Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trump, Brexit, the New Right: A Rejection of Liberalism

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump I had some heady conversations with friends about what the election might mean. I think it was my way of dealing with the heady consequences of the election. Even now when I think about what might be in store for America, North America and the world I cannot help but feel a sense of dread. This sense was only exaggerated by the surprise of the outcome. If you read my piece from last week I state the possibility of a Trump victory, but I accepted the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton was on her way to victory.

Both the direction of the election and the unexpected outcome caused many to draw comparisons to the Brexit referendum. How do we explain the victory of Donald Trump? Much like the Brexit vote, people who attribute the victory solely to bigotry and ignorance are dismissing the greater picture here. There are proximate causes which are easier to explain but these should not be conflated with deeper, structural causes.

Let us briefly discuss the immediate causes. Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate. She may have been the best known candidate to run for office who was not already an incumbent. She had the baggage of years of experience and conflicts. Her greater asset, experience, was also her greatest liability. Her gender should not be dismissed; it is possible America was less ready for a female president than suspected. Donald Trump was the Republican candidate in a two-party system. Since he won the nomination there was, in essence, a 50% chance that he could win. Early reporting I watched on PBS commented that Trump was winning like a traditional Republican, which in many ways is unsurprising. Research in Canada has suggested that negative campaigning suppresses progressive voters more than conservative voters. After the last 18 months it is hardly surprising that Democrats failed to turn out in some ways.

The more I thought about Trump, Brexit and the new right in general I began to sense a pattern - a rejection of liberalism. By liberalism I mean the classical liberalism defined by free markets, freedom of movement/immigration, equality and (recently) globalization. Since the 1970s and '80s Western countries have been moving towards a more liberal version of their economies and policies. Sometimes this has been called neo-liberalism. NAFTA and the EU are products of this thinking as are the pro-business, low tax ideology dominant in most countries. This school of thought expanded with the end of the Cold War. With the defeat of Soviet-style communism it seemed that liberal economics and liberal democracy was ready to dominate the world.

Things have progressed down this road, but not without consequences. In the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada there have been stark winners and losers in the liberal era. If you want to know where look at the maps of the election results; Remain and Clinton voters tend to be concentrated in places doing well. But a new Silicon Valley is not taking root in the Rust Belt or the Great Plains, nor in the North of England. These regions have suffered incredibly during the period from the 1970s to present. Deindustrialization has stripped away their economic base and wealth. I recently heard on the news that Trump did not win the working-class demographic, but he did win the middle-class, who feel even more vulnerable to these changes. They're the ones with mortgages and kids in college with debt.

Many (fairly) have accused Trump have having confused, schizophrenic policy positions. If you look at his stances as a rejection of liberalism/neo-liberalism the picture becomes much clearer. Trump has expressed anti-global sentiments, both in terms of diplomacy and trade. His adoption of America First should indicate his thinking on America's place in the world. Trump's supporters are clearly nationalists, and perhaps white nationalists. Subsuming nationalist impulses to international and global organizations was a huge component to liberalism. Trump has committed to renegotiating NAFTA, America's most important free trade agreement. NAFTA is blamed for killing manufacturing jobs that hurt places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

Much like trade, open borders and immigration are components to a liberal vision of the world. Liberals want a free flow of commerce, goods, and people. Both Brexit and Trump arose in response to uncertainty of migration. I studied the history of immigration in North America at Brock. The working class has often had discomfort with new immigration and view them as their rivals. American businesses' relationship with undocumented migrants is exploitative and the reaction from those who have been living in declining areas is understandable. That said, race clearly played a role in the feelings about Muslim and Mexican immigration to the United States. In the case of Brexit race is less clear, perhaps migration and migrants would be more accurate.

Anti-equity is a harder trait to pinpoint. Obviously we could look at treatment of non-whites as evidence, or Trump's comments about women as evidence. Questions of equity have always been controversial in the United States. Policies designed to address inequity are highly controversial, i.e. effective school segregation, affirmative action, criminal justice reform.

Anti-liberalism is not unique to Donald Trump and the Republicans. One could argue that the appeal of Bernie Sanders is a product of anti-liberalism, just from the other side. Socialism is not extra liberalism, in many ways it is anti-liberalism.

Looking around the world at the rise of new right parties, the results of Brexit and election of Donald Trump it is not too far of a leap to think that the global movement towards liberals from the 1970s/90s is facing a backlash. Evidence has existed for years, such as the rise of China's state capitalism and Russia's backslide away from liberal democracy. The scary thing is that anti-liberalism on the right is sometimes known as fascism. The last time there was a global rejection of liberal economics and liberal democracy was the 1920s-40s. I want to be clear, I am not saying we are short years away from a world war. Beginning in the 20th century we have transitioned from periods of openness and closeness on the global stage. The early 20th century was quite open, and then the rise of socialism/communism and the Second World War and Cold War led to a closing, until the 1970s. Perhaps we are entering a world when things are closing. That said, new technologies likely means that things will never close again as much as they have in the past.

Liberalism has left many people behind, and it is not unthinkable that these anti-liberal movements could find a place in Canada. I think this is one of the few ways to make sense of some recent trends. Do not accept overly simplistic explanations of election, we are motivated by complicated factors as voters. Perhaps winds of change are blowing and who knows where it will take us. 

No comments: