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The Rise of the Outsiders: how populists shattered the status quo

Author Steve Richards says mainstream parties have been forced to reconsider where the centre lies.

At the start of 2007, as a global economic boom continued, the age of ideological struggle appeared to be over. In Britain, party leaders only seemed to come in one model. Tony Blair and David Cameron – as well as Nick Clegg, who would become the Lib Dem leader later that year – were young and economically and socially liberal. In much of the West, the defining question was no longer which party could change the system but which could best manage it. Politicians competed on an ever-shrinking pitch.

This soon proved a false dawn. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 dispelled the illusion of perpetual growth and revived dormant conflicts. In the years that followed, those left politically homeless by economic or social liberalism found alternatives: Syriza and Podemos surged in Greece and Spain; Labour elected an unambiguous socialist as leader; the UK voted to leave the EU; Donald Trump entered the White House. In country after country, the presumed “centre” did not hold.

Steve Richards, a broadcaster and former political editor of the New Statesman, assesses these convulsions in his new book. In a hyper-partisan age, Richards is notable for writing sympathetically about professional politicians and the tortuous dilemmas and trade-offs they face. “The gap between the way elected insiders are perceived and the reality of their neurotic, tentative hold on power is darkly comic,” he observes. But though Richards avoids the default cynicism that mars some commentary, he does not hesitate to deliver tough judgements.

The Rise of the Outsiders is also the story of the fall of the insiders. In a two-part section entitled “Choosing to Be Powerless”, Richards assails, in turn, the mainstream left and right for accepting the economic status quo. The left did so out of “defensive expediency”: “They did not believe that they could win elections by putting the case for government.” The right did so out of “assertive ideological self-confidence”.

When the crash came, the centre left under­estimated the scale of change required and the political fury the living standards crisis would unleash. “Like characters in a film noir,” Richards writes, “they chose to move towards their doom, even though they had already been exposed to the dangers of doing so.” He draws an insightful comparison with the 1970s, when Harold Wilson and Edward Heath failed to recognise the exhaustion of the postwar consensus and Thatcherism claimed the future.

After the 2008 crisis, Ed Miliband sought to be both “radical” and “credible” but was judged by voters to be neither. The shock of the first Tory majority in 23 years (and a change in the Labour leadership rules) opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent. Labour’s recent advance contrasts with the enfeebled state of social democrats in France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands: prog rockers in a punk age. After topping the charts with “the Third Way” in the 1990s, they have struggled to reinvent themselves as tastes have changed.

The centre right, largely owing to its perceived economic competence, has fared better (most notably the nuclear-proof Angela Merkel). But, as Richards argues, the small-state ideology of Conservatives and Republicans created the conditions for populist revolt. Though the Brexiteers and Trump had no principled commitment to economic interventionism, their opportunistic collectivism (“£350m for the NHS!”; “$1trn for infrastructure!”) resonated with voters left cold by the market. By casting themselves as “outsiders”, Trump (a pampered plutocrat) and Nigel Farage (a smug stockbroker) escaped “ideological incarceration”: “They are not on the far right; they are on the outside. Serious, probing debate becomes almost impossible.” Liberals have little defence against those who bring a gun to a knife fight.

Richards’s analysis is persuasive but his book lacks the distinctive features necessary to make it a landmark work. Though it draws on anecdotes acquired from decades in the trade, it is short on original reporting and interviews. Broad economic trends are covered but more forensic use could have been made of data. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently compiled an economic metric showing that the G7 countries most adversely affected by the crash (and buffeted by globalisation) were Spain, the US, Italy and the UK, while the least affected were Germany, Canada and Japan – such insights are invaluable in explaining populism’s contrasting fortunes.

Richards’s conclusions are relatively optimistic. The outsiders, he notes, have forced mainstream parties to reconsider where the centre lies and to question their economic assumptions. Liberalism’s monopoly on political thought has been broken. Rather than assuming power, mainstream politicians must now fight for it (as Emmanuel Macron did in France). In these volatile times, elections are competitive once more.

And though populists can appear “intimidatingly strong”, they are “transparently weak”. When they acquire office, they invariably disappoint expectations. Trump’s approval ratings are crumbling and the “hard Brexiteers” have been denied the electoral mandate they sought. Faced with the same constraints as their reviled opponents, they become trapped.

The outsiders, then, contain the seeds for their own destruction. One can only hope that, when they finally blow themselves up, others are not caught in the blast. 

The Rise of the Outsiders: How Mainstream Politics Lost Its Way
Steve Richards
Atlantic Books, 320pp, £18.99

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left