Depression and Trump

Torsten Bell, director of the Resolution Foundation, provided a useful breakdown of voting patterns in last Tuesday’s presidential election. Taken at face value, the results seem to show that Hillary Clinton did well among those voters on the lowest incomes. She led 53%-41% among those earning less than $30,000 a year and by 51%-42% among those earning between $30,000 and $50,000.

But these statistics are misleading. There was actually a 16-point net swing to the Republicans between the 2012 and 2016 elections among those earning less than $30,000 a year and a 6-point swing among those earning $30,000 to $50,000. By contrast, there was a swing to the Democrats among those on higher incomes, and this was particularly pronounced among those earning more than $100,000 a year.

There have been three stages to this process of political estrangement. When the postwar era began, parties of the left focused exclusively on economic issues. The emphasis was on curing the ills of the 1930s: unemployment, poverty and slum housing. Governments were committed to full employment and redistribution and were prepared to use controls – on money, goods and people – to deliver those goals. Conversely, there was little appetite for fighting cultural wars. Neither Harry Truman in the US nor Clement Attlee in Britain could be described as a social liberal.

The second phase came in the 1960s, when the parties of the left backed both economic and social reform. In the US, it was the era of civil rights legislation and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programmes to tackle poverty. In Britain, the Labour government had its National Plan for the economy but also gave a fair wind to changes Attlee never delivered: the abolition of capital punishment, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, legal abortions, easier divorce and the relaxation of censorship laws.

The third and final phase of this process began in the mid-1970s. Parties of the left gradually accepted defeat in the economic war and devoted their energies to winning the cultural war instead. It was taken as a given that the focus of macro-economic policy should be control of inflation rather than full employment. It was accepted that there should be as few impediments to free markets as possible, with government intervention limited to tackling any short-term problems that might arise. Curbs on trade unions introduced by parties of the right were not rolled back. Globalisation was seen as an unstoppable force that ruled out the interventionist policies of the past. Instead, the Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK limited themselves to topping up poverty wages and argued that the answer to jobs being shipped overseas was for the newly unemployed to get better qualifications.

We are living in a depression – that’s why Trump took the White House