Collidoscope: Of the American Right, Brexit and Peace

This week’s selection from the world of social science research: a special edition on "surprising" election results.

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here.  If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

Given what’s happened in the last week (and the months before), I’ve decided to do a thematised special edition on some “surprising” election results – and there’s been no dearth of them this year.


Polarised politics in the US and understanding the American right

File photo of a sign supporting US President-elect Donald Trump in St. Amant, Louisiana. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

File photo of a sign supporting US President-elect Donald Trump in St. Amant, Louisiana. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

Donald Trump’s election victory left many, not only in the US but across the world, shocked and confused. During and previous to the course of his campaign, Trump said enough racist, sexist and just plain unfactual things to fill a book. Yet, the vote swung in his favour and a distinct section of people, who Trump himself called the ‘silent majority’, saw him as the better candidate.

This election campaign was also seen by many analysts as the most polarised, personal and negative  in recent history. For many, including the polls and commentators, a Trump win was very hard to imagine.

How has the US got to a place where there are two sides who are finding it hard to find any common ground at all?

I read a book almost immediately before the elections that tries to answer just that question. I recommend it to anyone trying to understand the polarised political atmosphere in the US, and also in the rest of the world. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, published in August this year, is a fascinating and readable account of the renowned sociologist trying to understand what she calls the ‘great paradox’. Her aim was to trying and understand the emotions that drove the feelings of the American right – in particular the supporters of the Tea Party. Her first and foremost objective, however, is to find a connection – something that comes easier than expected. People welcome her into their homes and tell her all about their lives and what has shaped their views, suggesting that no matter the amount of difference, dialogue and finding common ground is possible.

Hochschild’s research is based in Louisiana, a state she feels epitomises the great paradox. It is one of the poorest states in the country and badly affected by environmental pollution – costing peoples both lives and livelihoods – caused by barely regulated oil and shale industries. State cutbacks have made things worse. And yet, people continue to vote for candidates who want to reduce taxes, do away with the Environmental Protection Act and let the corporates continue with less and less regulation. What explains this?

Economic self-interest is a part of this, Hochschild writes after repeated visits to Tea Party supporters over a six-year period, but it is not the most prominent. Industries are trusted while the government is not – companies are employers and creators of livelihood while the state ignores people, doesn’t care about their problems and only collects taxes. Pollution is also seen as a part of life, necessary for progress. She also finds, in the time she spent with 60-odd people, the importance placed on hard work and being self-reliant, in contrast to those who choose to live on government “handouts”. The church is an important part of political discourse – and for many, while life on Earth is already headed a certain way, they want to be on the right side of God after. This means voting for candidates who share a certain value system: are pro-life, for instance.

And growing polarisation only adds to the distance the Tea Party supporters she spoke to feel from the rest of the political landscape. For most of them, Fox News is the only source of news because it is the only channel, they feel, that treats people like them with respect. It guides them on how to feel and what to think, Hochschild notes, rather than referring to them as “rednecks”, “racists” and “sexists”. “We’re not allowed to use the N-word anymore,” notes one of the people she talks to. “How come it’s okay to call us rednecks on primetime TV?”

But what comes across most starkly for Hochschild is the frustration from the failed ideals of the “American Dream”. And this is what she calls their “deep story” – something everyone has in some way or the other, though of course these stories differ widely. She describes this story in detail to reflect how the politics of these mostly-white communities is shaped. I’ll quote the short version she gave in an interview to Democracy Now!:

“What is a deep story? It’s a story that feels true to you. You take the facts out, you take judgment out. It’s as felt.

You’re on a—waiting in line for something you really want at the end: the American dream. You feel a sense of great deserving. You’ve worked very hard. A lot of these guys were plant workers, pipefitters in the petrochemical—you know, it’s tough work. So you’ve worked really hard. And the line isn’t moving. It’s like a pilgrimage up, up to the top. It’s not moving.

Then you see some people cut in line. Well, who were they? They are affirmative action women who would go for formerly all-men’s jobs, or affirmative action blacks who have been sponsored and now have access to formerly all-white jobs. It’s immigrants. It’s refugees. And from—as felt, the line’s moving back.

