What councils can learn from Trump

By Claire Fox | 16 November 2016
  • Claire Fox

The shock election of Donald Trump, and especially the responses to it, has profound significance for anyone in the business of democracy.

Here’s what I think we should learn:

Don’t blame democracy

What we can we learn from the election of an illiberal demagogue as leader the world’s superpower?

It is fashionable to conclude democracy itself is to blame. But wasn’t this democracy in action – when faced with a dispiriting choice, millions of ordinary Americans rejected a deeply flawed candidate and a Democratic Party that had long treated them with disdain? Nah – let’s conclude there is something wrong with the voters.

Many liberals and pundits have lashed out at the electorate who are damned as a mob of ‘ignorant hooligans’ (to quote The Spectator’s Matthew Parris). Instead, it is argued, we need an ‘aristocracy of the wise’.

Admiring philosopher kings in preference to an electorate deemed too stupid, gullible and ignorant to vote responsibly is one reason Trump won in the first place.

Don’t insult the voters

Who would have thought that calling your opponents ‘deplorables’ as Hillary Clinton did, might mean they would want payback?

Have lessons been learned since the vote? Seems not: defeated political elites have exhibited little self-awareness about why voters may have rejected those who have openly ridiculed them.

Instead, they have intensified their insults, accusing Trump voters of being racist, misogynistic, ‘low information’ hicks, assuming the vote symbolised a reaction against a black president and the prospect of a female head of state.

Don’t reduce politics to identity

Those smears spring from the way mainstream politics has become obsessed by identity politics.

Hillary Clinton deployed an election strategy based on biological and racial demographics. She instrumentally targeted women, Hispanics and African-Americans.

Yet even after Trump’s gross ‘locker-room talk’ exposé, 44% of women still voted for him while Clinton’s share dropped by 1%.

It wasn’t just Clinton’s attempt to make gender a core election issue that fell on deaf ears. Even Trump’s draconian wall didn’t stop Florida, with a significant Hispanic population, from voting Republican.

He scored 29% of the Latino vote – 2% higher than Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. And while 88% of the African-American vote was for Clinton, this was lower than in 2012 and 2008.

More problematically, Clinton’s identity politicking not only didn’t work but has been as dangerously divisive as Trump’s racial targeting of Mexicans and Muslims.

By ignoring or sneering at the white blue-collar workers in the post-industrial Rust Belt, the Democrats have transformed that demographic into their own identity group.

Don’t take voters for granted

While Trump won with the support of the white working classes, the result is not reduced to race; the Democrats lost that constituency long ago. In 1948 66% of manual labourers voted for Democrats. By 1980, it was 35%.

When the Democrats abandoned the union halls and the ‘flyover’ country, the party core shifted to cities and coastal areas, universities, the professions where they have become preoccupied with waging a culture war against the un-PC masses.

When party apparatchiks had to win votes all they had was an efficient but passionless machine: brilliant ground game, big data analysts, armies of fact-checkers but a status quo insider candidate without vision.

The Republicans have equally hollowed out. Abandoned and without any party prepared to champion their interests, millions of Americans used an untried ‘clean skin’ as a vehicle for change.

While we can worry about the potential problems of giving the old establishment a bloody nose with such a seemingly ill-equipped president, it is the mainstream parties who have created the debacle.

Get out of the echo chamber

Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it echoes similar themes to Brexit. Not because voters were driven by the same issues, but because the political elite’s anti-democratic response to voters has been almost identical.

If the Brexit/Trump victories should teach us anything it is that many at the heart of politics are stuck in a feedback loop, tone deaf to the concerns of the electorate.

Instead of condescendingly lashing out at the demos for voting the wrong way, it is time for politicos to get out more, escape from their echo chamber and engage in the messy business of democracy.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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