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Economic Inequality and Cultural Backlash Has Created Brexit and Trump

Western liberal democracy has been out of touch for a long time. While it has championed LGBT rights, gender equality, racial equality and other noble causes, it seems to have forgotten about the plight of the ordinary working class person. This is perhaps best characterised in the painting called ‘The Forgotten Man’, in which a long line of US presidents attempt to point President Obama’s attention to a broken and dishevelled man sitting despairingly on a bench.

The year 2016 has seen a roar of protest emerge from the forgotten masses. It has seen populism triumph over the pomposity and smug certainty of liberal elites. First came Brexit, where the result came as such a shock that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron swiftly proffered his resignation shortly afterwards, while it soon became apparent that the ‘leave’ side were equally astounded, not having bothered to have a plan put in place should they actually win.

Then came another political earthquake to rock 2016, the election of the hugely polarizing and foul mouthed Donald Trump, who hardly seemed to have any credible policy to begin with, other than his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ and, should anyone have any doubt to the credibility of someone who some would deem a charlatan and huckster, a simple “believe me” did the trick with vast swathes of middle America.

We now have the very realistic possibility of having a far right leader becoming the Head of State in Austria (something which did not end well before) as well as a possible populist spring in Europe, which could lead to the dismantling of the European Union.  This is of particular concern because it has helped to kept peace and stability in Europe since its conception in 1993 as an evolution of successful economic cooperation after World War Two in the form of the EEC which had been formed in 1957. With the possible alliance of Trump and Putin, it is little wonder that the EU is scrambling to form a European Army as quickly as possible. Without a heavily funded NATO, and a unilateral and isolated United States, Putin will greedily be eyeing up spoils all over eastern Europe to add to his earlier ‘conquest’ of the Crimea, an area of such militarily strategic importance that the British, French and Ottomans laid down their lives between 1853-1856 to prevent it falling into Russian hands.  Governments across Europe would have little choice but to rearm, further signalling the end of the welfare state.

Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and more tellingly, Marine Le Pen in France sense an opening and the economic and sociological conditions are ripe for them to profit, even if the polls (which are no longer to be trusted) say otherwise. All the momentum is with nationalism and populism. The question is why?

According to Ronald Inglehart, “There is overwhelming evidence of powerful trends toward greater income and wealth inequality in the West, based on the rise of the knowledge economy, technological automation, and the collapse of manufacturing industry, global flows of labor, goods, peoples, and capital (especially the inflow of migrants and refugees), the erosion of organized labor, shrinking welfare safety-nets, and neo-liberal austerity policies.”

Some economists have speculated that uncapped immigration along with an aging population meant that the welfare system of northern Europe in particular was never realistically sustainable, whilst in North America which has historically leaned more to the right than Europe was always going to be unwilling to get involved in such an egalitarian venture given its history of McCarthyism and distrust of socialism.

In Britain, many underprivileged and unemployed people were beneficiaries of a generous welfare cheque under Labour, only to have austerity and cuts imposed on them by a Conservative government seemingly obsessed with cutting the deficit.  They refused to give either handouts that created a culture of dependency; or money to feed the poor and disabled, depending on which side of the political spectrum on which you are aligned.

What is clear though is that in both the UK and the USA the poor have become poorer and that these people were often the forgotten people outside of the big cities and population centres. This was no better seen in the maps which showed that wealthy regions such as London and Scotland voted to remain, whereas the more disadvantaged parts of the UK such as Wales and the North East voted to leave to EU.  In the USA, the rust belt had long been touted as Trump’s route to the White House and so it was that Pennsylvania, a state which had not voted Republican since 1988, decided that enough was enough and that they had to roll the dice with Trump.

Rising economic insecurity and social deprivation among the left-behinds has fueled popular resentment of the political classes. This situation has made the less secure strata of society – low-waged unskilled workers, the long-term unemployed, households dependent on shrinking social benefits, residents of public housing, single-parent families, and poorer white populations living in inner-city areas with concentrations of immigrants-- susceptible to the anti-establishment, nativist, and xenophobic scare-mongering exploitation of populist movements.

They are all looking for a leader to promise them a better life, even if that leader has no discernible plan or manifesto. These are the uneducated and the hungry, the people who work hard and who are so desperate for something better that they back anyone but the out of touch elites who think they can ride on the backs of celebrity endorsement into office. These are the downtrodden and the marginalized, the people who are ‘deplorable’ and ‘racist’ for desiring a change of the current system that is failing them. They have watched their own alienation and seen their voices ignored for too long.

 They are not the champagne socialists who pick up a pen and write from their swanky townhouses to comment on how their cosy little world might be shaken up.

These are real people, the backbone of society who have made their voice heard in the ballot. These are the care workers who work 12 hour shifts on a minimum wage, helping those who are forgotten by society. The steel workers, whose industry has moved abroad to a tax haven. The single parents and the disabled, who cannot feed themselves or their children and who struggle through life on a day to day basis.

This is the forgotten man. The man, who shunned by liberalism has created a monster.

We are now entering a very uncertain phase of human existence. The blame cannot be placed on the vulnerable and disaffected. It can and ought to be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who denied there was any economic inequality large enough to warrant sweeping changes. There has been a silent revolution that could have thunderous overtones for generations to come. 


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