Then they see Barack Hussein Obama, who should impartially be monitoring the line, wave to the line cutters. And then you think, “Oh, he’s their president and not mine. And, in fact, he’s a line cutter. How did he get to Harvard? How did he get to Columbia? Where did he get the money? His mom was a single mom. Wait a minute.”

And then they begin to feel like strangers in their own land. They feel like the government has become a giant marginalization machine. It’s not theirs. In fact, it’s putting them back. And then someone in front of the line turns around and says, “Oh, you redneck,” you know. And that feels insult to injury. It’s just the tipping point at which they feel not only estranged—I mean, demographically they’re getting smaller. They feel like they’re religious in an increasingly secular culture. Their attitudes are denigrated, and so they’re culturally denigrated. And then the economy begins to shake. And then they feel, “I need another leader”.”

Hochschild’s deep story resonated with her new friends (some of them really friends, she says). And while reading it, I could see that it can make sense in so much of the world today. Does it answer all the questions we have about how we got here or tell us where to go now? No. But for me, the main takeaway was that there is still space for conversation and there is much to be said for trying to understand each other, difficult though it seems. It also raised another question for me – how would someone from the other side, say one of the people Hochschild interviewed, view her deep story? Or the one of the thousands of Americans devastated by Trump’s victory?


Brexit and its consequences

People protesting in London after the results of the Brexit vote came in. Credit: Reuters

People protesting in London after the results of the Brexit vote came in. Credit: Reuters

Brexit was another vote that polls and analysts were wrong about this year. What led to this vote and what does it mean for the UK and the rest of the world?

That’s what Ann Pettifor is looking at in her article in Globalizations.

What Brexit was, Pettifor argues, was the people of the UK rejecting a flawed, dominant narrative of economics. In the decades preceding the vote, the treasury and the Bank of England made a series of regulatory changes that “served the interests of financial markets at the expense of UK industry”, Pettifor writes. While finance was consistently strengthened, labour and industry were either ignored or weakened. She details the changes she is referring to in her paper – from loan regulations to the release of exchange and credit controls to making financial and insurance services VAT exempt. Investment in the financial sector grew massively between the late 1970s and the late 80s, and continued to grow after. By the financial crisis of 2007-08, the UK’s financial sector (relative to its economy) was bigger than any other G7 country, Pettifor cites Davies and Walsh as saying.

And through this time, industry in the UK has declined faster than any of its competitors – something nobody seemed to be paying attention to. What did this result in?

“Re-regulating the British economy in favour of finance and enriching the 1% while shrinking labour’s share of income resulted in rising inequality and lit a still smouldering fuse of popular resentment. Resentment made most explicit in the Brexit vote.”

Even the Queen said after the financial crisis that the nation’s economists did not seem to know what they were doing – it is no surprise that a section of the population felt the same way. And, Pettifor argues, they felt personally wronged by this failure of economists, facing “repressed wages, diminished public services, rising housing costs and shortages, and insecure employment”. To add fuel to the resentment, the profession has not even come out to admit its wrongdoing and the effect it had on people’s lives. Nor did it offer an immediate alternative.

So when these same experts, or experts viewed not with similar suspicion in the UK, asked people to vote ‘Remain’, why should we be surprised that the public was not convinced, Pettifor asks. The Remain campaign focused on the economic importance of staying in the EU, while the Leave campaign covered a range of issues (a lot of which were deemed as severely racist and islamophobic). Economic importance as given by the experts was no longer to be trusted, Pettifor argues, while the other campaign gave people something they could relate to.

Was that something similar to the deep story constructed by Hochschild? I’m inclined to think it might have been. There are many similarities in the case Pettifor puts forward – of a public that feels wronged by and suspicious of the government, while also feeling that society is leaving them behind to cater to others (that also explains the anti-immigration stand of most Brexiteers).

