Why things are not as bleak as they look for social democrats

by Jonathan Todd

Uncanny. That is what Nigel Farage says of the supposed similarities between the EU referendum and the US presidential election. This is not a comparison exclusive to him. Far from it. The excellent Gideon Rachman has made it as articulately as anyone in the Financial Times.

“This similarity is more than an unfortunate coincidence. I would point to three parallels between Brexit and the Trump phenomenon that should worry the Clinton campaign. The first is the potency of immigration as an issue. The second is the way in which the Trump and Brexit campaigns have become vehicles for protest votes about economic insecurity. The third is the chasm between elite opinion and that of the white working class.”

On immigration: In the race for the Republican nomination, Trump favoured a “deportation force” to eject the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. No more. Trump is watering down his position because he has, finally, twigged that it is a loser.

On economic insecurity and the white working class: up to a point, Lord Rachman. Nate Silver has exploded the myth of Trump’s “white working class support”. Similarly, having reviewed the evidence, Zoe Williams has concluded of Brexit that: “The very most we can say is that leave had some popularity with the disaffected and the disenfranchised; but it was not limited to that group, and the people who swung the vote were affluent, older southerners.”

There is also an obvious and crucial difference between the EU referendum and the US presidential election. One concerns an office with which all Americans are familiar. In the context of a process that comes around regular as clockwork every four years. The other concerns an international organisation that Britons do not grasp as well as Americans comprehend their presidency. And upon which we are infrequently asked to take a view. And even then in the format of a referendum, one where the consequences of how we vote may be less well appreciated than in a general election.

In other words, the more accurate American equivalent to the EU referendum may be a popular vote on NAFTA. “What’s that?” said one of my American in-laws. It is the North American Free Trade Area. But their ignorance is my real point: it is something whose importance to America is not widely recognised.

In the more familiar contexts of US presidential and UK general elections, there is usually a change and a continuity candidate. Trump represents change. But in such a highly erratic and combustible form that the attractions of continuity under Clinton, and in an economy that is steadily, if not spectacularly, improving, are accentuated. At the same time, as potentially the first ever female president and the custodian of the highly liberal hopes of most of those who rushed to support Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate, Clinton also represents change.

The incompetence of Trump, therefore, makes Clinton both continuity and change. Which is a position from which she’ll be hard pressed to lose. Especially when Trump has managed to alienate so many crucial voting blocs: female voters, blacks and Hispanics, and young voters. To name but a few.

When Hillary Clinton becomes the 45th president, she will be well placed to succeed Justin Trudeau, elected in 2015 as Canadian prime minister on a pro-immigration, pro-infrastructure platform, as Uncut’s annual overseas inspiration and North America will be the globe’s centre-left hotbed.

That such a hotbed would exist, extending over such a massive geography and two major countries, stands in contradiction to another piece of conventional political wisdom: that social democracy is in decline, perhaps terminally so. Where Rachman advocated the Brexit-Trump parallel, his FT colleague Tony Barber has done so for the dying social democracy thesis.

When Clinton wins, the need for an important caveat to Barber’s argument will become more apparent: Social democracy is not in terminal decline but has suffered serious reversals in Europe, its traditional citadel. In the absence, however, of the challenges that Europe has faced with the Euro and refugees, it is doubtful that this decline would have been so precipitous.

The key to social democracy’s revival in Europe, therefore, consists in overcoming these problems. Which, oddly enough, is consistent with the circumstances in which Gus O’Donnell can envisage the UK staying in the EU. “I do have an idealistic outcome,” O’Donnell told the Times (£), “which is that the EU, confronted with all the problems that it has got at the moment, changes quite radically.”

Under this scenario, the Eurozone fiscally integrates to become sustainable, while the rest of the EU has more flexible arrangements that allow it to form tailored responses to other issues, including the movement of people across the continent.

The barriers to this outcome are much higher than those to President Clinton. If they can be found, though, we wouldn’t just be asking: How will the Hillary Clinton presidency build on the Obama presidency? But also: Will the second Clinton White House encourage social democratic innovation on the other side of the Atlantic as the Third Way did under the first?

