by John Stafford
The June 23 Brexit vote, when interpreted in conjunction with other global phenomena, was a revelatory event. The vote to leave the EU was supported in every region of England, except for London, revealing a powerful demographic divide between the more urban, white collar, younger, educated, affluent, pro-immigration, and pro-globalization elite; and the more rural, blue collar, older, less educated, less affluent, anti-immigrant, anti-globalization constituency.
A number of analysts have commented on the parallels between this demographic divide in Britain and the emerging divide in the U.S., as well as other countries worldwide. For example, John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus, refers to a division between an “America A” (urban, pro-globalization) and an “America B” (rural, anti-globalization), “…that is becoming sharper by the day.”1 He notes that similar divides are appearing worldwide, referencing France, Sweden, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria as additional examples.2
The global emergence of this demographic and political divide is not, of course, coincidental, but rather structural. Over the past several decades, the process of globalization has led to pronounced economic winners and losers; these disparate outcomes align with specific demographic groups; and these demographic groups are expressing themselves politically. In Feffer’s view, Trump is the figure that has emerged to address the grievances of those disaffected by globalization: “As long as America B is left in the lurch by what passes for modernity, it will inevitably try to pull the entire country back to some imagined golden age of the past before all those ‘others’ hijacked the red, white, and blue. Donald Trump has hitched his presidential wagon to America B.”3
While I agree with Feffer’s thesis, I believe there are additional perspectives that must be considered in order to come to terms with this fascinating (and concerning) political era. Naturally, a thorough analysis of the meaning and implications of Brexit, Trump, globalization and the modern political landscape could not be achieved via a multitude of books, let alone one article. Thus, I will seek merely to elaborate on four themes that are germane to this discussion: global economic change and its inadequate political response; the importance of interpreting Trump in conjunction with Sanders; the likely long-term nature of this transformation of the political environment; and a consideration of some of the impacts for Washington State.
MASSIVE CHANGE IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY COUPLED WITH AN INADEQUATE POLITICAL RESPONSE
The process of globalization calls for increasingly open societies, with an expansion of economic activity between them: lower tariffs and higher levels of trade; increased foreign direct investment between countries; less constrained immigration policy; etc. This global endeavor has led to a number of dramatic results, including large decreases in poverty rates in the developing world and less income inequality between countries, but also to higher levels of income inequality within many countries (and especially more affluent countries like the U.S.), and fundamental shifts in the industrial composition of individual countries.4 In the U.S., globalization has contributed to the decline of the middle class, as manufacturing jobs have relocated to other nations, and the remaining manufacturing jobs have been characterized by lower wages.5 Our resultant service economy is characterized by massive income differentials between segments – e.g., exorbitant salaries in finance and paltry incomes in retailing. All of this has contributed to all-time highs in U.S. income inequality. In short, the process of globalization represents a tectonic shift in the world economy, and is driving a wide range of consequences – beneficial for some; detrimental for others.
Feffer argues that neither U.S. political party has adequately addressed these issues. The social safety net was diminished under Reagan, and both parties proceeded to further contribute to the declining economic prospects of the middle class: “…an entire group of Americans no longer could count on support from either the Republican or the Democratic Party. They lost good jobs during the economic expansion of the Clinton years, and did not benefit significantly from the tax cuts of the George W. Bush era.”6
There is another macro-trend that will further exacerbate the declining fortunes of the U.S. middle class – the technological revolution in automation and artificial intelligence. The 2013 Frey and Osborne study, cited by The Economist, estimates that 47% of American workers had jobs at high risk of potential automation. The Economist notes that this revolution is leading to: (a) a decrease in middle class jobs, many of which can be automated; and (b) an increase in both upper and lower class jobs that cannot be automated. “In effect, the workforce bifurcates into two groups doing non-routine work: highly paid, skilled workers (such as architects and senior managers) on the one hand and low-paid, unskilled workers (such as cleaners and burger-flippers) on the other.7
In sum, major transformations in the American Economy – via both globalization and technological revolution – are eviscerating prospects for the middle class. And the middle class has been further damaged by poor (primarily GOP) policy – failure to raise the national minimum wage, tax cuts for the affluent, trickle-down economics, diminishing unions and collective bargaining power, poorly designed trade deals, etc. Feffer argues that the inability of either major U.S. political party to effect policy to adequately address these issues has fueled the “America A” versus “America B” schism that now defines the modern U.S. political landscape. The nation’s political architecture has not adjusted to its changing economic architecture, creating a new demographic divide that has paved the way for the emergence of Trump.8
CONSIDERING TRUMP AND SANDERS CONCURRENTLY
There is much to commend in Feffer’s thesis. I would also argue two additional points.
