Skip to main content

2016 and anti-establishment anger

First Corbyn, then Brexit. First Trump, then Sanders. The last twelve months or so have seen an incredible rise of anti-establishment politics, as voters fed up with the old class of political leadership rallied around a series of unlikely figures promising radical change.

This has been enough of a trope in political coverage this year that I haven't bothered to find specific examples - I'm sure you've encountered plenty. The idea that these new movements on the left and right are basically of the same kind, channeling many of the same emotions in starkly different directions and responding to many of the same longstanding political and economic problems, has become a kind of conventional wisdom. It's also completely wrong, and very unhelpful to properly understanding the political dynamics of the US and the UK this year.

Let's start with what's true. Sanders and Trump are alike in that they aren't deep political insiders who've been involved in government for many years, and they push ideas which are unpopular with most of the existing political class. The same can be said for Corbyn and Brexit - the comparison is a bit more awkward, because Brexit is obviously not a politician, but it was an idea which most major politicians regarded as unthinkable, in two senses - that it definitely wouldn't happen; and that it would be catastrophic if it did. Above all, supporters of these movements on the left and right are angry and very committed to their cause.

But they are not remotely angry about the same things. In fact 'anger' isn't even a particularly good description for the feeling behind the new movement on the left. There are certainly plenty of angry people involved. The basic frustration, though, is a pretty regular ideological challenge: this is a movement of people who are more left-wing than the current crop of politicians, and they want politicians who reflect those views. Because they're quite a lot more left-wing in many cases, the expression can come across pretty angry. Still, anger is not the core of the Sanders and Corbyn surges. The heart of both these movements is a group of young, mostly well-educated people who are unapologetically left-wing. They didn't live through the 80s and 90s, when most of the Labour and Democratic parties were softening their leftism (thanks both to repeated electoral defeats and to a gradual but genuine changing of minds.) So they don't see any need for moderating towards the centre-left, and they push for more left-wing leadership - which, when the large parties have been steadily moderating for at least 25 years, they can only find in relative outsiders.

Contrast the waves of support for Brexit and Trump. It's generally extremely hard to see what the ideological content of these movements is - which is certainly not the case on the left. Here, I think talking about anger is more apt: the Trumpist and Brexit platforms have been beneficiaries of a fairly inchoate rage about social and economic change which doesn't obviously have much to do with the 'solutions' being offered. Opinions obviously differ on whether that means we should criticise people who vote this way as irrationally and xenophobically lashing out, or instead try to address the (real or imagined) root causes of their anger. But what's definitely true is that these people don't have a clear ideological and policy agenda in mind, and they're not angry because of a failure to implement it.

The reason this matters is not to try and establish that the left's insurgency is smarter or more rational than the one on the right. But seeing Trump and Sanders as both leading populist uprisings of anti-establishment outsiders can lead you into some really poor political analysis. If you think that their supporters have a lot in common, then it makes sense to think that Sanders might be able to win over Trump voters by channelling the same sort of anti-establishment rage in a different direction. Or that Corbyn is Labour's only hope for winning back Brexit voters in ex-industrial English towns. In fact, Sanders' supporters are overwhelmingly young and well-educated while Trump's are older and less educated. Corbyn's supporters are, again, young, well-educated, and metropolitan - not less educated industrial workers. Conversely, some parts of the US media are still entertaining the idea that chunks of Sanders' support will drift to Trump, as the only remaining anti-establishment figure in the race. Given how entirely different the two groups of supporters are, it's just unimaginable that that'll happen on any significant scale.

None of this is to say that Corbyn or Sanders can't (or couldn't have, counterfactually) won over those voters. But to establish that you'd need a much better theory of what exactly these candidates are offering which could appeal to a segment of the population which has a much more generalised and un-ideological rage. We have to recognise that, even if you want to broadly call them both movements of anti-establishment outsiders, the people so far mobilised on the left have very little in common with those on the right - and the success of insurgent candidates in creating a movement on one side is no proof at all that they'll be able to do so on the other. Corbyn's huge popularity with angry, anti-establishment left-wingers doesn't show he can be popular with angry, anti-establishment right-wingers, and the same goes for Trump. For all their anger, these people are not alike, and the leaders and campaigns they're attracted to are not similar.