Elite Contempt: The Common Denominator in Populist Victories
Brexit Party victory ends a political monopoly.
The triumph of Nigel Farage and his Brexit party in Britain’s European parliamentary elections tells us two stories at the same time.
The first story is a local British story. The Brexit Party’s victory effectively ends the Conservative party’s monopoly on Britain’s political right for the first time in two hundred years. The Conservatives will respond to the trouncing in one of two ways. They can disintegrate completely by doubling down on outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s soft Brexit – with or without a second referendum — or they can start listening to their voters.
The second story encapsulated in Brexit’s victory — and that of Marine Le Pen’s triumph in France and Matteo Salvini’s in Italy — is the now familiar tale of the rise of the populist/nationalist/ideological right throughout the Western world against the conventional wisdom of the traditional progressive and center-right elitist establishment, and more often than not, in defiance of the polls.
In Britain itself, the rise of Brexit is a fitting bookend to Prime Minister Theresa May’s stunning betrayal of her voters. May came to power after her predecessor David Cameron resigned office in response to the Brexit vote. As she entered office, May pledged to embrace the will of the voters and shepherd Britain out of the European Union.
Instead of doing so, May managed to negotiate a Brexit deal with the European Union that left Britain with the costs of EU membership but without its benefits. Despite the fact that her deal was repeatedly voted down in Parliament, she refused to resign. And now, her premiership that began because of Brexit is ending because she betrayed Brexit.
As for the wider West, to be sure, the proximate issues pushing voters in separate countries to cast their ballots for anti-elitist parties in favor of populist, nationalist leaders with strong visions of national restoration and pride are local. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s victory earlier this month over his challenger, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, has largely been attributed to Shorten’s radical economic agenda. Shorten’s proposed tax hikes would have harmed young families and retirees. His carbon emissions legislation would have crippled Australia’s mining industry.
Farage’s rise owes to May’s bad faith with her own voters regarding her commitment to honoring their vote to withdraw Britain from the European Union.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a fifth term in office last month by running on a record of diplomatic and economic success that the leftist parties were unable to discredit.
Trump’s victory is widely attributed to Hillary Clinton’s failure to rally the Democratic base in the Rust Belt and to counter Trump’s message of industrial renewal.
But one underlying issue is common in all of the elections. And until the progressive left and the establishment center right reconcile themselves to it, and find a respectful means to contend with it, they will continue to see populist forces grow stronger and win elections.
That issue is contempt. Throughout the Western world, beyond the economic issues and even beyond specific social issues like gay marriage or abortion rights, voters are motivated to vote for the populist, nationalist right in part due to their anger at the left and center-right’s undisguised contempt for them.
In the United States, the left’s snobbery reached its height with Hillary Clinton’s castigation of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” But her assertion wasn’t made in isolation. It was made in the midst of a general atmosphere in which Democratic politicians from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi and establishment Republicans felt comfortable putting down Americans who aren’t part of their club. Obama infamouslyreferred to Clinton’s “deplorables” as “bitter” people in small towns who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
The media, which serves as an extension of the Democratic Party and embraces NeverTrump Republicans as a means to attack Trump and his voters, continuously broadcasts contempt for both.
Likewise, according to Australian professor and media analyst Stan Grant, one of the decisive factors in Australia’s election was religion. A large swathe of the public developed a sense that Labor leader Shorten held them and their religious convictions in contempt.
Grant recalls that in the weeks before the election, a national rugby star — who, like Morrison, is an evangelical Christian — wrote a disparaging post about homosexuals on his Facebook page. Whereas Morrison responded by drawing a line between his political actions and his religious beliefs to neutralize the issue, Shorten’s response was to castigate Morrison.
According to Grant, “Shorten’s move raised red flags in the minds of many voters. Just what did he stand for? Did he value the rights of the LGBTQ community not to be offended over the rights of someone to publicly profess their religious beliefs?
Grant added that Shorten’s response came the same week he “had given a rousing speech pledging to ‘change the nation forever.’”
It works out that while Australians do not oppose gay marriage, they don’t want their country to be fundamentally transformed. However they come down on social issues, they want Australia to stay Australia.
By adopting an attitude of contempt for them, Shorten, like Clinton and Obama and May and French President Emmanuel Macron insulted the voters.
Since the 1990s, we have been told that globalization is a progressive, post-nationalist movement. And it is true that many of the radical agendas the left has adopted in the past twenty years have been initiated in one country and spread worldwide through various connectors, most notably, social media.
On the left, the international academic community and the transnational business elite have embraced similar values and agendas. These values and agendas have become the calling cards of members of the international ruling elite. And these values and agendas have drifted farther and farther away from those of the denizens of the elitists’ home countries and societies.
The rise of the populist/nationalist/ideological right throughout the West demonstrates that globalization cuts both ways. Members of the global progressive and center-right elite embrace the same post-nationalist, post-industrial, and post-Christian values and agendas at elite conferences in Brussels and New York, at the United Nations, on network news and online. But back in their home countries, those they disregard are also online and also talking. The disregarded majorities are also listening to one another.
The most potent message that crosses the world each day and empowers populists and nationalist conservatives is one of exasperation and anger at the transnational elites’ solidarity in their contempt for their people. From Jerusalem to Budapest to Birmingham to Cincinnati, the spurned citizens have understood that the only way to force their contemptuous elites to heel is to vote them out of power.
For European Unionists and British Remainers, for the Israeli elite and the American establishment, the globalization of their values and agendas has brought them to believe that democracy means fixing the rules of the game. Through judicial activism and bureaucratic regulations, through intellectual terror and public shaming, these elites seek to render election results inconsequential. Ballot boxes, in their view, are no match for the combined forces of the elite media and academia and the bureaucracy. They determine norms. They determine policies – in the name of Democracy.
But throughout the West, the “deplorables” are listening to one another and rediscovering their power and voices at the ballot boxes. They realize that democracy is a means for the people to determine their course in the world. The elite may control the discourse, but the people decide who will run their countries.
True, specific voting issues vary from country to country. But the voters’ refusal to accept the contempt with which their elites’ treat them unifies voters throughout the Western world. And so long as the elites refuse to accept that the traditional values and agendas of their societies are not fascist and racist, but conventional and even commendable, they will continue to misread polling data. They will continue to ignore voters. And they will continue to be blindsided by electoral defeats that they never expected.