First, it is too simplistic to interpret the rise of Trump via just one lens. I’ve argued previously that one of the salient factors that has enabled the rise of Trump is the immoral policy of the Republican Party on the major issues of our time –most notably income inequality and climate change.9 The decision to enact further tax cuts for the affluent at a time of all-time-highs in income inequality, and the denial of the science of climate change to obstruct necessary policy change are unconscionable. The adoption of these positions requires an untethering from the ethos of facts, science and logic that is essential for effective policy formulation. This untethering, in turn, facilitates the ascension of candidates such as Palin, Bush II, and now Trump. Feffer’s thesis focuses on the “demand side” beneath the rise of Trump (i.e., the demographic segments that support his candidacy); my thesis focuses on the “supply side” (i.e., the forces within the Republican Party that enable the emergence of unqualified candidates like Trump). I believe it is important to combine these perspectives in order to effectively grasp the rise of Trump.
Second, it is important to situate Sanders in the context of this discussion. Sanders has also promoted an array of policies designed to assist the middle class. In contrast to the toxic Trump policies of a closed society, diminished immigration, border walls and high tariff barriers, Sanders offers a progressive alternative: raising the national minimum wage to $15/hour; effecting tax increases on the affluent; moving toward free public college education; reducing the role of corporations in the financing of elections; opposing trade deals that do not adequately take into account labor and environmental standards, and that give corporations too much jurisdictional power relative to governments; etc.
Seen in this context, both Trump and Sanders have both made policy appeals to “America B,” albeit in diametrically opposed fashion. It is interesting to note that their views do converge on several policy issues, most notably the need to maintain (or expand, in the case of Sanders) Social Security and Medicare benefits to protect the middle class. Thus, Trump and Sanders may both be seen as figures trying to lead revolutions in response to a new economic and political landscape. The Seattle Times’ Jon Talton makes reference to this underlying commonality in a recent article on labor markets: “No wonder the attacks on neoliberalism by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have gained such traction.”10
A LONG TERM PROPOSITION: STRUCTURAL POLITICAL CHANGE
There is an essential observation that emanates from this prior discussion: the Trump/Sanders phenomenon is not likely to be a novelty — an aberration after which the political environment will return to normal. Neither globalization nor the technological revolution is going away. The global economic forces that have given rise to Trump and Sanders will likely continue to give rise to legacy candidates that will seek to address legitimate middle class concerns.
Trump will likely not prevail in 2016. Nate Silver, the analyst who correctly predicted the voting outcome in every state in the 2012 presidential election using analytic models, gives Trump a 20% chance of winning the general election.11 And yet analysts are concerned about the implications of the Trump legacy in the future. David Brooks writes, “But where Donald Trump fails, somebody else will succeed. And that’s where he’s substantively revolutionary.”12 Feffer elaborates: “The real nightmare, however, is likely to emerge in 2020 or thereafter, if a far more capable politician who embraces similar retrograde positions rides America B into Washington. Then it will matter little how much both liberals and conservatives rail against “stupid” and “crazy” voters. Nor will they have Donald Trump to kick around anymore. In the end, they will have no one to blame but themselves.”13
Some analysts predict that an entirely new political landscape, based on the “Society A” versus “Society B” demarcation, will come to replace the current Liberal versus Conservative paradigm. In this view, the political environment (at least in some places) is undergoing a permanent, structural transformation. The Economist asserts: “Britain, then, is now two nations. And the gap between them is not just more salient; it is expanding…Clacton [emblematic of “Society B”] and Cambridge [“Society A”] are drifting apart. Bagehot suspects this cultural divide will now define British politics. After 150 years, the left-right axis no longer provides a natural structure for debate and conflict…Where once the essential battle was capital versus labor, not it is now open versus closed. Get used to it.”14
WASHINGTON STATE AND THE ISSUE OF POLARIZATION
There is debate on whether the new political divide will increase or decrease polarization. An assessment of Sanders and Trump would argue for the former. Sanders’ critique of globalization and neoliberalism is undeniably to the left of the modern Democratic Party positions. Trump’s policies are more scattered, but certainly more extreme than the modern GOP orthodoxy on many fronts (e.g., closing society to immigration, building a border wall, erecting large tariff barriers, etc.). Thus, one can argue that the movements launched by these two individuals will tend to move each of their respective parties even further apart ideologically. On the other hand, some analysts argue that the “America A” versus “America B” divide will be so transformational as to lead to a restructuring of politics in a way that will diminish polarization. David Brooks writes: “If you don’t like our current political polarization, wait 10 years. One way or another it will go away. When the frame of debate shifts to open/closed, sometime soon, the old coalitions will smash apart and new ones will form. Politics will be unrecognizable.”15
This leads to a consideration of the political landscape in Washington State — a state with a clear red-blue divide based along geographic lines. The partisan gridlock is pronounced in Washington State. Inslee’s 2015 State Budget Proposal – calling for capital gains tax on high-income individuals as well as a cap-and-trade program to address climate change – was rejected en masse by Republicans; proposals for statewide minimum wage increases have been hotly contested; Republicans have railed against the Supreme Court’s McCleary intervention into K-12 educational financing; progress on McCleary compliance has been appallingly slow due to Republican opposition to any tax increase; there have been calls for a new approach to selecting Supreme Court justices along regional lines to ensure more conservative representation; and so on. If the “Society A” versus “Society B” ideological division manifests itself within the current party structure in the state, polarization could increase, making legislating in Washington State even more problematic.
