A political earthquake. That’s the metaphor that stuck. New fault lines tore up the most powerful country on the planet on November 8, as the institutions of the left crumpled and collapsed. Millions of Democrats are still confusedly picking amongst the dust and rubble. Why wasn’t our side strong enough to withstand such a blow? And what lessons can we salvage from the carnage?
The left was quick to blame a biased media and voter ignorance. But the side I was angriest at was our own. The results, which showed an unprecedented drop-off in white working-class voters for the Democrats, mirrored that party’s priorities. Somewhere along the way, the Clinton campaign consciously decided that it didn’t need the traditional white working-class base that had scaffolded its victories in places like Wisconsin and Michigan for so long: the US had become so urbanised and multicultural that it could do without them.
Perhaps it was the influence of Bernie Sanders, but during the debates, Clinton’s messaging -from policing and climate change to health care – was precisely targeted at women, young people and ethnic minorities. White working-class people weren’t given a look-in; the challenges of immigration and personal responsibility which matter on the shop floor were sidestepped in favour of rhetoric about “the last glass ceiling”.
The disdain for working-class people was shown most strongly in September, when Hillary Clinton labelled half of Trump supporters “deplorables”, a line that had ugly echoes of Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” comments in 2010. In both cases, the comments – which focused on people rather than their views – seemed to reveal what the establishment really felt about those who opposed them. This is about more than a strategic error which loses votes: it’s a moral point about how we should treat one another.
You could see blue collar areas being deprioritised out in the field too. This is why Hillary failed to show up in Wisconsin, taking it for granted and losing the state. She lost too in the state she grew up in, Pennsylvania, where traditional voters left the Democrats in droves. Obama’s former faith adviser Michael Wear, a major opponent of Trump, said that he felt Clinton had “almost complete disregard” for engaging faith communities, particularly white Catholics and Evangelical church groups. The Democrats’ slogan might have been “stronger together” but the organisation and the policy clearly said: “we can win apart”.
But surely we can’t be expected to pander to racists? That’s what many on the left ask when faced with this argument. I’m worried that the question itself is part of the problem. Of course among those who voted Republican there will be some racists – just like there are among Ukip voters – but when half the electorate is voting that way, do you really want to brand them all with that label? The left can win and reject racists; it can’t win and dismiss millions of its former supporters, many of whom backed Obama, as “deplorables”.
We’re all quick to jump on what America’s experience can teach the UK. Corbyn believes that he can win like Trump because he too is anti-establishment, movement-led and highly critical of the current state of the economy. He hopes to ride the anti-establishment wave, but use it for good instead of evil. But my concern is that the Corbynite brand of anti-establishment politics – focused on issues peripheral or even hostile to the experiences of many potential voters; wishing we could abolish the monarchy, unilateral nuclear disarmament, criticising the profit motive,and so on. – do not reflect the changes that the voters want to see in the system.
Next to Trump, Corbyn is still going to look like another polite, well-spoken man in a suit. Because the truth is that Corbyn is closer to Clinton. Like her, he looks to have decided to run on a coalition of graduates, ethnic minorities and young people. He seems to believe that people who say they are concerned about immigration or personal responsibility or taxes are actually suffering from a kind of false consciousness, that their concerns can be completely solved through state funds, and that he knows better than they do what they really need.
And, like Clinton, Corbyn expects young people and ethnic minorities to vote left simply because of their demographic grouping. Yet we get annoyed when white working-class people do the same and line up behind a right-wing alternative, be it the Republican party or Ukip.
So what can we do? At a national level, Labour has to do more than listen to blue-collar concerns. We need more leaders from these backgrounds and more action taken to enact what they are telling us. On a personal level, let’s not write people off for having a different political opinion from our own. Don’t shut down when someone says they voted for Brexit; open up. Don’t de-friend someone on Facebook for saying they are worried about immigration, ask them why. Of course we should always challenge what we disagree with – but don’t disengage. A bit less self-righteousness and a little more humility are crucial to helping us rebuild.
This essay was first published in the Winter 2016 issue of the Fabian Review.