to address his audience. In the closing days of the campaign he said that if he won it would be “Brexit plus, plus, plus” for the US. Mr Trump was also able to count on the distinct lack of enthusiasm for Mrs Clinton among workingclass black and Hispanic voters. Unsurprisingly, in 2016 black voters did not turn out for Mrs Clinton, a doyenne of the white political establishment who failed to inspire them with hope in the manner of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Although they voted overwhelmingly for Mrs Clinton, they did not do so in sufficient numbers to tip the result. The Hispanic voter turnout was higher than ever before, predominantly favouring Mrs Clinton, but Mr Trump increased the Republican share of the Hispanic vote compared with Mitt Romney in 2012.

The seismic nature of the Brexit and Trump victories should not be underestimated.

Politics as we have known it for the past 70 years is not going to go back to “normal”. The Brexit and Trump breakthroughs could add further fuel to the populist challenge to the mainstream parties that is evident across Europe. The populists are prepared to debate the big political issues of the day, and they are mobilising people to become engaged in the political process and to vote. Ruling elites across Europe are facing the prospect of a gathering anti-elite revolt, and apart from dismissing the insurgent parties and their voters as being deluded, manipulated or simply beyond the pale, they have so far shown little inkling of how to respond.


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