EconoMatters, Global Pairings

US and UK: When Culture Trumps Economic Self-Interest

Lower-income voters, at least in the U.S. and UK cases, care more about cultural messaging than their share of the economy.

Credit: Nicolas Raymond - www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • In uncertain economic times, elections are not about economics at all. Lower-income workers care more about their cultural affiliation than their share of the economy.
  • Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK have been so successful because of the detachedness and political cluelessness of the Democrats and Labour.
  • Until Labour and the Democrats understand that politics is not about economics they will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes that got them into this mess in the first place.

The UK Conservatives’ opportunity in achieving a political realignment in the country’s north following the 2019 general election is similar to the Republican opportunity in the Rust Belt presented by Trump’s election in 2016.

In the United States’ former industrial heartland, it was deep dissatisfaction with the carelessness and self-centeredness of the prevailing elites (of both parties, but especially Democrats) as well as revulsion from the implications of globalization – immigration and creative destruction in particular – that opened the door to Trump and his crafty political operators.

Trump stepped right through it. Like Boris Johnson, he appealed to themes outside economics which resonated strongly with an economically disoriented and profoundly disappointed electorate.

Hence all the focus on immigration, abortion, and opposing a range of causes dear to coastal elites but not embraced elsewhere – gay rights, PC rules, women’s rights, gun control, even #MeToo.

“Culturalist” messaging works

What Trump has not done enough of to any sufficient degree is to alter the economic circumstances of the blue-collar workers in the Midwest.

Throwing them cultural “goods” (and “bads”) may satisfy this part of the electorate for some time, but it falls short of what needs to happen to bring about more than a tactical realignment.

Politically, “culturalist” messaging works but, one surmises, it goes only so far. In the United States, Republicans have been helped by the fact that Democrats have sought to counter that approach by campaigning in a wrong-headed fashion, primarily focusing on economic issues.

However, blaming Trump to be “for the rich” falls short for several reasons. The main reason this overlooks is the certainly simplistic but very present desire of Americans at large to be rich themselves. The more unrealistic that hope is, the more ardently it is held.

What these voices didn’t understand is that elections, in uncertain times economically, are not primarily about economics at all. Especially lower-income workers, at least in the U.S. and UK cases, care more about their cultural affiliation than their share of the economy.

No more politics as usual

This throws a gigantic spanner in the works of politics and business as usual. Family, faith, community, and country are “lower case-c” conservative values.

They are there to soothe the souls of all those whose lives are best NOT measured through economic metrics.

One can call the Tories and the Republicans utter cynics for comprehending this context all too well and exploiting it politically for their own, largely elitist purposes. But the political failure lies in the camp of the Democrats in the United States and Labour in the United Kingdom.

A surprising rejection of economism

U.S. and UK culture are shaped by the forces of economism far more so than any other, certainly than anywhere in the entire rest of Europe and the OECD. The only other country where the religion of economism rules even more supremely is none other than the People’s Republic of China.

All of which leads one to question the often-made assumption that it is “the West” that is in the throes of economism (or neoliberalism, or globalism, terms that are often used in a near-synonymous sense).

Trace elements of these “-isms” are visible in other Western nations (“ex-U.S. and ex-UK”). But it is only these two nations that are fully shaped by them. In particular, nowhere else in the West are financial elites as dominant as in the United States and UK.

Democrats still don’t get it

Because of the detachedness or even political cluelessness of the Democrats in the United States and Labour in the UK have the Republicans and the Tories been so successful.

The tension between worker households and the values of the dominant urban Democratic mainstream has become increasingly unbearable, and former Democratic voters have peeled away as a result.

What’s worse, the Democrats’ current “hot” offering — economic policies tuned to their needs and better messaging — is unlikely to halt that electoral slippage toward the Republicans.

Conclusion

The corollary is obvious: Until the Labour Party and the Democrats fully understand that politics is not really about economics, and until they find ways to bridge the cultural gap to their previous stalwarts, they will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes that got them into this mess in the first place.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

About Robin Gaster

Robin Gaster is president of Incumetrics Inc. and a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University.

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