Joe Biden’s victory in the American presidential election, like every one before it, closes a chapter in his country’s history. Donald Trump may have been the leader of the free world, but he won’t be for much longer, so maybe we can all move on.
That will be the view of observers who see the ‘populism’ of the last few years as a scare rather than a prognosis. Any election that put a deplorable into office or mandated an unwelcome policy change was an unfortunate but temporary setback, soon to be reversed by demographic change as old bigots die and the country becomes less white.
This view is often paired with a hypothesis of false consciousness. Minorities, women and poor people who voted for Trump, Brexit or another ‘populist’ scheme are assumed to be misled or deluded about where their interests lie. Their lives would be better had the opposite candidate or proposition prevailed, or so the argument goes.
Making this case in the wake of the American elections is Seth Harris, deputy labour secretary for the United States during Barack Obama’s presidency. Speaking on Matt Forde’s Political Party Podcast, he said:
We have failed to communicate with those folks in a way that makes sense for them, and we’ve left them – with all due respect to [Trump] – a flim-flam man. We’ve let a conman communicate with them and sell to them, rather than us go to them and making our case.
To be fair to Harris, he acknowledges that public institutions failed many Trump voters, attributing similar motivations in British voters’ departure from New Labour and decision to back Brexit. I’d guess he would see the pattern in other countries too:
They feel very strongly that the people that pretended to be their friends actually ended up screwing them with a whole bunch of public policies that didn’t have to be what they were. That maybe begins with globalisation and trade, but [also] tax policy, urban policy, transportation policy, jobs – you could go down a long list of failures.
Rather than responding to these complaints over policy direction, Harris notes that his centre-left political tribe mocked the people who felt left behind, as well as their representative Trump. And it’s hard to persuade someone while belittling them.
These remarks tally with Biden’s major post election theme of unity. “I will work to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify. I won’t see red states and blue states, I will always see the United States,” he said, implicitly rebuking Trump’s divisive reign.
Biden, like much of the left, will nonetheless be disappointed by how many of his countrymen voted for Trump and congressional Republicans. Such disappointment with voters has been a recurring complaint for self-styled moderates in recent years, and for progressives facing rejection at the ballot box.
Both left and right think that their programmes are for the best, but the folly of humanity is more baked in for conservatives. Humans doing something ill-advised is not just on the agenda for ideological conservatives: it is the agenda.
Having flattered the right, I should add that they are a deal bendier on principle than their opponents. The longevity of the British Conservative party, sometimes touted as the most successful vote-getting body in history, can partly be attributed to their appetite for reinvention. What they really stand for beyond winning elections is, of course, a question.
Yet whatever the Twister skills of left or right, both must contend with the fact that “politics is division by definition”, as Christopher Hitchens wrote. Centrists from both branches must build enough consensus to gain a governing majority, but to say that you can govern in everyone’s interests all the time is misguided or dishonest.
The question vexing liberal democracies right now is whether one side can lose without it all kicking off. For many Trump advocates this election will lead to policies that will move their country in a direction they don’t want – perhaps irreversibly. Any anger at this is reasonable on its own terms.
For Harris this is all a misunderstanding borne of miscommunication. But the alternative interpretation is that the deplorables correctly understood the mockery and hatred of their politics and lives as heartfelt. As a messaging strategy this is success of a kind.