A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton described over half of those planning to vote for Donald Trump as ‘deplorables’. She quickly expressed regret. These slips happen and they are forgivable – there is no doubt that amongst Trump's supporters there are some pretty deplorable characters - but they fit a narrative. A cultural chasm has opened up in western societies between the socially mobile and those ‘left behind’. Underneath this chasm there is an economic fault-line. And on the surface, there is a fractured politics into which the EU referendum fell, populist movements tumble, and the American Presidential election is collapsing.
This week’s New Yorker reviews a new book about America’s white, working class by the conservative writer and thinker, J.D.Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. It is the US’s unanticipated non-fiction hit of the Summer tapping into the cultural sociology of Trump as it does (without actually mentioning him). Vance grew up in the communities he discusses so that gives his voice heft and credibility. What is particularly interesting is the story of mobility he conveys. These communities rode an arc of upward agility throughout generations. It came to a shuddering halt with de-industrialisation. Two choices remained – down or up and out. And community collapsed around them. It’s a tragedy and one that has echoes elsewhere.
To hear the account of Middletown, Ohio and its poor white communities, instantly provides an echo in many poor, black communities – and with even greater extremes and collapse. Back in 2008, I spent some time in Chicago writing a book about Barack Obama and his movement for change. The research took me to Altgeld Gardens where Obama had been a community organiser. Gone was the neat neighbourhood of tidy plots ready for housing black World War Two veterans ready for work in the nearby Ford factory and steel mills. In its place was a violent, gang-ridden suburban island where work was rare and a community had collapsed in on itself. The mobility story, though slower due to discrimination against African Americans, is a similar one between Middletown and Altgeld Gardens and the fall has been greater.
Trump speaks to many poor white Americans and gives them an emotive diversion (albeit with some policy grist such as opposing trade deals) without ever providing any real solutions to their problems. At least Obama put a line in the federal budget to invest in Altgeld Gardens. But really, that is the only lucky break Altgeld Gardens seems to have had in half a century. Economic growth has become increasingly a niche rather than mainstream experience.
This is a story we are seeing time and time again. In the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission report published this week, the story is demonstrated in clear visual fashion. The proximity between community neglect, post-industrialisation, poorly paid work, sickness welfare claims and Brexit is laid bare in detail in the work of the Commission. What is interesting is that deprivation in an inner-city environment is not so correlated with Brexit. These situations clearly create challenging social issues but despair is less prevalent.
The Inclusive Growth Commission calls for a diversion of resources on a more geographically equitable basis towards localities, a consideration of the social as well as economic ramifications of policy including the UK budget, and greater devolution. These are sound policy directions. Something intrinsic is needed to enable them – and it goes beyond policy.
We’ve known about the neglect for at least two generations. Not every Government is the same, and there was some strong work done prior to the crash to focus resources on the poorest, and the current Government promises greater inclusivity – rhetorically so far at least. Yet communities still feel cut off, neglected. Is it any wonder that the propaganda of the EU Referendum campaign (on both sides) may well have made little difference? Here was an opportunity for a free hit at an ‘Establishment’ perceived to have failed. And it was taken - £350million a week to the NHS or 20% housing price collapse notwithstanding.
Some of the post-referendum rhetoric aimed at those who voted leave has drifted towards the ‘deplorables’ space – often implied or sotto voce but it’s there. The fear has to be that this referendum campaign, continuing way beyond the referendum itself, collapses into a full-on culture war. Particular forms of exclusion through the collapse in mobility and prosperity for many will perpetuate as politics becomes a blame game. Blame migrants, blame elites, blame Brexit voters, blame everyone and avoid the issue. If growth is to be inclusive, if the policies that are needed are to be embedded and are to work, then democracy is a deeper reservoir of empathy. Neglect and mutual fear and loathing are not the route to a better politics and the better economics that can flow from that.
If the UK is to remain engaged with the EU or even return one day, both it and the EU will have to address these issues of exclusion. If the US is to avoid a Trump or a Trump-like presidency either this year or in the future, it will have to do the same. This demands that those who believe in an open society, acknowledge that such a society can only thrive with a greater degree of solidarity. Such solidarity starts with empathy. Instead, for some unfathomable reason, we’ve decided to go the opposite way. The price will be hefty.