Centrists must embrace anti-elitism or face extinction.

Instead of aping chauvinism, centrists must respond imaginatively to the anti-political sentiment behind Brexit and the rise of far right parties.

Adam Lent
15 July 2016
 Gage Skidmore. Flickr. Creative Commons

Centrists politics have lost ground to populist candidates such as Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore. Flickr. Creative Commons

The Brexit vote in the UK seems to have confirmed the view that ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ – rather than ‘left’ versus ‘right’ – is the new dividing line in politics across the world. Look to continental Europe where populists who despise open borders – for trade as well as people – are marching forward by challenging political establishments dominated by cosmopolitan elites who have backed globalisation for decades. 

Look at America, where the presidential election is now a fight drawn along similar battlelines. One candidate – Donald Trump – has made aggressive hostility to immigration and free trade deals his key theme. His opponent Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has spent much of her career backing those deals and embracing the social diversity immigration brings. 

This is not to say that the traditional ‘left versus right’ issues of class and equality have disappeared. Far from it. But they are now increasingly transposed onto the ‘open versus closed’ debate. So Donald Trump, the Brexit campaigners and European populists have all identified their closed stances with the interests of ordinary working people “left behind” and ignored by a well-to-do metropolitan, ruling elite. The UK’s EU referendum vote highlighted the extent to which this has proved a winning pitch, with regions characterised by lower levels of wealth and education being far more likely to vote for Brexit.

For those who believe in free trade, free movement, diversity and pluralism, this is a troubling development. For the first time since 1945 they face a domestic battle to defend the core liberal democratic values that have proved so good at keeping the peace and promoting higher living standards and freedom across the western world.

Attracting populism’s supporters.

However, as the Brexit vote and the decline of liberal and social democratic parties in Europe makes clear, there is little future for an unreconstructed pitch to voters to simply back openness on the same terms as before. The deprivation and insecurity bred by the 2008 economic crash, and the ensuing austerity policies rolled out across the continent, has put that centrist offer to death. Instead, ...a new vision of openness must be developed a new vision of openness must be developed, one that directly addresses the core concerns of those who at the moment support a closed vision of politics.

This does not mean aping the anti-immigrant jingoism of the populists in the way that too many centrist politicians have done in recent years. That approach is not just a betrayal of the only genuine route to greater freedom and higher living standards; it has shown itself to be electorally disastrous by adding credibility to what were once fringe groups of the far right. Instead, the cosmopolitan strand of politics needs a deeper understanding of what motivates those who support a populist vision of a closed world before fashioning a response. The academic research suggests that those who support populism are often motivated by three common factors:

  1. hostility to political elites which are seen as having ignored and betrayed ‘ordinary’ people.
  2. Anger at stagnant living standards and ongoing deprivation.
  3. Discomfort at the way society and culture has become more diverse and permissive.

An Anti-elitist Centre

Each of these demands a different response from those who support openness. The first requires cosmopolitans to embrace the very anti-elitism that is used against them. The political and economic villages within which cosmopolitan political elites have flourished in recent decades need to be thrown open, with a shift towards a more direct and deliberative democracy. Elected policy-makers should be focused on discovering and aggregating the views of the their constituents through consensus-building exercises. Their voting decisions should then be determined by that process. Only a step both this practical and this radical will address the very deep-seated distrust and hatred of political elites [...] now permeates western democracies.hatred of political elites which now permeates western democracies.

The second requires a more thorough-going approach to addressing the growing levels of inequality and concentration of economic power that has characterised globalisation. This can’t, however, mean a return to the all-encompassing, post-war welfare state sometimes promised by populists of the right and always by those of the left. With a rapidly aging population the cost of pensions and healthcare makes such promises deeply dishonest.

Instead, cosmopolitans must develop a clear agenda to use the legal and regulatory power of the state – rather than simply its spending power – to create a fairer distribution of wealth. Four policy goals are particularly worthwhile in this regard.

  1. Spreading home ownership as widely as possible by radically easing planning law and breaking up land monopolies to address inequalities in asset wealth.
  2. Giving generous tax breaks to firms that mutualise, so profits go increasingly to employees not just investors and owners. 
  3. Introducing powerful anti-trust laws to break up oligopolies that have helped concentrate wealth in corporations, at the expense of consumers and ordinary citizens over the last four decades.
  4. Shifting taxation as much as possible from income and sales to concentrations of wealth.

With these radical offers in place, it then becomes easier for cosmopolitans to address the third motivational factor not by aping hostility to diversity and freedom but by opposing it unreservedly and with passion. To do otherwise is to give up core principles of openness and individual rights. It is to cross a line that leads ultimately to ever greater hatred and marginalisation of women and minority groups. 

Adopting this agenda requires cosmopolitans to be honest with themselves about their failures. They must recognise that what populists and their supporters are reacting against are elements of cosmopolitan openness that are, in fact, very closed leadership by a narrow political clique and increasing monopolisation of economic power by a wealthy elite. As such, the solution is not to compromise with the dead-end closed ideology of the populists but to extend the principles behind an open, cosmopolitan vision by creating a truly inclusive economy and democracy.

These themes are explored in more detail in Adam Lent’s new book, ‘Small is Powerful: why the era of big government, big business and big culture is over’ published by Unbound. 

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