Only (re)Connect. The US elections, How Change Happens and where do we go from here?

This is just me indulging in a little personal therapy as I come to terms with this week’s political earthquake. If you

And you may ask yourself 'how did I get here'  [Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime]
And you may ask yourself ‘how did I get here?’ [Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime]
want the official Oxfam response, we’re working on it, but you’ll have to wait (should be out before the 2020 elections). So this is just me. Is that clear? Good.

Trexit? Brump? 2016 is proving to be one hell of an annus horribilis for progressives (a category to which I like to think I still belong). Wednesday felt like Brexit on steroids, triggering an emotional roller-coaster akin to the grieving process:

  1. Blank Disbelief
  2. Gallows Humour (social media is a great comfort)
  3. Fear, Rage & Blame (including of voters themselves for disagreeing with me and my posse)
  4. Slowly hauling brain into gear to reengage – enquire, rethink, respond. Basically, get back on the horse – what else can we do? Give up on it all and cultivate our gardens I guess, but I hate gardening.

When the latest political earthquake happened, I was beginning three days of launch events in the Netherlands: in How Change Happens terms, here was a textbook ‘critical juncture’ – moments of drastic change in complex systems, when assumptions, power relations and possibilities are shaken up and transformed in unexpected ways (for good or ill). Unsurprisingly, the election result dominated many of my ensuing discussions. Some thoughts:

What happened? The post mortem industry is already in full swing, and I’m no pollster, but this feels very Brexit-ac_polls_income_comp1like, a kick in the shins of business as usual/ the political elite; a populist vote against a system that has stopped delivering for a large portion of the middle class (in US terms) – the lowest income groups continued to vote Democrat (see chart); a cry of rage (laced with nostalgia) against the threat of ‘the Other’ and a perceived loss of national and cultural influence, washed away by the ubiquitous tides of globalization. Maybe even historic revenge of the rural against the complacent, patronising urban elite.

That is deeply confusing for any progressive. How did the populists so adroitly steal our clothes on inequality, the evils of finance capital or unfair trade agreements? Why have ‘the people’ rejected our ideas and values so comprehensively? Why do I suddenly feel like a member of the reviled ‘elite’? As I tweeted on dazed Wednesday ‘2016= year they came w pitchforks. No-one told us they would be coming for us.’

Post Brexit, and with the real possibility of Geert Wilders winning the Dutch election next March, this upheaval/revolution is clearly a generalised phenomenon, at least within Europe and the USA. Conversations with Dutch NGO strategists saw some fairly painful self-criticism:

Why have we turned such a blind eye to regressive populism in Europe, narrowly targeting policy and spending pitchforks
decisions in our campaigns, while ignoring the rising anger beyond our bubble, threatening to overturn the whole system? Is it because our project-constrained, short term approach to influencing, campaigns etc cannot tackle such deep underlying normative shifts and threats? Or we have succumbed to the creeping elitism of wanting to be ‘inside the room’, even as the room itself shrinks? Or because the centre-left has amassed too many victories that must now be protected, forcing it onto the strategic defensive (‘defend the NHS! Stop this and that!’) and meekly handing the symbolic victory of being the mould-breaker to the Right?

Why do we always gather round tangible issues (windmills, xenophobia) rather than trying to understand and directly confront the anger that underlies the backlash?

What happens next? Some possible strategies in the short term:

  • Be clear on red lines, where truly bad things must be confronted (persecution of migrants, minorities)
  • Do any opportunities lie within the populist narrative? (trade policy? finance sector reform?). But be careful – hitching your wagon to the populist locomotive carries significant risks and costs.

But the real challenge is in the long term. The progressive coalition has been asleep at the wheel, as the backlash has
gathered momentum, and ordinary people have felt increasingly angered and excluded from the benefits of the system. That requires a long term, deep rethink, and then fundamentally different response, not just a few clever statue-of-libertycampaign videos.

