Here’s a character rarely mentioned in the contemporary political debate. He (he’s usually a man) lives in a suburb or small town. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon, and he worked his way up, which wasn’t always fun. Now he owns his home and earns above-average income. He is scathing of big-city elites with posh accents who got easy lives handed to them. In short, he’s a middle-class anti-elitist.
You find him across the western world: in New Jersey and Long Island, around the English south-east, the Milan agglomeration and in the quiet suburbs of Rotterdam. The comfortably off populist voter is the main force behind Trump, Brexit and Italy’s Lega. Yet he’s largely ignored, while the conversation about populism revolves around an entirely different figure: the impoverished former factory worker.
Pundits are forever explaining why poor Sunderland voted for Brexit, but rarely why wealthy Bournemouth did. In most developed countries, populism is less a working-class revolt than a middle-class civil war. So why do well-off people vote against the system?
The stats reveal the middle-classness of populism. About two-thirds of Trump voters in 2016 had household incomes above $50,000 (then about the US average), according to the American National Election Study. Most British Leave voters lived in the south of England, and 59 per cent were middle class (social classes A, B or C1), writes Danny Dorling, geographer at Oxford University. In the Netherlands, two-thirds of supporters of far-right Thierry Baudet are moderately or highly educated, say pollsters Ipsos.
Imagine one of these voters, a small business-owner or accountant in Britain, not in London, earning £60,000 a year. (Much of what follows also applies to his small-town equivalents elsewhere.) He isn’t keen on positive discrimination for women or people of colour, or on high taxes. In fact, he doesn’t want anyone to get “handouts”. In a NatCen Social Research study of the Brexit referendum, “affluent Eurosceptics” were the segment of the electorate least likely to have financial troubles (marginally less so than “middle-class liberals”), and most likely to be anti-welfare.
This man’s advance has been slow. He has never been invited into the fast lane of life: the top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations. He feels, with some justification, that his exclusion has been unfair — based on his accent, schooling, clothes and unfamiliarity with trendy conversational topics. He realised years ago that so-called meritocracy is a fraud.
Big-city professors, journalists and civil servants with fancy degrees — people who strongly resemble politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Miliband — seem to him manifestly full of shit. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s right-hand man, captured this sentiment when he evoked “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers . . . ” (though Cummings is himself an Oxbridge humanities graduate).
Yet whenever our man has got anywhere near these frauds, they have snubbed him. The British Conservative grandee Ken Clarke’s dismissal in 2014 of Ukip voters as “elderly male people who’ve had disappointing lives” was typical.
Over the decades, this man has incurred uncountable psychic slights from big-city types. In her book How To Lose A Country, the Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran recalls an Anatolian businessman asking: “Do you really need a membership card to get into a disco in Istanbul?” He’d been turned away from one, she explains, “supposedly because of the card issue”. She breaks it to him that there are no cards.
Eventually, this man’s snubbed caste brought the populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power. “That same businessman,” Temelkuran writes, “bought the disco to which he had been refused entry and turned it into a ‘family restaurant’, which in Turkey means a conservative no-alcohol establishment.”
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, too, has replaced big-city journalists, civil servants, judges, diplomats and the heads of state companies with the party’s own people. The Trump administration is doing something similar. This revenge is much of the point of populism. On January 31, many Brexiters spent their ultimate moment of triumph attacking elitist traitors instead of celebrating.
Even now, most journalists and academics still overlook the provincial middle class. The socialist-realist figure of the laid-off factory worker remains more compelling. Anand Menon and Matt Bevington of the UK in a Changing Europe, a research group now starting a project on “comfortable Leavers”, note that the general political focus on “left-behind” or “hard-to-reach” people has influenced academic research.
Populist politicians themselves seldom mention their most loyal supporting class. Trump boasts of a “blue-collar boom”, while Johnson is focusing on a smaller fraction of Leave voters, the northern working classes. In Britain, says Bevington: “The people who were ignored [the northern working class] are now not ignored, and the people who were not ignored [the southern middle class] are now ignored.”
The provincial middle classes can console themselves with one thought: they made the revolution.
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