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What’s powering populism?

Donald Trump stands on steps in the Great Court at Blenheim Palace (Getty Images).

Donald Trump stands on steps in the Great Court at Blenheim Palace (Getty Images).

June 7, 2019   5 mins

Are we living through a political revolution? Hardly. Only those unseated from power would describe our current global political realignments in such a fashion. The changes as seen by the voters are a necessary correction – a tectonic shift after years of being ignored. But when the powerful have lost touch with reality, defeat inevitably comes as a surprise, leaving them reeling and reaching for excuses.

We’ve seen this scenario play out over and over again over the past three years, as dissatisfaction with culture and politics has made itself felt throughout elections in the UK, America, Australia and India. Politicians, pollsters, reporters and experts have been left shaking their heads, with no understanding of what just happened.

Brad Todd, my co-author on The Great Revolt – for which we travelled 27, 000 miles of country roads to interview 300 Trump voters in 10 swing counties – said there are strong similarities between all of three populist movements in the US, UK and Australia. “In all three countries the corporate elite refuses to believe its lying eyes,” he said. “They keep getting surprised by the electorate because they refuse to adapt to the electorate.”

Another similarity is how that elite reacts to defeat. Instead of devoting a little intellectual curiosity as to why they were rejected, they blame the racism of the electorate, or its lack of education. They fail, conveniently, to notice that these same uneducated or bigoted voters are the ones who voted for them a generation ago.

Donald J. Trump, the unlikeliest man to ever become US President is the surest reminder that no one’s hold on power is certain. He sends a powerful message that politicians should remember the promises they make to the electorate. I wonder – has Britain, a country divided by Brexit, taken note of this where very recent promises remain unfulfilled?

Love Trump or hate him, he is the symbol of what happens when politicians fail their constituencies one time too many. And he is not a one-off. He is one of a rising breed of politicians – brash outsiders and effective communicators – who are giving voice to those long-ignored voters, who have been hiding in plain sight.

Trump’s style, as Britain has now seen up close, is an acquired taste. But UK politicians could learn from him. He knows the art of not backing down, doesn’t always get what he wants, and sometimes looks like he’s tilting at windmills. But the people who voted for him see him as a force that pushes back. He looks like he has their backs. He seems to be listening to them.

If voters don’t see politicians fighting their corner, they rise up. We saw it in the EU elections and across the continent, as well as in the Indian and Australian ballots, as wave after wave of right-wing populism swept through in reaction to the domination of the elites.

The elite’s influence on people’s daily lives is all pervasive and inescapable. They run everything, from the schools to the pulpits to deciding what we do for entertainment. But they don’t know us. Tightly ensconced in their pockets of wealth and privilege, they failed to listen to the people who work for them, or vote for them or watch their shows.

They assumed their stranglehold on power was immune to the disruptive changes wreaking havoc throughout western consumerism. They didn’t stop to think about the difference choice has made to our lives as consumers. For once empowered with that ability to choose, it is human nature to resent those who previously made our choices for us. Why no one realised that this would eventually happen in politics is remarkable.

As a result, people are pushing back at globalism in favour of localism; all over the world, they are expressing a weariness for the multinational deals struck by politicians and business, and the effect these are having on their salaries and jobs – with few rewards for their lives and communities.

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for instance, told people who worked in coal mines that their jobs would be taken away and would never come back. Did they not think there would be a pushback at the ballot box? In Australia, meanwhile, the tilt Right was partly a response to the idea that carbon reduction schemes would cost millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

But this reaction against the elites isn’t just about politics. It’s about all aspects of our lives. At the heart of this new populism is a healthy distrust of all things big – not just big political parties or powerful establishment figures, but also media conglomerates, big entertainment, big multinational agreements, big corporations and big technology.

Tom Maraffa, professor emeritus of geography at Youngstown State University agrees. “Populists in Europe are reacting to the growth of a supranational organization – the EU – at the expense of what they see as national sovereignty and/or regions within the country. In the US populists are reacting to the growth of national based policies at the expense of state and local control,” he said.

The question is, how durable is this populism? For how long will these new coalitions be making their power felt?

In America, it’s difficult to say. On the Left, they still seem baffled. And as a result they are doing things that would make a second Trump presidency more likely.

Many of the Democrat hopefuls are, for example, embracing socialism and talking about large-scale, high-spend government projects such as The Green New Deal, Medicare for all or free college tuition. It means Trump can sleep easy: the expensive causes are blessed by white intellectuals located in small, concentrated areas with too few electoral votes to defeat the incumbent.

Or if, say, the Democrats were to go too far on impeachment, carrying out endless investigations into the presidency while failing to enact any of the policies they ran on to win the majority in the House away from the Republicans, this would also play into Trump’s hand. If the Democratic congress fritters away two years on investigations while doing nothing meaningful in government, the party will pay a price for once again misreading why people gave them power in the first place.

But the longevity of this new populism doesn’t only depend on the personalities and politics of candidates like Trump, the behaviour of elite decision-makers across the board matters. Culture is just as important to voters.

When corporations decide to become social justice warriors – as did Disney’s chief executive when he claimed it would be “very difficult” for them to continue filming movies in the state of Georgia if the new heartbeat law was enacted – voters get irritated. Often this is down to the blatant picking of sides. But in Disney’s case, it’s the out-and-out hypocrisy which infuriates so many. Disney still does business in countries where the laws on abortions are stricter than those in Georgia.

The voters aren’t idiots, and many are sick of being taken as such. They also don’t like being sneered at. That’s why the clever political eye is focused on the ground shifting at the most granular level, in the towns and the cities and the suburbs where things are changing.

As Todd and I wrote “the history of the American electorate is not a litany of flukes; instead it is a cycle of tectonic plate-grinding punctuated by an earthquake every generation or so”.

If you look carefully, you can see where the fissures are, and if you’re on the ground, you can feel where the ground is moving. But that’s not going to happen if you’re sat at a desk, looking at data, watching a screen, certain in the knowledge that voters or consumers will make the same choices they always have.

The smart politician will be better attuned to what the dissatisfied pubic is saying. The winning politician will be able to give voice to their woes. And what’s really astonishing is that there’s scant evidence that any of the elites who were upended by the populist earthquake have had the good sense to find their feet since.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She is co-author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics


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