  • Shifting norms on, for example, the rights of ‘others’ is a long term exercise that we can no longer ignore. We are going to have to rebuild social cohesion from the bottom up, identifying and working with islands of social capital (faith organizations, sports, culture and the arts)
  • To do that we have to give up our fascinati0n with the corridors of power – reconnect with the people who have so clearly rejected the liberal consensus, rebuild our ability to understand and work with them.
  • Engaging in shifting ideas, norms and debates in the long term means transforming how we talk and communicate. Evidence isn’t enough, particularly in these post-truth times. We have to think about framing, learn to value popular narratives, tap into metaphors and popular cultural memes (the Robin Hood Tax). Not talk down to people or bombard them with statistics.

Follow that advice and I may even end up working for my son Calum, who is doing exactly this in the grassroots Citizens UK community movement. If he’d ever give me a job.

Over to you.

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18 Responses to “Only (re)Connect. The US elections, How Change Happens and where do we go from here?”
  1. Ian Falkingham

    Thank you for this. Many of us are probably looking for pointers to a way forward right now.

    This post and yesterday’s on campaigning remind us forecfully of the need to connect on a deeper level with those who mighht suport our long term objectives. Building support and a movement takes time and needs attention.

    Given my job with Oxfam’s Trading team I can’t help but feel a little comforted by the knowledge that here in the UK we have 22,000 people who don’t just support our aims but actually get out on a weekly basis and work as volunteers in order to make change happen in the world. That’s a significant movement right there; perhaps the challeneg is how we use it to make teh case for long term progress.

  2. Augusta

    Thank you Duncan. For me the shock and gallow’s humour phases have been supplanted by depression (yes, the U.S. ‘ s northern neighbours are taking this hard too.) And I especially agree with the final sentence in Paragraph 7 about the centr-left having become defensive. We are becoming cautious, I think, ‘surprised’ (although pleasantly so) that Bernie Sanders resonated so strongly among average Americans.
    So while I am purposely ignoring all media right now, this post was welcome in my morning mail.

  3. Thanks Duncan, I agree with most of what you say. Interesting to hear also the railing against the democratic process, when if you put aside the tone of the campaign, it was democracy at its best. The person with the least amount of money to spend on campaigning, the least political support, institutional leverage and media support speaks up for the disenfranchised and wins. The trouble is, many of us just don’t like the way it was done, or the result! As the loser of the 1966 election Dick Tuck said “The people have spoken, the bastards!”

    But this is what democracy is for. Commentator Ian Leslie reminded us after Brexit that ‘Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes, I would have carried on ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country, but I can’t ignore this.”

    That doesn’t mean we haven’t got to battle for our own ideas and ways of doing things, but must remember also who we are leaving behind in our clamour to leave no-one behind!

  4. Emily

    You’re buying into the Right Wing sob-story. “Those selfish liberals won’t hear me! That justifies literally any reaction, no matter how odious, because I’m angry!”

    Liberals are pretty pissed at the establishment, too. Way before this week. Hillbillies haven’t cornered the market on lives getting worse, options shrinking, and their will being casually ignored by politics as usual.

    Don’t perpetuate the narrative of the poor conservative victim, trapped in some far-left Hell. Nothing we try to accomplish happens without years of strife and a level of compromise that cripples the end product (see: so-called Obamacare) .

    The Left didn’t make the manufacturing jobs go away, and the Right opposes regulation and labor rights that could help. Line us up with the Latinos and Muslims as the scapegoats. That’s what’s really happening. How do you move forward from there? Who disdains who?

    Emily from a Blue State

  5. John Cowan

    Has nobody noticed that it’s a billionaire who has stepped up to defend the lot of the poor the oppressed and the forgotten? Ironic? Cynical? It is, of course, all part of THE BIG CON that the American elite has perpetrated on its people for ever. Believe in the American Dream folks. With hard work and enterprise you too can become President or a Donald Trump or, it seems, both at the same time. The unspoken side which nobody hears but everyone understands is that if you don’t make it it’s your fault. You didn’t work hard enough therefore you don’t deserve it. This con has now become the American reality and everyone knows and accepts that you only have what you deserve and that it’s all your fault for not trying hard enough. God help the country when enough disenfranchised people realise they’ve been conned and by whom. In a country with more guns than people and the belief in a potential people’s militia Revolution is only a charismatic leader away.

