Yesterday’s Italian election saw mainstream parties rejected, and anti-establishment parties such as the 5 Star Movement and anti-immigration League make big gains. Even Silvio Berlusconi did well relative to the centre-Left’s humiliating defeat. The map of election results shows a deeply divided country. As we have seen since 2016, such divisions are becoming the norm around the world.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re university-educated, agnostic or atheist, no longer live in your hometown, have traveled to different countries, are relaxed about cultural and demographic changes, binge-watch drama series on Netflix, speak a second language and perhaps even supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Now imagine a person who is opposite in every one of those ways — and you have your typical Donald Trump supporter. “Identity politics” is becoming a pleonasm. Identity is politics and politics is identity.
In the United States, Republicans have become the party of the left behind: predominantly white voters who sense the country is changing in ways that deprive them of power and status. Democrats, a coalition of minorities, millennials and college graduates, are actively promoting those same changes. No wonder the two sides see each other as enemies.
The Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election revealed a similar cleavage in the United Kingdom: university-educated voters in the major cities voted for EU membership and switched to the Labour Party when the Conservatives embraced Brexit. Post-industrial voters in emptying mill towns and depressed former seaside resorts switched the other way around, siding with more prosperous rural and small-town Tory voters, many of whom are either in or near retirement.
It’s the same story in France: optimistic college graduates were Emmanuel Macron’s strongest supporters, while Marine Le Pen was the choice of “unhappy France”. And in Germany: the prosperous west and south voted for centrist parties; in the east, the far-Left and far-Right did better.
This rupture isn’t driven by either “economic anxiety” or “white resentment”. It’s both. Yascha Mounk of Harvard University has argued that when people see their economic prospects diminish, it becomes harder for them to find an earned social identity so they end up focusing on other identities, like nationality, race or religion.
Americans could once believe that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they could become middle class, whether they had a university degree or not. Realistically, who still actually believes that?
Beyond the promise of social mobility, the Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey has argued that the working class used to have dignity. Their work mattered. They could derive pride and a sense of purpose from working in industries that supported the whole economy. But who is going to feel that way drifting from one dead-end job to the next?
There is a racial dimension to this. To some whites, it feels like a betrayal of what they thought to be the natural order if they end up sharing the same social class with blacks or Hispanics or Eastern European labor migrants or Muslims.
Most Democrats are comfortable with the “browning” of America. Republicans are not. The European Left hails open borders and secularization as progress. Reactionaries feel the continent is losing its bearings. Populists like Trump and Le Pen tap into a toxic combination of discontent and resentment — and they know what they’re doing. If anybody is responsible for radicalizing fearful conservatives, it’s them. But liberals may have unwittingly contributed.
In France last year, the conservative candidate, François Fillon, was pilloried by the Parisian press. Laurent Joffrin of the left-wing newspaper Libération compared his “aggressive Catholicism” to political Islam. Pierre Bergé, a co-owner of Le Monde, said his supporters were little better than Nazi collaborators, all because Fillon had proposed to limit parental rights for gay couples, lower immigration and emphasize French history in schools.
Fillon warned that the likes of Joffrin and Bergé were “making themselves into electoral agents for Marine Le Pen.” He was right. By disparaging the traditional views of La France profonde, big-city liberals drove otherwise respectable center-right voters into the arms of the far right. Le Pen got twice the support her father did when he qualified for the presidential runoff in 2002.
Now think of how Hillary Clinton dismissed “half” of Trump’s supporters as “deplorable”. Was that supposed to make them see the error of their ways? Of course not. That’s how you get people to hunker down and reject social change altogether.
No matter if she was right; you don’t convince people to be more relaxed about female power or gay rights by ridiculing old-fashioned gender norms. You don’t defeat jingoists by mocking patriotism, or open up people’s eyes to racial injustice by shaming their whiteness.
As one Republican voter put it in 2016: “Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?”
Both sides are at fault. “Just flip on Fox News to see stereotypical Democrats and coastal ‘elites’ lampooned as lazy, deviant, precious or generally offensive and worthless,” writes Josh Marshall. British and Dutch nativist leaders Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders accuse “metropolitan” and “liberal” elites of betraying their people all the time.
In the end, we are all radicalized. If we keep doing this, there won’t be anyone left in the center anymore to bridge our differences.
The moment policy disagreements are seen as existential threats to identity, compromise is no longer possible. Lilliana Mason, a political scientist, has warned that, “The angrier the electorate, the less capable we are of finding common ground on policies, or even of treating our opponents like human beings.”
Finding a way back to the center
We need to find a way back to the center. That starts by taking people seriously.
A middle-class lifestyle really has become unaffordable for too many Americans. Immigration has uprooted working-class neighborhoods in Europe. Yet women do still face discrimination in the workplace and racism and transphobia are still prevalent.
College-educated, English-speaking Westerners who don’t mind moving to another city, state or country for a job — or who have the entrepreneurial spirit and social capital to freelance or start their own business — thrive in the footloose economy. If you’re a factory worker or a truck driver and your job could be shipped to Mexico or given to an Eastern European posted worker at any moment, it’s hard to see how the gig economy works for you.
If you’re a young woman, a person of color or don’t identify as straight, you probably feel it is about time society’s gender, racial and sexual norms caught up with you. If you’re a middle-aged white man who’s unsure what’s the appropriate way to talk about these issues anymore, then change can feel bewildering. Ask your grandfather.
Taking a step back, it seems to me we have two overarching challenges:
- Finding a way to give workers without a university education the chance to make a valuable contribution to society.
- Updating our social norms in such a way that everybody (or at least the vast majority of people) can accept change.
We are living with the legacy of a social compact that was built on strong trade unions, lifetime employment and health and pension benefits tied to salaried jobs. The Left needs to stop defending an outdated model. The Right must accept that it can’t dismantle the welfare state without putting something better in its place.
Sensible people can agree that losing a job shouldn’t mean losing your health care; that employers shouldn’t have to go through months of arbitration to fire somebody for cause; that entrepreneurs shouldn’t have to wade through mountains of paperwork to start a business; that the tax system shouldn’t discourage workers from switching between part-time and full-time jobs.
We need to make taxes and benefits more flexible. We could have tax-exempt family savings accounts to pay for certain health-care and educational expenses. We could have a basic income or a universal credit. Different countries will try different things and we’ll see what works best. But we need to have the same goal: to design our way of life around people: families and communities, instead of jobs. This would help restore a sense of dignity and make (other) identity issues feel less urgent.
But it won’t make them go away entirely. People won’t change their minds about bathroom laws because they can now afford to send their kids to college. That will take time and a constant willingness to empathize and explain. Gaining rights and recognition is one thing; gaining acceptance another.
And that’s not something that can be won through elections or litigation. It’s something we all need to do: by listening and recognizing that sometimes the things we do or say hurt or limit others in ways that we didn’t realize.
The meaning of democracy is not winning 50 percent plus one vote, and then vanquishing your rivals into oblivion. It’s a process. If we want to avoid splitting into parallel societies that ignore and misunderstand, each other, then we all need to make the effort.
Nick Ottens is the founder and editor of the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel.