It’s not about inequality

I recall after the financial crisis of 2008 everybody with an unconventional opinion on banking and monetary policy felt confirmed that this showed they had been right all along. Whether they believed in more regulation of banks or less, or in the superficially plausible but ultimately wrong-headed notion of banning bank lending altogether and making up the money supply by having the government print a lot extra – they felt proven right by events.

We are in danger of doing the same with Donald Trump’s victory. Last week Helen Flynn argued that it was about inequality. Thus the solution is to keep advocating what we have been advocating all along.

But is it? Trump’s message to the white working class was not redistribution but “make America great again”. It was explicitly a promise (undeliverable as it may be) to raise the tide, lifting all boats with it, not to share out the spoils that already exist. Clinton cares more about inequality than Trump and American voters by and large understand that, but they don’t care about inequality enough to vote Clinton.

And, for those in the lower half of the income distribution, it is an entirely noble sentiment to wish to lift all boats rather than seek redistribution from others. It is only the better off – the elite – for whom this emphasis can be selfish. A middle class perspective so dominates left wing thought that this is forgotten, and working class people who believe in self-reliance are pushed away.

Now I don’t mean to reinforce the perception that it was the working class what won it for Trump. It wasn’t. Trump voters were overall higher earners (but less educated) than Clinton voters.

No – the point is that this election was not about the economics. Culture beat economics hands down. Immigration beat poverty/inequality.

It’s a tragedy because it would have been possible to be more culturally in tune with working class values (say self-reliance, plain speaking) without pandering to racism or abandoning good liberal causes. Here are a couple of passages from an article at the Harvard Business Review that give a sense:

Manly dignity is a big deal for working-class men, and they’re not feeling that they have it. Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place. It’s comfort food for high-school-educated guys who could have been my father-in-law if they’d been born 30 years earlier. Today they feel like losers — or did until they met Trump.

The Democrats’ solution? Last week the New York Times published an article advising men with high-school educations to take pink-collar jobs. Talk about insensitivity. Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for WWC men just fuels class anger.

And in the context of seeming to need a college degree to be able to express an opinion in the correct language:

Trump’s blunt talk taps into another blue-collar value: straight talk. “Directness is a working-class norm,” notes Lubrano. As one blue-collar guy told him, “If you have a problem with me, come talk to me. If you have a way you want something done, come talk to me. I don’t like people who play these two-faced games.” Straight talk is seen as requiring manly courage, not being “a total wuss and a wimp,” an electronics technician told Lamont. Of course Trump appeals.

Maybe Clinton understands all this, but Obama was better at showing it.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Trying to work out “what it all means” seems to be the new passtime of choice. Obviously people had different reasons for voting leave, or supporting Trump, but to suggest that economic factors have nothing to do with it seems perverse. UKIP pick up votes in depressed coastal towns and parts of the North, Trump wins in the Rust Belt. Go figure, as they say stateside.
    What is clear (to me at least) is that traditional liberal concerns such as diversity, identity politics, race and gender, have very little traction with an electorate the are seeing their wages stagnate, are worrying about their pensions and how their kids will ever be able to afford a house. That’s not to say we compromise on our liberal principles, simply that we understand that we have to shift the focus.
    To argue this as a “culture v economics” argument is a false dichotomy. You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that one drives the other.

  • I fully accept Chris Corys view..if you have a bad situation anything is better than the status quo, but I think that Clinton turned out to be a bad candidate..had 8 years to prepare and still had e mail problems and money from speaking engagements which at $300000 a go hardly appears to be a person who could resonate with the poor and disadvantaged. Obama will in the long term be understood for the quality which he bought to the USA..Trump can never do that but neither could Clinton

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Nov '16 - 5:55pm

    Interesting facts/polling on the concerns of Trump supporters vs Trump detractors. Yes, if inequality was more of an issue then working class people wouldn’t like football so much. It would sicken them.

    The figures on immigration concerns of Trump supporters vs detractors in Joe’s comment here also show why I’m sceptical Sanders could have won. I’ve checked out Bernie’s policies on the southern border and he talks a tough game, but is against more fencing, so how serious can he be?

  • jedibeeftrix 15th Nov '16 - 6:24pm
  • The White House changes hands from time to time.
    It’s American politics which is a bit different from British politics.

  • Eddie.
    Lot’s of people love football. but dislike the financial side, But mainly it’s a false equivalence because football is sport not politics.

    The premise of this piece is false odd because you can’t divorce immigration from economics anyway and culture doesn’t go away just because you wish it would. And let’s a bit more honest and admit that mass immigration is just not wanted by the majority of the population. In in Britain when they ask people, well over 70% of the population want lower immigration. That’s not the white working classes, or left behinds, that’s pretty much everyone.
    To me the elephant in the room on immigration isn’t class anger. It’s pretending that the only concerned people are in the lower income bracket and that Poly Toynbee is more the voice of the middle classes than Melanie Philips. Maybe, the reality is that you control immigration because not controlling it has political consequences.

    Having said that go and watch Michael Moore talking about why he thought Trump would win, because he got the election result right based on knowing the issues in states like Michigan. The point being that how many people vote can be less important than where they vote in the US. It wasn’t immigration that swung it, it was protectionism.

    Globalism is s coming up against the reality of national votes and is being tested to destruction because it has no answer for the simple fact that election are based on national borders , on national issues, and not international ones.

  • It’s not about money – it’s a number of things; identity, dignity, purpose (I abhor the “when men were men” comment – just as I resent the repeated references to the past; it’s smugly patronising and vindictive to those it is aimed at)

    For non-university attenders there was nothing that gave purpose to their lives.

    Vocational training would have at least given a skill to these people, and something that they could have developed and used at some time to lift them out of despair.

  • The common factors in Trumps victory & Brexit are Nationalism & Nostalgia, a yearning for the good old days when Women, Gays, Foreigners & Ethnic minorities knew their place. Theres very little we can do to appeal to that demographic & trying to change their minds directly would be a waste of time & energy for any Political Party, we just dont have the numbers.
    What we need to do is state our values, in clear, simple language & try to unite people who share those values around us.

  • Paul,
    I voted to leave the EU and genuinely resent being labelled a reactionary. The reality is people voted to leave the EU mostly because they feel no real connection to it and it’s 23 year record of is not actually very good, something David Owen pointed out.
    Obviously, I accept that the Lib Dems are committed to the EU and that it is perfectly reasonable to be so. But it would be rather nice if, instead theorising about the “real” reason why people voted this way or that by looking into the tea leaves of demographic patterns, there was a bit more listening and taking things on board.

    Trump beat Clinton because, unfortunately, her public image is a bit toxic and the campaign was uninspiring, offering nothing new when voters were citing change as the top priority. My feeling is that HC was just about the only Democratic Party candidate Trump could beat because she embodied a lot of faux anti-establishment rhetoric he spouted.

  • Hi Joe – greetings to a fellow Yorkshire man (I assume)?
    This is interesting stuff, thanks for raising it – lets start with the Kaufmann paper.
    I’m going to challenge back on one point here, as after reading it, there seems to be a bit of: “I’m going to try to use the data to prove the conclusion I’ve already come to” at work 🙂
    The graphs show that for Trump Supporters, the Economy & Immigration are the major concerns and for Brexit supporters, Immigration & the Economy, in that order.
    So, whilst I agree Inequality/Poverty were low down the list in both cases, drawing the conclusion – “It was not about the economics. Culture beat economics hands down. Immigration beat poverty/inequality” – would seem at best, a stretch.

    I understand how he’s presented the data, looking at differences in Democrat/Republican, Brexit/Remain for each parameter, but with at least 5 parameters in each case, of significant importance to voters, to simply headline each graph – ‘It’s Immigration not Inequality” – seems to be looking for a simple conclusion that I fear does not exist.

    Having said that, I agree all the evidence points to Immigration been the most important factor, but to dismiss the economy as an important factor in favour of making the quite valid point that many Trump/Brexit supporters (with I’m sure the exception of Lib Dem leavers) aren’t much interested in doing much about inequality seems a little negligent.

    I would argue that the reason that immigration is the highest issue is because of economics, as well as a number of other factors, identity certainly being an important one.

    The point is surely that there are many important factors which have led to both Brexit and the rise of Trumpism (there now, some jargon to lighten the mood) – we need to surely identify and address each of them.

  • Far from economics being irrelevant it was, according to the data in the LSE article, the number one priority of Trump supporters. What Professor Kaufmann and Joe Otten have completely missed is that people living in economic insecurity don’t think in policy wonk terms about distributions of wealth throughout society. They think about jobs, pay, security, and the prospects of their children within the immediate environment. A significant section of Trump support came from people suffering from economic inequality, even if they don’t necessarily express it in those terms.

