The spectacle of the odious Donald Trump and his family addressing the Republican National Convention this week reinforced the calamity that has befallen American politics. That the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower should have as its presidential nominee this bully, braggart and racist is a national embarrassment for the United States, far worse even than it is for the British to have Boris Johnson as our most senior diplomat.
The forces that propelled Mr Trump to the Republican nomination – belligerence, vacuous promise-making, xenophobia, racism – are all too present in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. They have contributed to the rise of the populist, anti-immigrant right in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries. In Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer lost by only 31,000 votes in the presidential election in May; there will now be a rerun in October, because some votes were improperly counted. In the UK, the allure of populism resulted in a vote for Brexit on 23 June from which we are still reeling.
From Mr Trump to Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, populists, of both the left and the right, are adept at exploiting the anger and disenchantment of electorates. Much of the voters’ frustration is understandable. In the UK, for instance, the median income for those aged 31 to 59 is no greater than in 2007, and those aged 22 to 30 are 7 per cent worse off. Inequality has reached pernicious levels. Too many communities have been neglected since de-industrialisation and far too little attention has been paid to reskilling workers for the age of globalisation and open labour markets. Many voters feel that they and their children have been left behind. Less than 10 per cent of white males eligible for free school meals go to university at the age of 18.
Many of those who voted for Brexit regard the EU as part of the problem. For them, as Robert Tombs writes on page 22, it is “an unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing” organisation.
In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the Harvard-based political philosopher Michael Sandel said that mainstream political parties had failed “to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives”. He spoke of a “broader disquiet with democracy” and suggested that politics for the most part fails to “address the big questions that matter most and that citizens care about”.
It is true that too many voters believe that, in terms of their personnel, even if not their policies, the mainstream parties have come to resemble one another, leaving voters feeling unrepresented and thus open to populist alternatives. Nearly four million people voted for the UK Independence Party in the 2015 general election.
However, by almost every measure, and despite many difficulties, life in the UK is significantly better for most of us than it was a generation ago. Since 1973, when the UK joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the European Union, per capita GDP has grown by 103 per cent. Life expectancy has continued to rise every year. Absolute poverty in Britain has never been lower.
Huge strides have been made in curbing discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. According to the Office for National Statistics, crime has halved since 1995; there are record numbers of young people going to university; teenage pregnancy is at the lowest level since records began. These are significant achievements.
Progress has come not in spite of the “experts” and technocrats decried by Michael Gove but largely because of them. As Ian Leslie writes on page 16, “I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.”
Easy populism endangers the liberal advances that have helped the UK – and, indeed, much of the world – become more tolerant, safer and richer. The populists need to be taken on and their structures dismantled, otherwise the rise of the repulsive Mr Trump will herald a new politics – “pluto-populism” – and mark the return of a style of politician who draws his authority from the television reality show, social media and immense personal wealth.
This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt