It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!

Fear of losing power and status created the alliances that voted for Brexit, European populism and Donald Trump.

A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18, 2016
A Donald Trump yard sign in Taylorville, Illinois, June 18, 2016 (Jason Matthews)

The votes for Brexit, European populism and Donald Trump weren’t working-class revolts.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer have argued that mostly-white elites are drawn to the “economic anxiety” thesis because it absolves them of responsibility for more intractable problems, like racism, xenophobia and self-delusions about both.

If nativists are motivated by stagnating wages, then there are policy solutions for bringing them back into the mainstream.

But what if their grievances aren’t so concrete?

Not the left behind

There is economic anxiety at the bottom of the income scale. But that’s not where you find many far-right voters.

In a 2016 poll, four out of five supporters of Germany’s nativist Alternative party described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good”.

During the Republican primaries, the median household income of a Trump supporter was estimated to be around $72,000, well above the national median of $56,000.

According to Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell, the average Trump voter in the general election had a mean household income of almost $82,000.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, got high support from low-income voters. But not enough voted to make up the difference in battleground states.

Charles Kenny concludes: “Nativist pandering isn’t aimed at the left-behind and most of those left behind know it won’t help them.”

Fears

Ben Casselman has argued that it’s not hardship but anxiety that motivates support for populists: the fear of losing a job, of missing a mortgage payment, of not being able to afford a college education for your children.

Anxiety is difficult to measure, but the theory that fear of losing power and status makes people susceptible to radical ideologies isn’t new.

The appeal of Nazism in Weimar Germany, McCarthyism in postwar America and Poujadism in postwar France have all been explained as authoritarian reactions against modernity, with support concentrated among the petite bourgeoisie: independent farmers, self-employed artisans and shopkeepers who felt threatened by the growing power of big business on the one hand and the collective clout of organized labor on the other.

We are again witnessing enormous changes in the economy and, correspondingly, there are those who fear losing out.

Dethroned whites

For some white Americans and Europeans, occupying the same rung of society as immigrants or people of color can feel like a betrayal of what they thought to be the natural order — regardless of whether the “Others” moved up or they themselves moved down.

Brian Resnick reports that the threat of demographic change — and the loss of status that comes with it — invariably provokes a sense of wanting to hunker down.

Wendy Brown, a political theorist, speaks of “dethroned whites”.

Anger at elites

This fear is channeled into anger at elites who are believed to have betrayed the deserving in-group.

Reporting from the former East Germany, where the Alternative got its highest support in parliamentary elections this year, Tobias Buck heard “talk of neglect and a lack of respect and recognition” from the wealthy and politically dominant former West.

Jérôme Fourquet found that areas where the National Front is popular in France share “a sense of abandonment, of being left behind by an elite that doesn’t care.”

Nigel Farage’s frequent jabs at the “metropolitan elite” helped whip up anti-EU sentiment in Britain’s 2016 referendum.

Trump’s simple promise to “make America great again,” Brexit’s call to “take back control” and Le Pen’s “on est chez nous” can be understood in myriad ways: to restore white, male, heterosexual power; to empower those who have been on the losing side of every major economic and cultural change in their lives; to stick it to liberal, urban elites.

Unusual alliances

This backlash, more than material depravation, has created the unusual alliances of nativism.

In the United Kingdom, former industry towns and depressed seaside resorts voted to leave the EU. But so did the quiet, wealthy shires of Southern England.

You could say Trump won the 2016 election because he convinced Democrats in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin to switch parties.

But he also won by persuading middle-income whites in the suburbs of Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina to stick with the Republican Party.

Le Pen did expand the National Front into the northern rust belt of France. But her base remains the more prosperous Mediterranean coast, where white colonists settled when they were kicked out of Algeria in the 1960s.