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “Why things are not as bleak as they look for social democrats”

  1. Mark Livingston says:

    Trump is the corporate-class Tory candidate. Clinton is the typical Tory-lite Labour candidate of the pre-Corbyn era. The UK has now moved on and 2020 will offer voters the choice between a Tory government or a genuinely socially democratic one. The Blairites will have formed their own Tory-lite party before then and will spend their days rabbiting on about choice.

  2. John p Reid says:

    Why are older southerners affluent, were they tax avoiding East end ,self employed wide boys,or maybe they work hard save hard,and did their income mean they were concerned about immigration, corruption, soverignity, or wanted to stop spending money there, that could be spent here?

  3. Tafia says:

    Social Democrat and Social Democracy are (;ike ‘progressive’) meaningless labels that nobody can define without starting an argument. Even Hitler’s nazi party was social democrat.

    And as for Gus O’Donell – Brexit means Brexit. According to The Times, when May holds her Brexit Cabinet meeting tomorrow, one of the things she will be saying is that any senior civil servant and/or government advisor that attempts to obstruct Brexit is to be replaced.

  4. Sean says:

    I’m not sure Hillary has the ideological flexibility to respond to the political earthquake that has occurred after 2008, especially to the Democratic Party . A lot will depend on the people she brings into the White House. Any innovative action she takes that will provoke a backlash from the “markets” so it will require significant intellectual and public support which I think exists now in the states.
    I’m hoping, though not convinced, that her administration, alongside Trudeau, would allow the build up of new social democratic north American leaders and thinkers to become the new normal. The one thing she does have is a genuine appreciation for detail, lacking in many leaders; she is after all a policy wonk.

  5. Saul Till says:

    My worry is what happens when(if) HRC wins in November – it’s commonly assumed to be a kind of dramatic fork in the road; a victory for Trump representing calamity, a victory for Clinton representing stability and continued meliorist progress.

    But consider what would’ve happened if Remain had won this summer: does anybody think things would’ve returned to normal? Farage was already calling for a recount before the results had come in, based on his assumption that they’d lost – UKIP would be the SNP on steroids. They wouldn’t let it rest, ever. A sizeable portion of society, just as now, would’ve been empowered by the sudden knowledge that their views were shared by much of the country(even if it wasn’t the majority), and nationalism and anti-immigrationism would’ve been given a similarly huge shot in the arm. Besides the legal realities of our relationship with the EU little would’ve changed: the resentment would still be there and the push against the EU would’ve gained further momentum.

    The main result of the actual referendum – which is to say the serious further polarisation of British society along various lines – would’ve occurred whether it was Remain or Leave who won. It might even have been worse, given the frustration and anger that would’ve resulted if the Leave side had narrowly lost.

    Which brings me to the American election: that is where I see the similarities – I see it in the societal polarisation that WILL occur(and already has occurred), whether Trump wins or loses. The rifts will not come close to healing if Clinton wins. They may get worse, as all those Trump voters are united in frustration and resentment. A close Trump loss would be particularly damaging. This is why I’m hoping(without any confidence) that Trump doesn’t just lose – he gets wiped out. Anything else and the divisions will fester, and a new demagogue along the same lines will slink along four years later. These ructions will not disappear just because an incredibly unpopular Democrat has been elected into office.

  6. Derek Emery says:

    I’m not convinced Western Liberalism will survive in the longer term because its based on ever rising inequality created by generations of Western politicians of all parties. Liberalism equals internationalism which amounts to increasing globalisation.

    The trickle up to the richest 1% is always increasing through new schemes involving lobbyists. As their take of the “pot” from the public has increased year by year the middle class down have been left behind.
    See http://www.oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/3660/A_hollowing_middle_class.html
    Already the richest 1% own half the world and that percentage is increasing.

    In Europe (and presumably in the US) those left behind are increasingly trending to vote for the right (nationalism).
    Amid a migrant crisis, sluggish economic growth and growing disillusionment with the European Union, right-wing parties in a growing number of European countries have made electoral gains http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/22/world/europe/europe-right-wing-austria-hungary.html

    There is zero chance of the EU economy improving as European economics is the modern day equivalent of the brainless gold standard which also created long term low growth.

    I think we have only seen the beginnings of the public moving right in voting terms as the economic failure for large numbers continues.

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