Trumping Brexit: the growing failure of the neoliberal consensus

The past is broken, the present is muddled and the future remains uncertain. The political elite don't seem to understand, and perhaps they don't want to.

John Boland
12 November 2016
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US Presidential election. Ben Birchall PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.For decades, Britain has placed great political emphasis on the nature of its ‘special relationship’ with America. Since the 1980s, when the political ascent of the Ronald Reagan administration in Washington was matched by Margaret Thatcher’s dominance over John Bull’s Island, it has been apparent that the two countries have worked to maintain a degree of ideological alignment that reflects the modern economic, social and political nature of their societies. At times, Britain’s cultivation of the ‘special relationship’ comes across as an attempt to maintain pre-eminence in the world by tying an element of their fortunes to that of America, but it could not be disputed that the type of neoliberal, capitalist tendencies that crystallised well before the advent of the 21st century was an outlook entirely bought into by both nations.

The rise to dominance of this type of approach is pivotal here, because it has created a generation of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who are unquestioningly wedded to it. Consequently, as neoliberalism enters its period of relative decline, the political elite cannot (or do not want to) understand what is happening.

The technical differences between the rise of Donald Trump and the realities of a Brexit vote are myriad – but that is not the central point. The core development that provided the spark is the implicit rejection of neoliberalism by millions of voters in Britain and America, who are using their opportunity at the ballot box to say that contemporary politics is just not working for them. They want something new but, in facilitating diverse (and perhaps concerning) outcomes such as endorsing Trump and voting to leave the EU, they do not quite know what the 'something new' should look like yet.

Critically, the presidential election and the EU referendum gave voters a platform to react against the status quo. In Britain, this was a reaction against the brand of suave, corporate politician epitomised by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who was the default if somewhat unconvincing figurehead for the Remain campaign. In America, this was a reaction against the brand of establishment career politician epitomised by Hillary Clinton who, as the ultimate insider, was intrinsically related to the ailing political consensus of the 1980s.
As Bob Dylan put it, ‘Things Have Changed’
A critical reflection for exponents of neoliberalism is to consider the extent to which Anglo-American voters were cognisant of the fact that, in their rejection of the status quo, they were identifying their desire for a new political ideology to emerge. Anyone that grasps this may still have the opportunity to advocate an evolutionary approach that recognises the growing clamour for reform within notable segments of British and American society whilst retaining the aspects of neoliberalism that are perceived as working.

To simply dismiss the vast swathes of Trump and Brexit voters, or worse denigrate their ability to make a considered democratic choice, would be a distinct error of judgment. This type of attitude prevails on social media but, hopefully, neoliberal politicians in Britain and America are more sophisticated and keener to understand why contemporary politics is changing so significantly.

A paradigm shift in society is always a long time coming. The first step in the realisation that, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘Things Have Changed’, is acknowledging the failure of the existing way of doing things. The fearsome challenge comes in creating a new and better way of doing things. In the lag time before a new approach develops there is always that fraught period whereby the status quo battles to save itself. The failure in the existing way of doing things, and the nadir for neoliberalism, occurred in 2008 when the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm and sweep away the foundations of this consensus.

Perversely, the reason that this did not occur was a consequence of the largest programmes of state economic intervention (in both Britain and America) since the New Deal era of the 1930s. In political commentary since, one of the most amazing realities is that the significance of such a socialist intervention (to save a capitalist system) has been largely ignored. Thus, the response to the 2008 crisis was to stabilise by whatever means necessary and, aside from largely cosmetic changes, maintain the framework that had initially brought us to the point of crisis. 

There was one crucial difference that would affect ordinary people. The crisis would open the door to an unprecedented (in terms of the modern era) period of austerity which would promote savage cuts to public expenditure in order to, allegedly, balance the public purse. There were only two huge flaws with such an approach – the first being that it comprehensively did not work and the second being that it entirely failed to address broader structural deficiencies within the economy, such as the arrival and consolidation of incredibly poor wage growth (or even stagnation) alongside rising welfare dependency, house prices and job insecurity.

The seeds of discontent

Consider the mentality of many individuals when they turned out to vote – either back in June or on Tuesday – and imagine the central fault-line running through their thinking. In the case of Britain, there is a sizeable proportion of people (that cuts across age, ethnicity and employment status to give but three markers) that had fallen victim to the ‘quirks’ of the economy. The young priced out of the housing market, the elderly struggling on fixed incomes, and the demographic in between that at best had not seen a pay increase for several years, or were locked into the insecurity of zero-hours or fixed-term employment. Their choice was Remain (and the apparent continuation of the status quo) or Leave, which would result in the delivery of a completely uncharted territory, but one that would at least put the political establishment into a state of flux that may, or may not, actually shake things up for the better. When the performance of leading Remain campaigners is factored in, and the assertion that they did little to inspire, the seeds of a reactionary vote are certainly visible.

 The past is broken, the present is muddled and the future remains uncertain

Step across the Atlantic and a similar type of scenario is also evident. Many are already focussed on how Trump secured his success by turning America’s Rust Belt into a Republican stronghold – in some instances for the first time since the 1980s. Wisconsin is the most instructive example, illustrating in a nut-shell the disconnect between neoliberal elites and the ordinary voter. Clinton opted not to visit the state at all during her campaign – the first time since 1972 that this had been the case and, with hindsight, demonstrative of either an arrogance or complacency that would prove extremely costly.

Trump filled the void and became the first Republican to win Wisconsin since 1984 providing a neat circularity – the last time Wisconsin favoured the GOP was at the high point of Reaganomics and here it is, 32 years later, that the ultimate political outsider reclaimed it for them. This achievement was not necessarily on the basis of offering new and concrete ideas but capturing a prevailing mood of discontent at the increasing failure, ironically, of the economic outlook that had last propelled the Republicans to success in ‘America’s Dairyland’.

2016 will stand out as an incredible year for British and American politics – both nations are now fully immersed in an era where a new paradigm needs to be worked out. The past is broken, the present is muddled and the future remains uncertain. How did we get to this point? Well maybe Dylan captured it best when he nonchalantly observed that “people are crazy and times are strange”. Times are likely to get stranger still as neoliberals, disillusioned voters and, for their part, a confused mass media try and work out what on earth is happening out in the real world.

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