There’s one word that explains why I got it wrong over Brexit and Trump

Politics in 2016 was about status, stupid. 

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For those of us who did not foresee the twin political earthquakes of Brexit and President Trump, 2016 has been a chastening year, and a baffling one.

Why did so many British voters choose Leave even when it seems to endanger them economically? Why did so many Americans back a presidential candidate uniquely unqualified for office?

More broadly: why are so many voters so angry? Crime is at historically low levels. The UK and US economies are growing, and incomes are rising, albeit slowly. In the UK, inequality has not risen for years, yet people complain about it as if it is skyrocketing.

I think the reason I got so much so wrong is that I’ve been looking at politics through the wrong lens. If there is a golden rule of politics as I have known it, it is this: in peacetime, people vote for the party or candidate they believe will make the country more prosperous - or, failing that, the one that is least likely to make it less prosperous. People believe that if the country does well, they will do well.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2016, it’s this: people are not voting according to how well off they want the country to be, or even how well off they want to be, but how big they want to feel. Politics has become a status game. You vote for the candidate that makes you feel high in status, relative to others, and against the one that makes you feel low in status. Everything else – prosperity, ideology, policies, even competence to govern – comes in behind.

To me, and perhaps to you, this is hard to accept, because politics has never felt like a status competition. But that’s because my status (white, male, college-educated Londoner) has never felt under threat. When you feel economically challenged or culturally sidelined, your own place in the social hierarchy looms large. You get status anxiety.

It’s crucial, by the way, to separate how a person feels, from their objective status, because the two things are not the same. Economic inequality can be measured, and it can be mitigated with transfers of money: benefits, tax credits, a universal basic income. Status inequality is much harder to account for, or to address with policy. Being given money by the state can increase your income but can actually make you feel lower in status.

To understand status anxiety, you have to experience it. But then almost everyone has: if you need a reminder of what it is like to feel insecure, recall the last time you felt your job was in danger. You started wondering if the guy in the next cubicle had it in for you, or whether your boss’s polite requests contained hidden rebukes. Only after your promotion did you realise that neither was true. Or maybe you got fired; sometimes the bastards really are out to get you.

It doesn’t have to be a job – it might be the last time you felt insecure in a relationship. My point is this: when you’re nervous about your status, you become unusually alert to the possibility of plots, threats and slights. You get suspicious, and you get angry. That’s exactly how many voters feel. They feel it about their own lives and they feel it about their country.

Once I grasped this, things become a little clearer. For instance, at the time it made headlines, President Obama’s “back of the queue” remark seemed, from my side of the debate, to be a clear tactical win for Remain. Here was a popular US president warning Britons of the folly of acting against their own interests.

Looked at through the lens of status politics, however, it becomes clear that Obama’s intervention was almost perfectly judged to inflame the patriotic anger of voters who already felt they and their country were not sufficiently respected. You think you can tell Britain what to do? To me, it didn’t feel like Obama was telling us what to do so much as highlighting one consequence of a Leave vote. But many voters responded to it as a status threat.

Our relationship with the US has long been riddled with insecurities, hence Britain’s perennial festival of neediness over the “special relationship”, what gifts the president gives the prime minister and so on. The Iraq war made this insecurity much worse. Many voters are still angry with Labour for it, not so much because they believe the war was wrong, but because they think the UK subjugated itself to American power.

Status is a somewhat bloodless word for a thick stew of emotions, like pride, dignity and respect. It doesn’t have a number, which means it does not get figured into the calculations of pollsters, which explains some of their errors. If you can’t measure the depth of anxiety or anger a voter feels, you can’t accurately measure her propensity to vote.

It’s a blind spot for economists too, who consistently under-estimate the importance of jobs to people’s life choices. To an economist, a job is an income. To a human being, it is much more than that. It provides a sense that you matter in society, that people beyond your family rely on you and even admire you. It gives you a place to stand tall.

On the stump in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Donald Trump talked about jobs all the time. As the rest of the world focused on the crazy stuff he said, and Hillary Clinton focused on – well, what did she focus on? – Trump’s audiences heard him promise, over and over, to bring back regular, decently paid manufacturing jobs. The type of job is important: two jobs can pay the same yet have very different effects on status. For some, service jobs feel like servility.

It is a moot point whether and how much Trump’s voters believed he would actually bring back the jobs he promised. Just by talking about it, however, he was addressing their status anxiety. He was saying to them, you matter. I will promote you. I will show the world you cannot be ignored.

Try to imagine hearing such a message yourself, at a time when you’re feeling insecure. I don’t care how intelligent you are, if you’re feeling small and someone comes along and makes you feel big, you will back that person for the job, even if you have doubts about their capacity to do it.

The corollary of raising someone in status, of course, is lowering someone else’s. This is a crucial point about status game politics: it is zero sum. In-groups compete directly with out-groups. For us to rise up, they must be put in their place. Hence the widespread resentment of the professional classes among voters without a college degree. Hence Trump’s stream of insults to Mexican-Americans, Muslims, the media, politicians.

To Trump and his supporters, the big lie of politics is that everyone can be raised in status at the same time. C’mon, they say, cut the crap: there are big people and small people, and you vote for the guy who wants to raise you up (the Twitter bio of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway is two words long: “We won.”)

The politicians who do well in a status game tend to be those who intuitively understand personal insecurity. Trump doesn’t just tap into status anxiety, he embodies it. He sees slights everywhere, and responds to them with flamboyant belligerence. Wealthy as he is, he is forever the Queens guy trying to break into Manhattan society. For his supporters, this is a feature, not a bug.

Theresa May has a different temperament to Trump, but shares with him an over-developed alertness to threats, which makes her suspicious of people who disagree with her, and quick to stamp on those who cross her, or who seem as if they might cross her.

Understanding that politics has become a status game doesn’t mean accepting it has to be that way. But to change the terrain, you need to win on it first, and that means being attuned to its emotional dynamics. One of the few things I wrote about the US election that still stands up was a post arguing that Clinton should make much more of the threat from ISIS, about whose depravity all voters agree. Clinton could have made herself look bigger, and focused the anger of voters on an out-group, without compromising her principles or core support.

An argument that the UK is better off when it pools some of its sovereignty with other countries is a very tricky one to make, from a status point of view. To win it, you need to compensate by telling a story about national greatness, not just national prosperity. Oh well, too late. Patriotism is a great equaliser of status, a universal basic self-esteem. That liberals and leftists have downplayed it will come to be seen as one of the great strategic errors of the age.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.