What Lessons Will Democrats Take From 2016 Election?
Wise words from The Economist.
Aghast at the defection of millions who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but for Donald Trump in 2016—notably working-class whites in the Midwest—the left wants the Democratic Party to snatch up the banner of economic populism and declare war on Wall Street, big business and other global elites. At post-election gatherings like the Democracy Alliance conference in Washington, DC, it is an article of faith that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the snowy-haired, finger-jabbing scold who lost the Democratic presidential primary to Hillary Clinton, would have trounced Mr Trump in the general election.
Such Democrats are making a mistake. It is as if America’s political classes are bent on copying every part of Britain’s current flirtation with who-needs-experts populism. Not content with holding an election that saw voters sharply divided by education, age, geography and attitudes to social change—as happened with the Brexit referendum—American leftists seem ready to follow Britain’s Labour Party down the path of self-righteous irrelevance.
Had Democrats owned a crystal ball and known in advance that Mr Trump would be their opponent they might have beaten him by picking a different mainstream candidate, for instance Vice-President Joe Biden. But Mr Sanders would have faced months of attack ads, running something like this. “Radical Bernie Sanders doesn’t like America. That’s why he backs tyrants who hate our freedoms [the screen shows old quotes from Mr Sanders praising Fidel Castro of Cuba]. It’s why he wants to make us like bankrupt, failed Europe, with open borders and amnesty for illegal aliens [images of refugees in the Mediterranean, terror attacks in Belgium and France, then Sanders quotes comparing America unfavourably with Denmark]. He wants government-run health care [viewers see a shabby hospital], abortion on demand and welfare for all. Who’d pay for this? You would, with some of the biggest tax hikes in our history. Bernie Sanders, a danger to America.” A third senior Democrat succinctly calls talk of Mr Sanders winning a general election “insane”.
Populist politicians are gaining ground across the democratic West. But in Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Nordic countries so admired by Mr Sanders, the most successful anti-elite movements are broadly of the right, not the left. Even in Greece, where radical leftists hold power, soak-the-rich populism is allied to nationalist resentment at foreigners causing austerity.
This is no accident. To simplify, populists of the left talk about fairness: an abstract idea. They call for government to break up big banks, make sure the rich pay taxes or erect tariff or regulatory barriers to keep globalisation at bay. Populists of the right happily borrow leftish lines about putting domestic workers first, and curbing the might of international finance. But then instead of talking about fairness, they talk of safety and control, of defending precious values that are under assault, and of keeping The Other at bay. Rather than fixing the system, they talk of taking their country back. If it suits their needs, populists of the right will present government itself as an agent of tyranny. Those are potent slogans that appeal to the gut, not the head—and in America just helped Republicans to elect a billionaire who calls tax-avoidance “smart”. They are reasons why the centre-left should beware of choosing to fight the right on populist ground.