The great political question of the moment is what to make of the rise of populism — both in the U.S. and in Europe. Few things matter more than containing and turning back this surge’s excesses, but doing so will be far more difficult if its causes go unexamined. Three books published this year made invaluable contributions to this essential endeavor.
The populist campaigns that elected Donald Trump, started the countdown to Brexit, and put far-right political parties in or close to power in much of Europe are essentially protest movements — and in every case, the white working class has been the driving force.
These movements, preoccupied with immigration, scoop up every narrow-minded xenophobe and outright racist. But there are far too few of those to explain what has happened. If bigotry were the whole story, populism couldn’t have scored so many victories. Why did millions of decent members of the white working class — hard workers, good neighbors, proud citizens — turn against centrist mainstream politics?
The answer suggested by all three books is that Trump supporters, Brexiteers and the rest didn’t so much abandon centrist mainstream politics. Centrist mainstream politics abandoned them.
In “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” Joan C. Williams takes the country’s professional-managerial elite to task for its moral complacency and failure to understand the values of the white working class. The book offers countless telling examples of this cultural blindness.
For instance, the PME, as she calls it, is either perplexed or just amused by the fact that many working-class voters support tax cuts for the rich while opposing more generous benefits for the poor. How dumb can those suckers be? Well, many of them take the view that lower taxes are good for the economy, and that what’s good for the economy is good for jobs. They don’t resent rich people if they think their wealth has been earned — and they do resent paying benefits, financed out of their taxes, to people who won’t work. None of that is dumb.
There’s a widening empathy gap, no doubt, between the professional-managerial elite and the white working class in both the U.S. and Europe, but Williams is right that the telling deficit is not in empathy but in respect. The elite is capable of empathizing with the working class — generously allowing that its pathologies are understandable under the circumstances — but it rarely any longer grants respect. The best the mainstream center-left can do is swallow its disgust now and then, and offer condescension instead. To many working-class voters, that’s worse. Hence Trump.
David Goodhart’s “The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics” is mainly concerned with Europe and especially Brexit. Instead of Williams’s professional-managerial elite and white working class, he looks at what he calls Anywheres and Somewheres, but the categories are closely aligned. Anywheres are well educated and economically mobile, with “portable, achieved identities.” Somewheres “are more rooted, and usually have ‘ascribed’ identities — Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife — based on group belonging and particular places.”
Educated and affluent people, Goodhart observes, used to be more nationalistic than the rest, because they had a bigger stake in the country. Now it’s the reverse. “The richer and better educated you are, the more global your attachments are likely to be.” So Anywheres feel less solidarity with Somewheres, their fellow citizens. In general, the Anywhere worldview has little time for citizenship. It’s universalist and post-nationalist — not much interested in borders. Mass immigration is an unalloyed blessing: The more the better. And you think it’s a problem that the European Court of Justice is the U.K.’s highest legal authority? I mean, did you go to university?
The hardening of class and cultural divisions between the professional-managerial Anywheres and the working-class Somewheres is stressing democratic politics in much of the West. What’s the answer? Williams urges the elite to think harder and more open-mindedly about the values of decent working-class people. Goodhart calls for a new political settlement between Anywheres and Somewheres — a liberal agenda, but one that’s cautious on immigration and recognizes the centrality of citizenship.
Both prescriptions are consistent with the advice of the third book, Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Lilla — like Williams and Goodhart, a progressive — emphasizes the role that identity politics has played in undermining support for the liberal project. First, he says, the current preoccupation with race, gender and sexuality has encouraged a style of politics that is less concerned with seizing power than with protesting it. Second, he argues that identity politics, as practiced lately, is apt to divide rather than unite people.
This needn’t be so. And historically, it hasn’t been. The civil-rights movement was an identity-politics project — but it couched its demand for justice in terms of rights the U.S. had promised to all its people. This approach presupposed the goal of a country united in justice, and that a demand expressed that way would have moral purchase. The current mode of identity politics often suggests that no such conversation is even possible. So what if we are fellow citizens? If I’m straight, I can have nothing useful to say about gay rights. If I’m white, I can have nothing useful to say about race. My role, it seems, is to shut up and feel ashamed.
The protest vote that elected Trump, ejected Britain from Europe and advanced far-right politics in Germany and elsewhere was reckless and unwise. But these studies show why it should have come as no surprise.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.