It will be interesting to observe the political ramifications in Washington State of the Trump/Sanders phenomena via a short term perspective. What will be the margin of victory for Clinton over Trump? What will be the implications for voter turnout? What will be the down-ballot implications for state and local races as well as for ballot initiatives? And most importantly: will the House remain Democratic or become Republican and will the Senate remain Republican or become Democratic? There are, of course, critical issues.
It will also be interesting to observe the longer term evolution of the political landscape in Washington State, in the aftermath of the America A versus America B divide that is playing out nationally and internationally. How will the parties adjust to accommodate sentiment from the Sanders and Trump movements? Will there be a fundamental restructuring of state politics that reflects the new divide? The answers to these questions will take longer to answer, but will be equally critical.
It is important to understand the Trump/Sanders phenomena from a global perspective – the fundamental changes in the global economy that have not been adequately addressed politically, the Brexit vote, the emergence of the “Society A” and “Society B” divide, etc. Trump and Sanders, in philosophically opposite fashion, have built movements that acknowledge the middle class grievances that are tied to these events. Indeed, many argue that a new and enduring political landscape is emerging – one defined by “America A” and “America B”, which maintain vastly different views on the globalization process. There are differing views on whether this portends even greater political polarization, or a potential political restructuring that reduces it. There are also numerous short term (i.e., the 2016 elections) and long term potential ramifications for Washington State. There is a growing consensus that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election cycle will not prove to be an idiosyncratic aberration, but rather an election cycle that augers in structural change in the U.S. political landscape.
John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools. He is a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a corporate strategy management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College, and M.A. from St. Martin’s University and is completing an M.A. from the Harvard Extension School. He is involved with the Democratic Party in Seattle.
- John Feffer, US Elites Abandon Their Workers: Trump is Their Revenge; & You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. In Informed Comment online, June 27, 2016.
- I argue that in a broader context, Turkey (with the rural/religious oriented President Erdogan leading the country in a direction at odds with the more urban/secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk), Egypt (with the more rural/religious Muslim Brotherhood popularly elected but later overthrown by a more urban/elite based regime in the aftermath of the Arab Spring), and a number of other countries also demonstrate this important demographic/political divide(albeit with a somewhat different set of motivating factors).
- John Feffer (cited above).
- See, for example, Eric Maskin, Globalization is Increasing Inequality (The World Bank, June 23, 2014), and Recent Trends in Inequality and Globalization, Chapter Four (The IMF, 2007). It is important to note that there has been copious research on these topics, with different studies at times reaching different conclusions.
- Source: John Feffer (cited above). According to Feffer, Manufacturing Employment in the U.S. fell from 18 million to 12 million between 1990 and 2004.
- John Feffer (cited above).
- The Economist, June 25 – July 1, 2016, page 8.
- John Feffer (cited above).
- See The South Seattle Emerald, “Trump and the Immoral Policy of the Republican Party.” June 8, 2016 (Link: https://southseattleemerald.com/2016/06/08/trump-and-the-immoral-policy-of-the-republican-party/).
- Jon Talton, “Full Employment” a Misleading Term. The Seattle Times, July 3, 2016.
- Nate Silver, Donald Trump has a 20% Chance of Becoming President. FiveThirtyEight online, June 29, 2016.
- David Brooks, The Coming Political Realignment. The Seattle Times, July 3, 2016.
- John Feffer (cited above).
- The Economist, Bagehot: Brexitland Versus Londonia. July 2 – July 8, 2016, page 52.
- David Brooks (cited above).