Trump victory reminds us why we must look at politics and inequalities

10 November 2016

Donald Trump’s election as the next US president appeared to shock the world, and a large proportion of the US electorate. Since poverty and growing socio-economic inequalities seem to be at the heart of a disenfranchised and alienated electorate’s decision to elect or support right wing politicians, isn’t it time those of us working in development pay more attention to pure politics?  

Election billboard for Donald Trump for the American presidential election in 2016. Credit: Daniel Oines, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Politics have always been slightly outside our comfort zone in development studies. We look at the 'politics of …' but not actually politics itself. Not at least in terms of the electorate, political parties and voting behaviour. Despite claims of inter-disciplinarity, we seem to have left this area largely to political scientists. But it is time to change this because Trump’s victory and Brexit are inextricably linked to poverty and growing inequalities. And there are more elections to come.

Brexit shocked the world, though I suspect not the 52% that actually voted to leave the EU. Trump's victory is possibly an even bigger, more unbelievable shock. Again, I suspect it isn’t one to the majority of Americans who went out and actually voted for him. Our best explanations for these political upsets seem to focus on a polarised electorate. And that, to me, is a development issue.

Economic difficulties and rising poverty not only a developing world problem

While developed countries seem to be emerging from the aftermath of the global recession of 2008, not all populations within these countries are being pulled out of it equally. And many of those that are not, are turning to leaders who encourage them to place the blame on the 'other' – foreign immigrants, other religious or ethnic groups, other regions or richer, urban elites.

New York Times article published after Brexit quoted a voter from Sunderland, in the north of England saying, “We’re segregated from the south [of England], and the north is a barren wasteland. It’s us against them.” Since the closure of its shipyards in the 1980s (ironically, by a right-leaning government), Sunderland has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. 

A recent Economist article on Canada showed that in 2007 a man in the lowest income quintile in Canada died about 5 years earlier than a man in the highest quintile. In the USA, this gap was 12 years, an indication that Canadians were faring better than Americans in terms of quality of life. A few years later, Canada elected Trudeau, America elected Trump.

Some sense of security can be restored to a suffering population through slogans such as 'Britain first', 'Austria first', 'Make America great again', 'Take back control' – evocative phrases based on notions of identity that have all been extremely effective in political rallying cries over the last one year.  

As insecurity increases, leaders who promise to restrict rapid and disquieting social change, restrict immigration, impose more order by regulating 'other' communities, become attractive.

Marking out Mexicans and Muslims for discriminatory policy or being sexist did not cost Trump the election. In fact, forty per cent of women backed Trump over Clinton.

Similarly, arguments for Brexit were entirely based around jobs being taken by immigrants and scarce resources split across too many people. In India, Modi's campaign spoke of a fear of the growing Muslim population, and Hofer in Austria campaigned on limiting benefits for immigrants and directing available jobs to Austrians.

The politics of hate and fear draws on increasing economic and social polarisation

The politics of hate and fear draws on increasing economic and social polarisation – in other words, rising socio-economic inequality. There are voters everywhere that believe their jobs, lifestyles, communities, or regions are under threat. It seems that it is this widening gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" which is polarising the electorate in this way. 

Given this, how can a polarised electorate be anything other than a development issue?

But much of this is plain conjecture. And that exactly is the problem. We do not have enough evidence to convincingly construct the causal pathway that runs from the recession and right wing policies focused on bailouts and austerity to deal with its outcome, to rising inequality, growing socio-economic polarisation, and the growing support for isolationist, separatist, hate-mongering politics.

Analyses in the initial hours after Trump’s victory yesterday pointed either to the elites being unaware of what poorer and rural voters feel and therefore being surprised by the victory; or to the fact that many poorer and minority voters had voted for Clinton, while richer and white voters had voted for Trump. These analyses contradict one another, largely because we have not yet built better, evidence-informed links between socio-economic changes of the last eight years since the financial crash and voting behaviour. Instead, we use anecdata in the immediate aftermath of each political upset, and then move right back to studying development patterns and politics separately. 

The way forward is a central focus on inequality in all that we do, of course, but the answer lies once again in looking carefully at how political actors are behaving and connecting with different types of voters, and why.

The fact that these polarised, unequal electorates that we are talking about are in countries that are rich by any standard, and have the money available to change things around, means that inequality, and the economic hardships and shrinking social safety nets of large parts of their populations reflect particular policy choices of political actors.

We need redistributive policies that deliver to the most marginalised, the most affected, the most insecure, but why isn’t such politics happening?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that since the recession, the right has moved ever rightwards, rather than being forced to change course, and the left has been nudged to the centre to make it more palatable, and therefore lukewarm and largely irrelevant.

Could Bernie Sanders have drawn the votes that Clinton lost to Trump? Can UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn draw the voters who did not really believe in Brexit but voted to leave to protest against disenfranchisement caused by current policies?

These are important questions that will play out again in France next year, and they draw centrally on the expertise of those that study development and public policy. It is time development studies stopped dealing with a watered down version of what politics really is, and why polarised electorates are being created with such devastating effect, to provide relevant and evidence-informed political narratives that can reshape redistributive politics.

Image: Billboard promoting Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Credit: Daniel Oines - Flickr.

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