White working-class angst
The EU referendum and the American elections have brought white working-class voters back to the global political arena. In the aftermaths of the two elections they have been blamed for making the decisive difference. In Britain (especially outside of London and Scotland), constituencies with a high white working-class (WWC) voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Similarly, in the US, Donald Trump managed to win over the majority of the WWC population. Most strikingly about these elections is that WWC voter’s interests are very likely to be harmed by their votes. Yet they decided to vote against their traditional representatives, i.e. Labour in the UK, which supported “Remain”, and the Democratic Party in the US.
Whilst there are huge differences between North America and Europe, the rejection of globalisation and immigration by WWC voters seems to be a commonality throughout the West. Many pundits have explained the success of the Brexiteers and Trump as WWC anger and even an expression of overt racism. However, this perspective fails to cover the complexity of the impacts that globalisation has had on Western Europe’s and America’s former industrial power houses, such as America’s Rust Belt, Northern England, the Ruhr Area or Wallonia. Cities such as Youngstown, Ohio or Port Talbot, Wales have lost considerable working-class jobs in the last 40 years. Ford used to employ around 55,000 people in Youngstown and the Port Talbot Steelworks over 20,000 people in southern Wales. Today Ford only employs 4,000 and the steelworks only 3,000, which will likely further decrease as the current owners, Tata Steel, has announced it will cease all its UK operations. The working class residents of these areas have suffered tremendously under the huge transformational processes of automation, outsourcing and cheap imports but also immigration. Local and national politics have in many cases failed to adequately mitigate these effects and to shift towards a service economy or attract high-end industries. So what exactly went wrong? Where does the anger come from? And why has politics failed the WWC so badly?
While progressive politics has focussed heavily on the effects of deindustrialisation and rationalisation, it has mostly ignored the effects of immigration and thus left this topic to right wing parties and populists. For many WWC people immigration is often seen as one of the most immediate and threatening results of globalisation. In terms of immigration there is obviously somewhat of a historic transatlantic divide here, despite the presence being quite similar. And certainly also a European divide on how the state reacted. The US - the land of immigrants - has a completely different perspective on immigration. Despite this, only 13% of US inhabitants are actually foreign born, compared to 28% in Switzerland, 16% in West Germany (over 95% of residents with a “migration background” live in West Germany and Berlin) and 13% in the UK. All western European countries have become de facto immigration countries. Only Finland (5.5%), Portugal (8%), Denmark (8.5%) and Italy (9.5%) have less than 10% foreign-born citizens. As of 2014, Germany is the second most popular migration destination in the world, even though the country struggles with the term “immigration country” and still does not have an adequate immigration system for non-EU citizens.
Most immigrants settled in the working-class areas of industrial centres and big cities and completely changed the structures of many local communities, even though the industrial revolution and previous waves of migrations (national and international, e.g. Ruhr Poles) had already left their marks. Many immigrants moved into former houses of working-class families that were able to afford to move to more prosperous neighbourhoods. In the UK the privatisation of council houses under Margaret Thatcher accelerated this phenomenon quite significantly. Many of the new residents failed to create the same commitment to the community, which often resulted in conflicts between old and new residents. The resulting demographic change has left the remaining WWC residents with a perceived marginalisation on several levels - with a highlight on perception.
Firstly, their local experiences give them the feeling that they are outnumbered, despite being nationally quite clearly in the majority. The WWC population in areas with very few immigrants often cite these inner-city neighbourhoods as a dooming prophecy for the entire country. Secondly, they feel that the government is not taking their needs seriously and only focusing on immigrant and middle class issues. Thirdly, they feel judged by mainstream society and progressive politics.
An abandoned factory in Youngstown, Ohio. (Photo:
Unfortunately, in many cases economic anxiety and racism go hand in hand. Nevertheless the underlining problems have to be taken seriously. The first issue has to be tackled with smart local integration initiatives and local development programmes to counter increasing inequality. The latter two are more complex and have to be seen in a broader context within the crisis of social democracy and of capitalism. When progressive politicians and the middle class speak of white privilege, the white working class populations of Youngstown, Port Talbot or Charleroi have difficulties relating to them. The absence of the European welfare state and free access to quality education make this even more striking in the US. The WWC population in the rust belt often lives in precarious conditions. A medical emergency could very likely result in financial bankruptcy and homelessness. Many haven’t seen an increase in their living standards since the 1970s. Why should they care about white privilege? Of course they might still experience white privilege in many circumstances but they do not necessarily feel it - and what the recent elections taught us: perception is always more important than verifiable facts, especially on a personal level.
Progressive politicians have often been tempted by identity politics instead of seeing disadvantaged minorities and the white working-class as one group. Further, political correctness and positive discrimination measures are seen by many WWC people as a form of discrimination against them. A huge chasm has developed between the traditional political representatives of the working-class and the WWC themselves. Only 2% of US Members of Congress and 5% of British MPs (7% of Labour MPs) have a working-class background. In comparison, 26% of the German Bundestag has a working-class background (defined by former occupation).
Far-right parties have seized this opportunity and are quickly turning into political strongholds of the WWC. While “whites without a college degree” were slightly more likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidates in the 1992 and 1996 elections, the Republicans have since taken over this vote. Trump, of course, was able to win the overwhelming majority of the WWC vote, especially in the rust belt
In the UK, UKIP has taken over the WWC vote in many areas of Northern England, as could be seen during the EU referendum, the 2015 general election and the European parliament election, where they won respectively 12.7% and 26.6% of the vote. If Britain didn’t have the first-past-the-post voting system, UKIP would be the third largest party in the UK parliament and wouldn’t just be represented by one MP. In an interesting shift of events, however, Theresa May’s government is now trying to convince WWC voters - what she calls the "just about managing families" or Jams - that the Conservative Party should be their new political home. While it is quite unlikely for this to succeed, it is still too early to make any judgements.
