By Tracy Shildrick
For many the vote by the UK to leave the EU was seriously unsettling, if not shocking and even devastating. The election of Donald Trump in the United States was an even bigger international earthquake. Many, included me, are still reeling, trying to process the magnitude of these two important votes and the possible ramifications, for our individual lives, for our families but also importantly, for our countries and the wider world.
Two key and related issues seem to have come to the fore in both votes.
Firstly, many have argued both results were a protest vote by those who feel locked out of the benefits of capitalism. This is nowhere near the whole or even the main story but it certainly appears to have played a not insignificant role in both the US and the UK votes. In both countries many people have seen their communities and the possibility for decent working lives decimated by long-term deindustrialisation and the cementing of long-term poverty and declining employment opportunities. These injustices have been born with little complaint (for the most part) and this has allowed politicians – both in the UK and the US – to largely ignore and in many cases deliberately worsen people’s plight. But these injustices have not passed by unnoticed by those worst affected (even if the political elite have been seduced into believing that they had). In my own research carried out in deprived neighbourhoods in Teesside and in Glasgow, the anger over long-term industrial decline was writ large on our interviewees’ minds. That, at least in part, some of this quite justified and appropriate anger should manifest itself in a vote to leave the EU or for Donald Trump seems unsurprising.
The second key issue that has emerged as important is the apparent disconnect between the ‘ordinary’ voters and the so-called establishment. Trump presented himself as having more in common with ordinary people, than the other members of the US establishment. Trump’s casual sexism and racism along with his extraordinary abilities in everyday buffoonery may have added some weight to his caricature of ordinariness. What was unacceptable and abhorrent behaviour to many must have been if not endearing, at least excusable or acceptable, to many others. Of course Trump was always a member of the dominant economic elite in the US. The imposing and ostentatious Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in Manhattan is a much symbolic as real in terms of the power it embodies. Trump’s transition to the US establishment in full is now all but guaranteed. His passage conveniently eased – however begrudgingly – by the political elite who once so opposed him. Elites like Trump are generally pretty skilled at repositioning themselves, and moving away from their bluff and bluster and distancing themselves from their unrealistic promises and outright lies. The same happened in the UK when the leading Brexiteers, virtually from the very moment the vote was called, quickly back- peddled from their empty promises. Such is the lack of responsibility and accountability in our current politics these important moments of political incompetence, or deliberate deception, pass by with little comment let alone any serious repercussions.
There has long been an, increasingly misplaced, sense of superiority in how both the US and the UK like to present and position themselves. Both counties have exploited their respective political and economic histories to retain a political arrogance that seems increasingly misplaced and out dated. Until very recently the interest in the EU from the UK government was negligible. Our response to the refugee crisis that unfolded in 2015 belies our general distance and disinterest in Europe and the wider world. In August of that year (before the story of the migrant and refugee crisis broke in the UK media) I spent a week on the island of Kos. Our attempts to take a holiday jarred horribly with the scenes of human tragedy and suffering we saw and the memories will stay with me forever. The people of Kos were gracious in their quitet tolerance, just as the refugees were quietly accepting of their abhorrent circumstances. Yet, not for the first time, our own government largely chose to walk by on the other side belying both a sense of superiority and a disinterest in the world beyond our own shores. It was exactly our lack of practical engagement with the European Union that meant that few were able to put forward credible and convincing arguments as to why we should remain. It is little wonder that at least some in the EU will not be overly sorry – and maybe even happy – to see us go.
Domestic politics are very important, of course, but they do not take place in a vacuum. The longer-term effects of the election of Donald Trump remain to be seen. Wealthy nations like the UK and US have important roles to play in a complex and troubled world but both currently often remain largely marginal to the bigger issues, at best engaging half heartedly and at worst, denying, ignoring or simply adding to the problems. Political arrogance might prevent both from taking a different, more inclusive and more constructive position. And of course, only time will tell whether the world will become more or less tolerant of parochial political egos. For all of our sakes, let’s hope it’s the latter.
Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. She tweets at @TracyShildrick.
Originally posted 23rd November 2016