By Nicholas Wright, Partner & Campaigns Director, Luntz Global
There are some remarkable confluences of public opinion across the Pond right now. Taking a well-upholstered seat at the Republican National Convention, you can almost smell the shock of a party preparing to anoint the billionaire businessman Donald Trump their nominee. As a pollster, you also cannot help but be struck by the similarities with the atmospherics surrounding the Brexit vote in Britain less than a month ago. Speaker after speaker rages against ‘the elites’ who have ‘run their country into the ground’ and how, ‘it is time to take it back’ – echoing Vote Leave’s smart slogan, ‘take control’ – which the punditocracy called negative, while missing its sense of agency and proactivity. The similarity in sentiment is striking.
When we polled for Time magazine, a week before the Brexit vote (suggesting a two point win for ‘Leave’) we found an astonishing 75% agreement with the statement that “Britain’s political parties, political institutions, and corporate powers are totally out-of –touch.” Similarly 59% agreed that “we shouldn’t trust the elites who want to remain, because they’ve been wrong in the past and are wrong now… They failed to predict the economic crash, presided over economic and migration crises”. And fully seven out of ten agreed that “there is not much difference between the main parties… they’re all about protecting their own power”. Switch out the ‘Britain’ there and you have a set of sentiments that would set American heads nodding.
The pitchforks are out. The rage is off the scale. The establishment is the enemy… just try not to ponder the irony of hearing that at a gathering of the well-heeled Floridian Republican delegation. Aware that disunity is death the Grand Old Party (GOP) is giving it their smiling, all-American best but the sense of disbelief and disappointment in their party’s nominee this year is palpable. At delegate meeting after meeting around the convention, speaker after speaker seemed reluctant to mention Mr Trump by name.
The truth is that many of the tropes which have sustained successful governments on both sides of the Atlantic for four decades – free trade, low taxation, internationalism and small government – are being jettisoned by their voters. Ideas, and people, who only a few years ago were considered ‘fruitloops and nut jobs’ are suddenly en vogue. The contours of public opinion are shifting… and mainstream political parties have been caught on the hop.
For the past century, the principle nexus of political division (and remember, the essence of politics is division) has been the economy (stupid). ‘Left’ and ‘right’. Just think: forty years ago Britain’s Labour government levied a top rate of income tax of 83%, before Margaret Thatcher’s Tory administration gradually halved it, and cut the basic rate to 25%. When Labour came back in with Tony Blair, they accepted these changes while rectifying the perceived under-investment of the Conservative years – increasing spending on education and health (spending which David Cameron’s government then in-turn, ‘ring-fenced’). The parties converged in what Blair himself dubbed, ‘the radical centre’.
This was the consensus underpinning the years from Reagan and Thatcher to Obama and Cameron. With a mixture of taxation at around 35-40% of GDP and free markets underpinning a commitment to government provision of quality healthcare and education, a similar formula was visible across much of the West. And for all the sound and fury at election time, mainstream parties and presidents who strayed too far from this formula rapidly found themselves booted out of office. That’s all changing, and fast. Change is most certainly, on the way.
So what are the emerging characteristics of ‘the new normal’? In place of ‘left’ and ‘right’, in focus groups today voters themselves use the language of ‘masses versus elites’. This is the significance of Theresa May’s language on becoming prime minister – talking about ‘social justice’, ‘not just the privileged few’ – not simple political cross-dressing but rather a whole new political lexicon. The new prime minister was reaching out to perhaps half the country who feel outright betrayal at the political classes. That’s not too strong a word for it. With such voter volatility, we must expect the unexpected.
The frustrated American voters turning to Donald Trump have remarkable similarities to those who voted for Brexit – both Trump and Brexit supporters scoring strongly among less well-educated whites, particularly men and the over-50s. While the wellspring of the new nationalism is economic, it finds its truest expression in nativism and national interest over internationalism. Focus group participants tell us to ‘stop selling off the farm’, ‘take our country back’ and ‘start remembering who you’re supposed to be working for’. Big is bad – small and local are good. Above all, put our people first – and to hell with globalisation. Immigration tops the list of these voters’ concerns, but note that this is not a racist reaction to immigration; some of the most cosmopolitan area of Britain – most notably London – were strongest for ‘Remain’. It goes much, much deeper than that.
Meanwhile experienced Republican strategists baking in the Ohio heat this week seem to view The Donald as a slightly barking, distant uncle. Candidate Trump trails Hillary Clinton by double digits among millennials; 30 points among Hispanic voters, and 51 points among blacks. Fully 72% of women hold a negative opinion of him. Basic maths tells them that he would be thrashed in an election held today – there simply aren’t enough angry old white men in the states. So it has become axiomatic among the commentariat that ‘Donald Trump breaks every rule of modern politics’. And so, ‘he has to lose’. This isn’t true – it’s simply that the truisms they have clung to are changing beneath their feet. Trump isn’t the cause of this new trend, he is merely the American symptom of it.
And he may be an especially unpalatable manifestation of this current, but he will not be the last. Politics has changed, for good.