Does the British Election Mean Anything for America?

To the extent that it proves the viability of socialism and the waning of the alt-right.

Theresa May Donald Trump
British prime minister Theresa May speaks with American president Donald Trump the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, January 27 (10 Downing Street/Jay Allen)

As always, yes and no.

Yes, because the ideology of austerity-driven neoliberalism, that which is championed by Theresa May’s suddenly flailing government, is a major component of the ruling Republican Party in the United States. It’s what Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, believes in: cuts to public services to benefit the private market.

Yes, because Brexit, the alt-right-driven anti-immigrant, anti-globalization geopolitical self-harm project is propelled by the same forces that elected the current head of the Republican Party, Donald Trump.

But also no.

No, because the United States has a monotonous two-party system. (Britain essentially does too, but the Liberal Democrats can and have emerged as a powerful enough force to tip the balance, as they did in 2010.)

No, because the United States can’t call snap elections and so the mood today is certainly not going to be the mood of fall 2018.

No as well, because America does not face a credible secessionist threat, as the United Kingdom does in Scotland, nor is the United States able to do anything close to the self-harm of Brexit.

With that said, there’s a few lessons worth looking into.

The socialist left is doing better than people thought

“Jeremy Corbyn is a suicide pact!” cried Labour’s MPs when they tried to depose the hard-Left Labour leader in June 2016. The old-fashioned socialist had a Marxist mindset from the 1970s that was the sort of semi-treason successfully bashed by Margaret Thatcher.

Labour may not have taken Parliament, but Corbyn is not the kiss of death that so many Labour Blairites feared. His socialism has currency because neoliberalism  — which supplanted postwar big state socialism in the United Kingdom  — has basically failed to do anything it set out to do.

What’s true of neoliberalism in the United Kingdom is equally true in the United States. It’s a bunk ideology, one that basically behooves one to become as greedy as possible and presume that’ll somehow work out for everyone and which has just pooled capital into the hands of ever fewer pockets.

The left is, however, still divided, between neoliberal acolytes and more socialist forces

It’s also telling that Corbyn did not lead his party to total victory. Some of that must be blamed on Labour itself  —  the Blairites who still believe, even now, that neoliberalism has a future.

In them, we can see parallels to the Clinton Democrats, who have only belatedly started to come around to the idea that their free-tradin’, market-worshippin’, stock-market chasin’ neoliberal worldview is actually bunk for most people most of the time.

That he did not cross the finish line to 10 Downing Street is important if we see Corbyn as the equivalent of Bernie Sanders. Corbyn, in many ways, has a more ideal environment for his ideas: Not only did Great Britain once embrace and govern with many of them, the United Kingdom also is a more homogenous culture, with a stronger national identity that reduces the impact of culture wars in politics.

That last part is key, because the culture wars were the weapon that the Clinton camp bludgeoned Sanders with, sending surrogates to hijack Sanders rallies in the name of Black Lives Matter and wedging feminists against him as standard bearers for the First Woman President.

Britain has already had two female prime ministers, in addition to a queen older than most Britons. May could not play the gender card to save herself; Clinton could and did.

And so if the socialist left is stronger even in the United States, that comes with a caveat: there will be many in the Democratic Party who prefer to fight the final stages of the culture wars before they take on wealth inequality. Establishment neoliberal Democrats will take advantage, just as Hillary Clinton did.

The alt-right’s moment in the sun is passing

That UKIP  — the Brexit-leading party of closed-mindedness  — vanished beneath the waves is proof that the alt-right’s power is fleeting. That bodes poorly for Donald Trump in 2020.

Having failed to win in France, in Austria and in the Netherlands, the alt-right’s political capital now looks spent. Few of their ideas have produced anything but discord and crashing currencies. Their hyped-up identity politics appeal only to their aggrieved self-selected members.

That the left is starting to rally to workable ideas — like some of Corbyn’s — is even worse news for the alt-right. The alt-right could and did present itself as the only alternative to the neoliberal world of open borders and ever-richer plutocrats. Now we are starting to see a less divisive and more credible alternative on the left.

That comes with another caveat, however.

There is still a powerful core of conservative neoliberals who prop up government in London. That same core exists in the United States, where they often win local elections. In other words, despite the fact that Trump and UKIP are approval ratings disasters, the core ideology of the Republicans as well the Tories is as yet unassailed.

For the United States in 2018, instead of a Democratic washout, it might well be just an electoral swamp, with a shrunken and weakened Republican Party able to claw onto power in at least one chamber of Congress, forcing the whole system into stasis until 2020, when the alt-right will surely be even less popular than now and Donald Trump — presuming he’s still in power — can be on the ballot to decimate his party.

The old versus young divide is politically, culturally and electorally meaningful

It appears the young may have turned the British election and deprived May of the power she clearly took for granted. The generational divide is stark and clear.

What will be the key difference between now and 2020? Older voters will be older and some will die. That’s a gigantic shift, because older voters propelled Trump, Brexit and May to power. It is they who are the core of the neoliberal and/or alt-right movements; millennials on both sides of the pond overwhelmingly have been screwed by landlords, student debt, selfish work managers, terrible family leave policies and rising health costs, all the while seeing zero benefit from ever more austerity and tax cuts. The in-between generation, Generation X, is too small, and too individualistic, to be the decisive generational chime of the 2020s  — their votes reflect the chaotic culture of their upbringing, their views are scattered from left to right.

Instead, as the boomers in the United Kingdom and the United States begin to age out of the voter rolls, the millennial vote will command ever greater shares until their values swamp the opposition.

That is where Corbyn’s greatest strength was: convincing younger voters that the economic system they despise can in fact be reworked. May, like Trump, was playing a tired old hand for tired old voters and her losses reflect the beginning of the end of their political worldview. It will be a long process, but it is almost surely coming.

As they age, boomers will have far less incentive to think of short-term economic gains through cuts and more incentive to think about how rising health-care costs, rents and stagnant wages affect them.

Their children have been hamstrung by this much of their lives; now the economy’s inefficiency will increasingly come for them as well. When they see their children unable to financially support the poorer segments of the boomers  —  you know, the ones who overwhelmingly went for Trump and Brexit  — and realize that the Tories and the Republican Party, having been in power so long, are doing nothing to alleviate that situation, you will almost certainly see substantial flag switching.

Onto the next battle for the left

How the United Kingdom governs, and the lessons of that, will matter in the United States, especially as it leads up to the 2018 midterms. If the Tories run a poorly-managed minority government, the effect will be felt in the United States, where the Republican Party is already, at least from the standpoint of the popular vote, in the same position.

Now the left has to establish its identity. Corbyn’s results have surged it towards economic socialism. The coming months will see if that holds true.

This story first appeared at Medium, June 11, 2017.