Joe Biden is en route to the White House with the largest number of votes in American history. His win is consistent with the forecast that I gave some of my followers ahead of the contest.
As I set out in a talk last week, Biden’s victory brings a new set of priorities into the White House. Re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement. A push on the clean energy revolution. More help for Dreamers. An end to visa limits on international students. Overturn the “Muslim travel ban”. Restore America’s commitment to NATO, the WTO, the WHO and multilateralism more generally. A new Covid task force. Rescind the ban on diversity training programs. Deliver police reform. And increase the diversity of key institutions, among a few other things.
But in the post-Trump world the shadow of Trumpism will linger on. Protectionism remains alive and well. Biden’s “Made in America” tax incentives. His penalty for offshoring. His “Buy American” rhetoric. The plan to revive manufacturing in industrial states. His review (read: not repeal) of tariffs, including on China. And a lingering suspicion of “globalism”, unfettered economic liberalism and China. The nation-state remains one of the early winners in the 2020s.
One intriguing question about the election is not why Biden won but why Trump did so well. It’s an unpopular point to make but while Trump is trashing democratic norms he is leaving with the second highest number of votes in American history and hence ongoing relevance. He was branded a white supremacist yet leaves with increased numbers of votes from Hispanic, Latino, Cuban American and African Americans. And while we were told that he had “lost white women” he seems to have done better among them than in 2016. I just don’t think that Republicans will throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Last week, I gave a post-election virtual talk on the new Trump electorate and explained why he has broadened rather than narrowed his base. I think that his formula of leaning left on the economy and right on culture is here to stay, even if Trump might not be the man to deliver it. And much of this is consistent with the argument we laid out in National Populism – that the roots of populism run deep, that these movements attract a fairly diverse following and that once they are established they tend to remain fairly “sticky”. One thing is clear from this election. Demography is not necessarily destiny.
Is the populism party over …
This has not stopped more than a few commentators drawing a straight line from the defeat of Trump to what they argue will be the looming defeat of populism more generally. Some argue that history unfolds in cycles. If the 2010s will be remembered as the Age of Populism, then Biden’s win kicks off a decade that could see a Revival of Liberalism.
Here is one potential chain of events that could profoundly change the political climate. Biden moves into the White House in January. Populists flop in Germany and the Netherlands in 2021. Emmanuel Macron is comfortably re-elected in France in 2022. Bolsonaro loses in Brazil in 2022. Poland’s Law in Justice suffer a set back in 2023. A Labour-SNP coalition forms in the UK in 2024 and the Democrats wins re-election (2024 looks like a truly bumper year for us nerds).
It’s all very seductive, isn’t it? It is certainly true that populists have had a bad year. As I wrote in UnHerd this week, almost every significant movement has experienced a loss of support. In Italy, Matteo Salvini is down from 30 to 25 per cent. In France, Marine Le Pen just lost 40 per cent of her local officials. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany is down from 14 to 9 per cent while the mainstream parties are up. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is just about holding steady while Forum for Democracy is down. And in Brazil, public disapproval of Bolsonaro almost doubled at the height of the crisis.
But we should remember one of the big lessons of the Great Recession — political volatility lies downstream from crises.
The Great Recession did not cause all of the things that erupted in the 2010s -the rise of Trump, Brexit, Salvini, Le Pen, and so on- but it did give them a big helping hand. And I think it’s fairly likely that this crisis will produce significant political effects, it’s just that we might not see them for a while.
Consider what we are learning about coronavirus. As I outlined in a talk on the post-pandemic world for KPMG, we now have a mounting pile of evidence that it is low-income, less well educated and working-class voters who are being hit hardest by both the health and economic effects of this crisis. We also know that middle-class professionals have been more able to work from home, and more insulated from the economic fallout.
One recent study on the effect of past pandemics also concludes that five years after they hit a society the main measure of inequality – the “Gini Coefficient” – remains significantly elevated. I think this gives us tentative evidence to suggest that the underlying divides that fuelled the volatility of the 2010s will likely remain in place, even if right now it is the experts and competent managers in the room who are being rewarded at the ballot box.
Boris, Brexit and Beyond …
Closer to home, Boris Johnson’s premiership remains in trouble. The Prime Minister has lost a 20-point lead in the polls in less than a year, has seen public approval of his handling of coronavirus slump to a new record low and has now lost the one man who played a leading role in delivering both Brexit and Johnson’s premiership – Dominic Cummings.
“Johnson-ism”, if such a thing even exists, remains undefined. There is no broader vision because there is no intellectual foundation. Say what you want about Thatcher and Blair but at least there were serious thinkers in the room.
Meanwhile, as I wrote in the Sunday Times, there has been a significant loss of support for Johnson among the very groups that were central to bringing his party its largest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s third and final victory in 1987 – working-class men in northern England.
Nor has this gone unnoticed within the parliamentary party. Many of Johnson’s northern MPs now fear that a new post-Cummings regime in Number 10 may pivot away from the election-winning pledge to level-up the left behind and turn back toward a liberal centrist Cameroon Conservatism – back toward London, university towns and the middle-class.
Johnson and his new team, whoever they are, do need to get their arms around this. After all, 60 per cent of seats voted to leave the European Union and the coalition he put together last year is a formidable one – even if it does not sit comfortably with his members and donors.
There is simply no path back to power for Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party that does not run through the Midlands and northern England. Fast forward to 2024 and even a limited Labour recovery could open the door to a coalition with the SNP, in return for a second referendum on Scotland’s independence.
All of this means that as Johnson rapidly approaches the one-year anniversary of his victory he has some serious soul-searching to do. With the vaccines en route he needs to sit down, redefine who he is, revisit what he wants to achieve and set out where he wants to take the country.
If he proves unable to do so then Johnson could end up losing more than his premiership. He could lose the United Kingdom.
This article was originally published on Matthew Goodwin’s blog.