Leonard Quart: Troubling populism


NEW YORK >> A great many reasons have been offered to explain the United Kingdom's referendum vote to leave the European Union). Some have written that the most immediate cause was Prime Minister David Cameron's foolish gamble to hold the referendum to appease his political opponents within the Tory Party.

But other writers emphasized the role of class resentment and anger, as working class voters in the north of England Labor heartlands disproportionately voted for Brexit. It's true also that the older and more rural voters chose Brexit, while cosmopolitan, multicultural cities like London, Brighton, and Manchester solidly backed remaining in the E.U.

Still, it's class that is the key. Many white working class voters expressed anger towards and frustration with the now former prime minister's austerity policy and with the affects of globalization. They also conveyed resentment for both Brussels's global bureaucratic elite and the British metropolitan elite, who they saw as uncaring about their needs and alien to their way of life.

But if any single factor determined the Leave vote, it is that a large section of the white working class rejected multiculturalism for xenophobia, for a return to a Little England whose time has passed. Those describing themselves as Asian, black or Muslims overwhelmingly voted to stay in the E.U. White working class voters felt threatened by immigrants taking their jobs. In England, immigration has not meant Syrians or Afghans as close to 50 percent of immigrants are from Europe, many of them from Poland, and UK Independence Party and Tory Euro-skeptics manipulated those fears, both economic and cultural. It led to a victory that will most likely bring economic and political chaos in its wake.

Though Great Britain's class system has become less rigid over the last few decades, it remains a society where consciousness of one's place in the class hierarchy and one's class origins still plays a significant role. Great Britain's political leaders are still mainly selected via elitism rather than talent, with nearly one-third of Parliament coming from public (private) schools.

In contrast, the U.S. is driven by an American dream of equal opportunity and infinite mobility. However, Donald Trump becoming the Republican presidential candidate signified that sections of the white working class that had voted Republican for a number of years were angry with the party elite's policies. Resentment of immigration, Muslims, free trade, and growing economic inequality and loss of social status fueled their support for the swaggering millionaire who knows just how to arouse them with his populist speeches and tweets.

Trump's supporters admire his macho authoritarianism, his simplistic certitudes, and his supposed gift for deal-making that will magically bring them jobs. And they find his overt appeals to racism and nativism an antidote to what they see as the political correctness that dominates our politics. To them this serial liar is a rarity — a bluntly honest politician, and a millionaire who's garish, nouveau riche style offers a life model to aspire to.

Though polls may show that Trump does better with poorer, less educated voters, and that he has gained support in the Rust Belt with workers whose factory jobs have disappeared, his support is more varied than that. Pollster Nate Silver has demonstrated that the average family income of the typical Trump voter is $72,000. That is not wealthy, but it's a middle class income in parts of the country where Trump garners his most passionate support.

Like Brexit's white working class backers, though without the English workers' class consciousness, and socialist leanings, it's both economics and ethnic/racial fears and prejudices that are the key to their support of Trump.

A recent book "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" by Nancy Isenberg (Viking), argues that despite the myth of the U.S as a classless society, we have been a class-based one since long before we had become a nation. Isenberg reinterprets history through the prism of class divisions among the country's white population. Viewing colonial America as "a place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets," Isenberg traces the history of the rural poor through Andrew Jackson, who emerged as "the political heir and hero to the squatter and the cracker"), to popular TV shows in the '60s like "Gomer Pyle" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," programs that depicted the rural poor as comic buffoons without offering them a scintilla of respect.

Isenberg's detailed history of the class divide, though in some ways overstated, powerfully reinforces the notion that our supposed classlessness is a fantasy. Still, the existence of class privilege does not mean that the lower classes develop a political voice.

People in power have throughout our history been able to direct the anger of the white working class and poor, as Trump and the Republicans have done, by turning immigrants, blacks, and other outsiders into scapegoats. I wish sometimes I could shout that old 60s slogan again — "power to the people" — but in this election I would be frightened of the results.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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