Lightning does strike twice. For the centre-left, the US presidential election was meant to provide consolation for Brexit. Liberals believed that the coalition that elected and re-elected Barack Obama would carry Hilary Clinton to victory. The first female president would be a beacon of hope in dark times. But rather than an anti-Brexit, the election proved to be a terrifying sequel.
Donald Trump’s victory was reminiscent of the referendum that he repeatedly invoked. Like the Brexiteers, he won by mobilising white working class voters who traditionally do not turn out. His economic populism and optimistic nationalism (“Make America Great Again” being his “Take Back Control”) resonated with voters far more than Hilary Clinton’s staid, establishment pitch. Like Nigel Farage (who grabbed the first plane to the US), Trump was able to cast himself as an outsider and an insurgent. As with the Remain campaign, Clinton found that elite endorsements (including senior Republicans), counted for nothing.
After the financial crisis of 2008, social democrats spoke hopefully of a “progressive moment”. The left was right to anticipate that the economic shocks would convulse global politics. It was wrong, however, to assume that this would be to its benefit. The Conservatives’ first majority in 23 years was succeeded by Brexit and Trump’s triumph. 2016 marks the definitive end of the liberal era of the 1990s (1992 saw the creation of both the EU and Bill Clinton’s election). Not only in the UK, but in France, Germany and Spain, the centre-left is more marginalised than at any point since the 1930s.
Clinton’s defeat will sharpen the rift over its future. Some to her left were quick to argue that Bernie Sanders would have outperformed her miserable showing (the worst electoral college performance by any Democrat since 1988). Jeremy Corbyn, who heaped praise on the Vermont senator, declared: “This is a rejection of a failed economic consensus and a governing elite that has been seen not to have listened.” His supporters will cite Clinton’s defeat as proof that the centre-left can only win by advocating a radical alternative. Trump’s victory, in defiance of the polls, will also reinforce their confidence that Corbyn is electable. The unexpected should be expected.
But though Corbyn shares Trump’s economic populism, his Labour opponents will be quick to note the contrasts. The former advocates open borders; the latter wants them closed. Just as Leave’s anti-immigration stance attracted Labour supporters, so Trump’s drew former Democrats to his camp. Until the centre-left can credibly address their demands, Corbyn’s opponents argue, it will remain marooned.
In a private speech leaked yesterday, Bill Clinton, whose New Democrats served as the inspiration for New Labour, cast his eye over a transformed party. After moving to the left under Ed Miliband, Labour moved further to the left under Corbyn (“an interesting conclusion,” Clinton sardonically remarked). A victory for his wife would have marked the rebirth of the New Democrats. Instead the election sounded the death knell. The progressivism of the 1990s has been vanquished. But the battle over what to put in its place is only beginning.