Dread in the pit of your stomach. A sinking suspicion that your world is in decline and prosperity may end and never return. Fear over your financial future.
Last week’s Brexit vote seems to have left the City feeling exposed and unprotected. Many report feeling powerless against the historic forces that have been unleashed by the vote and anxious about the future. In a strange twist of fate, this vote has left the London elites with very similar concerns to Brexit voters and the supporters of Donald Trump. Let me explain by turning to US politics.
In America, pundits and political elites have tried to make sense of Trump’s devastation of the political landscape as an ultra-right movement of xenophobes and racists. But the reality is far more complex. Trump has many positions to the left of the Republican Party, and he has attracted many Democrats and Independents. What he does better than any other politician in the field is understand the fears and needs of the millions of Americans who feel unprotected by the government and the elites.
In a seminal article on American politics in 2010, Angelo Codevilla divided the American people into two segments – the ruling class and the larger country class. This article was meant to explain the rise of the tea party movement, then rocking the Republican establishment. The ruling class, as Codevilla explains it, is made up of people who tend to be graduates of elite universities and who work in the legal community, government, big business, the financial sector, the press and academia. Members of the ruling class are creatures of a large federal government and have a vested interest in seeing government grow ever larger.
The rest of Americans are the “country class”. These are the people earning a living operating small businesses or working at whatever jobs they can get. These people are generally not involved in politics and may not possess a college education.
America is polarised into these two groups. Then came Trump who launched his appeal directly at the country class, and whose success took the ruling class by complete surprise.
Like the Leave campaign, Trump seems to offer the country class protection from what ails them. Americans without a college degree have lost the most ground economically over the last several decades and have been a natural base for Trump. He plays to a shared belief particularly among this group that blue collar workers cannot expect to make a decent living or be able to support a family anymore in America.
What Trump is really peddling to this group is security. Trump claims that he can turn back the clock to a time when America was much more powerful and when working Americans had much more optimism and better prospects. And by acknowledging the real losses of America’s unprotected classes, Trump has earned the support of millions, shocking the political elites and donor class who usually drive the party’s nomination process.
Let’s turn now back to Britain and the extreme reaction of Remain voters. One of the most vexing observations about the referendum vote is that Leave voters cannot be defined by their party or demographic group. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the referendum vote was clouded by other political objectives, this is less true. But in England and Wales the vote broke down between the ruling class Remainers and country class Leavers, which was emphasised on electoral maps by the islands of support for Remain in London, Oxford and Cambridge.
Like Trump supporters, Leave voters as a group are less connected with the political establishment and with the corridors of money and power radiating out from the City of London. From the perspective of the country class, the whole Remain campaign demonstrated how the elites try to control the political discourse using their friends and allies. Leavers believed David Cameron was leaning on all his establishment buddies – Bank of England grandees, finance firm heads, business moguls, even foreign leaders like Barack Obama – to speak out firmly in favour of Remain. To the country class, it seemed as if Remain was using the levers of power to rig the system. The greater the weight of “experts” brought in by Remain to prove that Leave would lead to disaster, the more committed the country class voters became to the Leave position.
And now, empowered by their ability to affect change in this country – real change – we shouldn’t necessarily expect the country class to stop at leaving the EU. It is possible, even likely, that the country class will fail to capitalise on this moment and their power will fade like the tea party’s did in America. But this is only one possible ending to the story begun by Leave’s victory. It is also true that the Trump campaign does not appear to have the grassroots infrastructure in place to beat the well-oiled Clinton political machine. But who really knows?
It is a unique moment in both Britain’s and America’s history when the elites have lost control of the political process. It is also probably a passing moment, but there is a chance that a spark has been lit that will lead to something new. And assuming that the powerful soon drive the process once again, the elites will hopefully have a touch more humility and an understanding of the concerns of those who feel exposed and unprotected in our society.