As I stayed up through the night watching the US Presidential election, I felt like I was living the film Groundhog Day, because it was like everything had happened before. Big voter turnout, people who had never voted, early voting.
At first, the commentators said this was good news for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee. I wasn’t so sure. It felt too familiar, and I no longer trust the pollsters. And then slowly, as the states on the electoral map turned red, I realised this was completely familiar. I had been here before.
On 23 June 2016, the day of the EU referendum, I was the campaign director for the Remain campaign in the North East of England. That night, I watched as the towns, cities and regions of the UK turned blue for Leave. Marginal areas we expected to win, we lost. The reasons for defeat were hinged on the issues of immigration, nationalism, patriotism, separatism and a sense of our own greatness and strength to go it alone. Sounds familiar? Welcome to Brexit 2.0 – US style.
Until Clinton won the Democratic nomination, I was on Team Bernie. As a feminist, I want to see a female president, but the more I observed the populist vote for Donald Trump, the more worried I became that an establishment figure like Clinton would not be enough to cut through his simplistic “Make America Great Again” mantra.
But even for those who consider themselves apolitical, one thing was clear. The American dream, just like The Third Way in Britain, is failing to deliver. Towns and cities are locked in unending cycles of deprivation, poverty and hopelessness. Wage levels have stagnated, public services have been cut and great industries have disappeared, to be replaced with zero-hours contract service jobs. On top of this is the constant threat – at least according to the right-wing media – of an unknown enemy. The Muslim who hates the West, the foreigner who wants to take what is yours – your security, your identity, your job, your home. The stage is set for simple solutions.
Vote Leave. Vote Trump. These slogans are the same. They represent a vote for change, but one driven by fear, poverty, nationalism, greed and division. During the EU referendum it was the forgotten northeastern towns where the cry for “Leave” was the loudest. In Teesside, the area I grew up in, the anger of the people was apparent. The steelworks that employed thousands of people, and had done so for generations, closed months before the EU referendum campaign began. Campaigning there was difficult. People there had discovered a place to take their anger, someone to blame. They wanted out. It seems that in the US, it is the white working class from post-industrial communities who are similarly angry. They wanted Trump.
Hate-based politics is working, and it’s powerful. That’s why I was Team Bernie. We need more radical change. Business-as-usual politics isn’t strong enough to stand up to that narrative of fear and nationalism. It isn’t honest enough to talk about what is not working in our system. It isn’t hopeful enough to offer any sense that things will get better. The EU campaign failed because it was based on keeping things the same. The Labour party’s 2015 campaign message of “the same, but a little better”, didn’t work. Clinton’s campaign of the same but better also didn’t work.
Teesside and Pennsylvania cannot take more of the same. If the US really wants change, why not give voters a real choice of what that change could be. Give them an alternative vision for greatness, one based on free education, on children getting enough to eat, on people having more power than corporations. Could this have been a different vision for making America great again? Could this have stopped a Brexit 2.0? We will never know, but I think back here in post-Brexit UK, we need to ask ourselves whether a more hopeful, radical, and compassionate politics could save Britain from years of fear-based rule. Maybe I am an idealist, but I would really like to think so.
Jessie Jacobs was a Remain campaigner and is the founder of the charity A Way Out.