In other European countries, most notably France, the Netherlands, Austria (which might soon be the first EU country since WW2 to elect a far-right head of state), Denmark and Sweden, far-right parties have become the de facto political representatives of large parts of the WWC. Additionally, far-right parties are cooperating with alt-right media channels (which are often funded by the Kremlin) to create an alternate universe, where mainstream politics and politics are simply ignored or - even worse - seen as “enemies of the people”. In Britain, parts of the mainstream press, such as The Sun and The Daily Mail have already adopted alt-right extremist rhetoric. Trump, who’s had an extremely ambivalent relationship with the extreme right throughout his campaign, has recently even appointed one of the unofficial leaders of the alt-right movement as his chief strategist, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon.
The Washington Free Beacon's Matthew Continetti and The Washington Post’s David Weigel explain the alt-right movement and potential impact on conservatism.
Alienating such a huge part of society is irresponsible and extremely dangerous. A lot of damage has already been made, yet much of it is still reversible. The negative effects of globalisation have to be managed to prevent the weakest members of society paying the highest costs. The recent elections must be seen as a wake up call to politicians throughout the West. It is hard to predict what will happen to the EU if far-right, eurosceptic parties win in the 2017 general elections in France and the Netherlands. Further, if Trump were to even implement a fraction of his America-first campaign promises and ignore Putin’s increasingly assertive moves in Eastern Europe, the EU might see itself threatened not only by eurosceptic founding members’ governments, but also by external actors, i.e. Russia, that will work towards destabilising the EU and disuniting the West. All these factors combined might prove to be too overwhelming for the European project. In other words, this is an existential crisis and the WWC is at the core of it. Of course, the WWC is not to blame for this development, but rather the failure of politics to mitigate the negative effects of globalisation, to counter rising inequality and to implement sensible and sound policies.
Austerity policies have often target the weakest members of society. Small towns in rural East Germany, for example, have been weakened by the effects of globalisation, the transition to market economy, austerity policies and the brain drain to West Germany. There is no job security anymore, community centres, kindergartens and schools are gradually closing down due to budget constraints and the population decrease. Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland, is most successful in these areas, fuelled by angst of an unknown future and the refugee crisis. Many WWC East Germans see refugees as an existential threat that are about to take over the sparse jobs and unemployment benefits. However, when they vent their frustration all mainstream society and the media see is racism. Failed immigration policies and integration efforts of the past only add to this perception. While racism is definitely a massive problem in large parts of Europe, the perceived “elitist” behaviour increases the chasm between the WWC and other segments of society. Similar situations exist across Europe and the US. So what has to be done?
Policies should focus on the economy, education, housing, and integration of immigrants as well as disillusioned WWC people into mainstream society. It is important to note that despite the claims and populists, globalisation is a process that can’t be halted. However, the impacts thereof can be very well managed. Firstly, it is crucial to establish a balanced economy (and prevent future economic crises from reoccurring) that doesn’t rely on only one industry. Unlike Trump’s retro vision of the American economy, with bustling “clean” coal power plants, steel works and fracking, this will have to be based on green energy and smart automation systems, which will further decrease the amount of traditional working-class jobs. To counter further alienation of the WWC, Western states have to provide quality education to all citizens at minimal costs. The quality of secondary schooling in US and UK is often highly dependent on location and working-class neighbourhoods usually have significantly lower standards. The exorbitantly high tuition fees at UK and US universities further prevent many working-class students from entering university. Other European countries, most notably the German speaking countries, are better at providing skilled training for “future proof” working-class jobs. The dual education system ensures students theoretic training at a high standard, while also working closely with industry to meet demand and ensure employability. The advanced economies also have to deal with the fact that many low-skilled jobs will simply cease to exist, with machines taking over most tasks - thanks to increased automation and the internet of things. This has gone so far that many German companies are now relocating their manufacturing operations from the Far East back to Germany because labour costs are becoming less relevant and the ability to quickly react to market trends is becoming more important. Yet WWC workers will hardly benefit from this development.
Secondly, the state has to create incentives to invest in affordable housing and encourage local community building measures. Providing ample affordable housing in the big metropolitan areas will prevent the WWC population from feeling threatened by incoming immigrants. Furthermore, municipalities have to ensure that new residents develop a commitment to local communities and encourage places where new and old residents can exchange. Much of the existing problems exist because of failed communication. On the one hand between the WWC and the “elites” and, on the hand, between old and new residents. Bridging this communication gap is incredibly important.
It is not too late to reverse some of the underlying issues of one of the biggest threats to democracy in the Western world since WW2. Globalisation and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution cannot be halted. It is fantastic to promise to make the WWC “great again” by promising to relocate jobs from the 1950s back to the West or to claim to seal off borders. Instead, politicians and policy makers should focus on how to mitigate the negative effects and on reintegrating large parts of WWC population back to mainstream politics. In order for this to happen democratic parties have to take the worries of the WWC seriously without turning to identity politics or legitimising existing racist prejudices. It is also wrong for progressive politicians to to live in the past and hope for a socialist revolution. Yet there is still hope. Populist and far-right parties almost never offer workable solutions - and if they do they are almost certain to ignore the interests of the WWC. Hence the most likely way the current political phenomenon will end is through the self-destructing of populists once in power. However, much harm can be done in the meantime.