  6. Jane Lonsdale

    Thanks for the analysis amidst the mayhem. Just wondering what your thoughts are on how this change relates to feminism (or lack of it)? How and why people, especially women, could vote for Trump despite his track record on, at best, complete disregard for women, at worst, abuse of women?What’s the breakdown of male and female voters in US in the different pay brackets?

    For me, more generally, alternative solutions coming from the left feels urgent, and perhaps if we can get those on the table, we can have more constructive debate about alternatives to the current failing system.

    • Duncan Green

      Painful question Jane, but (see today’s Links I Liked), the reality is even more painful for feminists who assumed women would vote against Trump. Among non college white women, Trump won 2:1; among college educated women, Clinton only won by a whisker (51:49). Time to get back to intersectionality I guess – people (and their voting behaviour) are defined and shaped by much more than their gender. For feminism I imagine the debate will be along similar lines to the rest of the baffled progressives – is your diagnosis that people were conned and will come back to the fold, or that you have seriously lost contact with a large chunk of the people and need to rethink? Do you sharpen or soften your language and demands? How can you reach out to some groups you think can be won over? Judging by the initial reactions, seems like at least some feminists are saying conned/sharpen. Not sure I agree. Wd welcome other views on this.

      • Yes, it’s true that we cannot simply assume that 60 million Americans are racist misogynists. The shock factor here is that people looked beyond Trump’s overtly hostile statements towards Hispanics, African Americans and Muslims and voted for him anyway. That’s what is causing so much fear and disbelief among these groups. For me, the biggest puzzle is how the very people the safety net is set up to protect have handed the entire government to the GOP, who are going to make cuts to the very programs that the low income people depend on – Food Stamps, Medicaid, WIC, etc. In states like Tennessee, 20% of the population is on food stamps. Yes, the republicans are going to argue that 20% on food stamps is a problem that needs to be addressed by empowering people to lift themselves. Problem is a huge number of people on food stamps actually have jobs. It’s wages that have been depressed for so long, something the GOP is not going to do anything about.

      • Whitney

        Sorry, Duncan, but I don’t think you realize how “post-truth” our age really is. Having a rational discussion with a Trump supporter is almost impossible. He has tapped into rural America’s collective lizard-brain and it’s hard to reason with that. We are in such a tribalistic period, that I’m not sure what will get us out of it, except for the oldsters dying off Millennials finally coming into power.

  7. Thanks Duncan for a great article. Tearfund’s Restorative Economy report by Alex Evans and Richard Gower has a lot of these themes in – politicians lack the political space to take enough action on climate change and inequality, so NGOs need to help build a movement to create that political space, and doing that is more urgent than securing the next incremental policy win (though that still needs doing); faith can provide a resonant story to help movement-building.

    Also I can’t resist sharing this great opening line from US Christian activist Shane Claiborne ‘Trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be sort of like mixing ice cream with horse manure…’

  8. Roger Hallam

    Hi Duncan,
    I heard your LSE lecture and thought I should get in touch. I do research on radical political mobilisation at Kings College London. Its an unfunded PhD project – ie I just pay them rent to use their name! I have been using complexity theory to build practical systems which have been successfully applied in my design work (via the Radical Think Tank) to create the first successful rent strike in London for several generations (at UCL earlier this year) , and organising the Deliveroo workers (soon to hit the news again) with the IWGB union. I am also working on escalation plans for closing down Heathrow each month next year. There is a close network of activists and acdemics in London now applying evidence based research to the creation of political disruption. The templates are built around open participatory meetings, using conditional commitment to build collective action, and dilemma action design applied to transgressive political activity (eg occupations/strikes). It works and its got explosive potential. So just in case you are in London some time I would love to meet up and compare notes. I should warn you tho I am a revolutionary (of the Lockean variety) so I may get thrown out of Kings soon – and so will just be an odd bod from then on!
    On Trump – well it is all very obvious – the middle class progressive left abandoned the working class a generation ago and this is payback time.

    all the best

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