The Republican’s victory is about more than simply the different values held by the young and the old, says Joyce McMillan
A couple of weeks ago – in what still felt like the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote – I travelled to Athens to meet up with some old friends, and to make some new ones. In a way, it was a sad meeting; the old friends were people who first got together in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to try – and eventually fail – to create a Europe-wide network that might bring a citizens’ dimension to the public life of the new, unified Europe that suddenly seemed possible, in those days.
Now, though, we were coming together again – just a stone’s throw from the Acropolis, and along with a younger generation of activists for peace and human rights – to ask what should be done now, to protect and further the cause of peace in Europe. We talked about failures in former Yugoslavia and Ukraine; we talked about Brexit, and the forces behind it. And through all our discussions, there ran a recurring double thread. On one hand, people – particularly the younger people in the group – wanted to talk about values, about the kind of society Europe should be, and to get beyond the dry economism that evaluates everything in terms of headline economic growth.
And on the other, there was a steady backbeat of voices reminding us – from Bosnia, from Ukraine, from Italy, Greece and the UK – that if the economic structure of a society goes wrong, then nothing can go right; that if ordinary citizens are deprived of economic security, of reasonably reliable jobs, of incomes on which they can live and enjoy some kind of family life, then they will always be vulnerable to the arguments of a nationalist far right that tells them these problems can be solved, if only we can get rid of foreigners, and in some unspecified way, “make our country great again”.
All of which came powerfully to mind, as I watched Donald Trump sweep to victory in Tuesday’s US election; for the final result had hardly emerged, before competing analyses of it began to rattle around the airwaves like so many colliding pinballs. As in the Brexit vote, some commentators could barely wait to define the contest as a matter of political culture and values; a rural, Christian, socially conservative and far from multiracial America was said to be rejecting the social changes of the last half-century, and voting for a 1950s-style white-dominated nation of male breadwinners and stay-at-home mothers.
Others, by contrast, were quick to define the vote – again like Brexit – as a cry of economic distress from the dispossessed; not the poorest in American society, but those just above that level, who have seen their real incomes and economic security trashed by more than three decades of neoliberalism, and who are attracted by Trump’s promise to end trade deals that have not benefited ordinary American workers, and to invest in massive infrastructure projects that will create hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs.
And of course, it is likely that all of these factors played a part in Trump’s victory; the biggest single predictor of Trump support seems, sadly, to have been the traditional American racial divide between black and white, with almost 60 per cent of white voters preferring Trump, compared with only 8 per cent of black Americans. Yet to acknowledge the role of race – or education, gender, location or age – in Trump’s victory is not to deny the importance of economics; for if most of his voters, like most Brexit voters, were comfortably off, it remains true that the crucial “swing” voters, in both elections, were the poorer white voters who would once have followed the line of the Labour Party or the Democratic Party, but have now ceased to listen to them.
And what that suggests is that while the political left will gain little by lecturing voters about the ugly spasm of reactionary sentiment that partly drives these votes, what it must do, if it is to prevent a further slide towards these cruel values, is to heal the economic wounds that are giving right-wing populism the fuel of fear and rage it feeds on. Historically, the only force that has ever diminished the level of hatred and prejudice in society, and created space for real social progress, has been a system that not only utters fine words about the equal worth of all human beings, but makes that fundamental respect for human dignity the basis of all its social and economic policies. Governments which use the misery of unemployment or of chronic job insecurity as an instrument of policy do not meet that high standard; nor do governments which talk the talk about greater economic equality, while presiding over grotesque increases in the wealth of the wealthiest, and the growth of unacceptable employment practices such as zero-hours contracts.
So far as the cultural elements of Donald Trump’s campaign are concerned, in other words, the racial and social demographics of America will almost certainly diminish their appeal over time – more than 60 per cent of voters under 29 rejected Trump. Yet it would nonetheless be a historic mistake to imagine that this election represents only a last spasm of reaction from a group of ageing “angry white men” – and women – who will eventually fade from the scene. On the contrary, so long as people who claim to care about social justice fail to confront the economic causes of human misery and indignity, they will remain vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy and elitism that haunted Hillary Clinton throughout this campaign.
And this is why Bernie Sanders, for all his age and radicalism, might finally have been the better candidate to confront Trump. For in the end, Sanders seems to understand what the Blair/Clinton generation of politicians so fatally chose to forget, back in the 1990s; that it is not a matter of choosing between values on one hand, and economics on the other, but of recognising that the two are indivisible – and that where economic policy does not reflect the values we proclaim, we only sow the tempest of public rage, and reap the whirlwind that finally reached the White House, in the early hours of Wednesday morning.