Brexit happened. What does the future of the UK look like, not only after leaving the EU but after the polarised campaign pre-Brexit and the widespread protests after? Pettifor doesn’t have a complete answer, but maybe it is unfair to expect one, given that she’s focussing on the economics. Here’s what she does say:

“I voted to Remain. I do not believe that Brexit is a wise decision. I fear its consequences in energizing the Far Right both in Britain but also across both Europe and the US. I fear the break-up of the UK, and the political dominance of a small tribe of conservative ‘Little Englanders’. They will diminish this country’s great social, economic, and political achievements.

But Britain’s ‘Brexit’ vote is but the latest manifestation of popular dissatisfaction with the economists’ globalized, marketized society. And if there should be any doubt that these movements are both nationalistic and protectionist, consider Donald Trump’s campaign threat to build a wall between Mexico and the US, to deter migrants, ‘gangs, drug traffickers and cartels’ (Trump website). Trump’s plan for financing the wall involves the introduction of controls over the movement of capital. If the Mexican government resisted, argued Trump, the US would cut off the billions of dollars that undocumented Mexican immigrants working in the US send to their families annually.

… Brexit has endangered British society in yet another way, but the vote was, I contend, a form of social self-protection from self-regulating markets in money, trade, and labour.”


Behind the ‘No’ in Colombia’s plebiscite for peace

Indigenous Colombians rally for an imminent resolution to the nation’s peace agreement during a march with white flowers in Bogota, Colombia, October 12, 2016. Credit: Reuter/John Vizcaino/Files

Indigenous Colombians rally for an imminent resolution to the nation’s peace agreement during a march with white flowers in Bogota, Colombia, October 12, 2016. Credit: Reuter/John Vizcaino/Files

On October 2, the Colombian public voted on the peace accord agreed to between the government and armed rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – a deal meant to put an end to 52 years of war in the country. Polls had suggested a landslide ‘Yes’, which many of argued even dissuaded people of the need to vote. But the result came in and another election shock was in the making: with a very, very close margin and extremely low voter turnout, the ‘Nos’ won.

The ‘No’, however, was not a ‘No’ to peace, as many were quick to ascertain after the vote. It was a rejection of the particular deal, seen as “letting off” the rebels too easily. Former President Alvaro Uribe, leader of the ‘No’ campaign, then had a stronger hand when the parties went back to the drawing board. Over the last weekend, the government announced that they had reached a “new final deal”. You can read about the changes that were made here.

Reports of the shock this result caused across the country poured in. Weekly protest marches in Bogota remembered all the innocent people who had lost their lives in the war and the suffering of those around them. Even after the vote, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was given the Nobel Peace Prize, which some have argued was equally deserved by FARC leader Timochenko.

But what led to this vote and how could it have been better predicted?

That’s what Gabriel Velez and Atticus Ballesteros are attempting to answer in their article in Colombia Reports. For them, the ‘No’ vote gave a lesson in political participation. Only a sixth of the country voted against the accord, yet this was the vote that counted. It’s difficult to say, they argue, whether those who didn’t vote did so because of apathy or as a rejection of both options.

Why is participation important to encourage? If votes like this continue, the authors argue, democracy will lose its meaning for more and more people: “elections such as these, where a minority of the electorate wins with only a small plurality of the vote, are a contributing factor for why people think their vote doesn’t matter “.

One way to combat this, they have found, is to get the youth involved politically, make them feel like their sentiments are also valuable. In a poll they conducted amongst the youth, the ‘Yes’ vote won only marginally, unlike all the other polls that discounted the youth and the ‘Yes’ campaign a landslide win.

“Had youth been consulted in any significant manner on the issue, their opinions may have contributed to more accurate predictions of the final election, and could have swayed voters towards a “Yes” vote.”

While you may call their analysis simplistic (it does focus on a very specific segment of the population when finding an answer), that doesn’t take away from the importance of it. Because if democracy is the ideal, then doesn’t that ideal mean listening to all the voices around and trying to understand them, trying to bring them into the political process as well? Maybe if there is more of that in the future, there are less election “surprises” coming our way.

That’s it for this week! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing to this weekly newsletter.

If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]

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