We leftists should make more effort to understand the rise of the populist right, says Janice Tuner in the Times:
After defeat you must ask why. It is easy to blame Breitbart or the tabloids, to label every Trump voter a white supremacist, every Leaver a “Brextremist”. Easier than asking…what the hell you missed.
Here we must sharply distinguish two different meanings of “understand”: being aware of the cause of something versus being sympathetic to something. I can do the former without the latter.
For my purposes, perhaps the biggest cause of the rise of populism was pointed out back in 2006 by Ben Friedman. Stagnant incomes, he said, tend to increase support for intolerance. They lead to a rise in right-wing extremism. In the UK, this was exacerbated by the fact that constrained government spending allowed people to blame immigrants for poor public services. This created a demand for change - and people who feel they have lost out are often willing to gamble even on forlorn prospects.
Allied to this is the fact that people feel that they lack power – that it is others (“the elite”) that have control, not themselves. As Will says, Vote Leave’s slogan “take back control” was a stroke of genius. And Janice quotes approvingly Joan Williams claim that workers disliked Clinton because she reminded them of the professionals who have bossed them around all their lives.
Herein, though, lies a paradox. I have for years been opposing the austerity, managerialism and inequality that have created populism. And I’ve not had much support from those like Janice who now demand that I “understand” the right.
But let’s be clear here. Trump and Farage do not understand the working class. They come from immensely privileged backgrounds, have spent little time studying the real problems workers have, and make no effort to identify genuine circumstances where the people might be right and elites wrong. Instead, they are just narcissists who found a ready market for their bigotry thanks to helpful socioeconomic conditions, a complicit media and cognitive biases among voters.
There’s nothing much to understand here, because there is simply no credible evidence that their proposed policies will actually help workers (other than Trump’s fiscal expansion). It’s hard to engage with a vacuum.
This is especially true because, as Nick Cohen points out, there is in fact an intellectual crisis on the right.
In my lifetime, we Marxists have faced three different types of opponent on the right. First, there were those who were sceptical of grand theories such as Burke and Oakeshott; think of Popper’s critique of Marx in The Open Society and its Enemies. Then there was neoliberal Thatcherism. And now there’s populism.
But these different iterations are opposed to each other. Populists’ supposed concern that immigration is reducing the cohesion of traditional communities sits uneasily with the fact that Thatcher’s attack on miners destroyed such communities. And their assertion of the “will of the people” flatly contradicts Burke’s view that MPs should over-ride the poor judgement of voters.
And you want me to understand this? To quote Thatcher: no, no no.