  • Andrew
    I think we just posted at the same time, completely independently of each other with a similar conclusion. You just managed to be more succinct than me – must try harder!

  • How many of those commenting here meet and talk to Americans everyday?

  • David Hopps 16th Nov '16 - 8:31am

    Must say I disagree with the assertion that it isn’t about money and inequality. That is not the whole argument, but it is part of it. Yes it is about immigration but one success of the far right has been to conflate immigration with economics in the They Are Stealing Our Jobs routine. On inequality, there is a huge fairness agenda: the level of anger over, for example, tax evasion/avoidance and feathering of nests is palpable. The We’re All It Together refrain was exposed and bitterness remains. Manliness is in there but that links to insecure, zero hours work with no ability to provide certainty for a family. All this brings resentment, all of it has an economic element. Such deepseated concerns are about individual security and survival and a discontented society is fertile breeding ground for extremism. That is why the Lib Dem pro EU narrative must eventually touch on the issues with neoliberalism and how to alleviate them or the core vote will be entirely middle class. One last thing: even before Trump and Brexit, interest of the political classes had turned for the past decade to the power bases of America and Europe: the effect if globalisation and a shrinking world. When did people last debate issues in Bristol or Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield? Instead we are taking conclusions from USA and sticking them onto UK. People feel ignored.

  • The idea of anyone taking political advice from Joe Otten is laughable – his inability to spot any reason why Clegg was such a disaster is Trump like in its detachment from reality.

    The truth is that Clinton lost because of the actions of the FBI director when she was leading by 12% in the polls (or her own action in using a private email server in the first place) – the reasons for people voting for Clinton and Trump are many and varied, any single explanation is only partial. Joe Otten doesn’t think inequality is important, so naturally that is the conclusion he draws, host with his own petard.

  • Paul Murray 16th Nov '16 - 8:37am

    @Joe Otten – that’s a great article, thanks for the link. @Manfarang – I lived there for many years and got quite engaged in San Francisco politics, initially as an observer and later as an activist. Like many people here, I talk with Americans every day.

    I was particularly taken by the author’s comments under “If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center” and “Avoid the Temptation to Write Off Blue-Collar Resentment as Racism”.

    She trenchantly notes that attempts to write off Trump’s vote as stupidity or racism (in states that Barack Obama had previously won comfortably!) are nothing more than “class-based insults” that are apparently still acceptable amongst some self-described liberals. She also correctly dismisses groundless assertions of sexism in the anti-Clinton vote when she notes that white, working-class women voted for Trump by 62% versus only 34% for Clinton.

    It was (as always) about economic security – about having a secure job that pays a wage that allows you to not be living from paycheck to paycheck, and confidence that your children can expect a better life than you have had. And as she says – what happens when Trump fails to bring steel back to Youngstown?

  • In places like Michigan they are much more bothered by jobs being exported than they are workers being imported.

  • Paul Murray 16th Nov '16 - 9:10am

    @Caracatus – Correlation is not causation.

    Clinton was not 12% ahead in “the polls”. She was 12% ahead in a poll. The methodology used by that poll (ABC/Washington Post) was strongly debated as it deliberately over-represented registered Democrats.

    They adjusted their methodology in the next poll to reduce the proportion of registered Democrats and her lead vanished. The sampling for the poll in which she was only 1% ahead ended the day that Comey dropped his bombshell so had little impact on the reported results.

  • But it IS all about ‘inequality’; whether that inequality is with others or with the past…

    In this mindset, Jobs being taken by immigrants, or going abroad, equates to someone getting ‘your rightful share’…
    Looking at the past (real or through rose coloured spectacles), in Doncaster or Detroit, shows the present to be less prosperous (less equal) than then….

    Even in a, so called, democratic society the perception that “Some are more equal than others” persists….

  • Population increases as a result of immigration
    Economy prospers as a result of immigration
    Extra wealth generated by immigration given to the wealthiest
    Public services reduced in the name of ‘austerity’ and greater strain placed on public services due to increased numbers using them

    People on lower incomes have their quality of life reduced by a the unequal distribution of wealth generated by immigration
    They blame immigration and not the inequality

    Eventual result:
    People on low incomes vote for politicians, no matter how terrible, who promise to do something about immigration.
    Economy suffers
    Everyone poorer

    It is inequality that is the cause, not immigration. However, it is the perception that immigration is the cause of lower standards of living that has led us to where we are, but we have actually arrived here because of inequality.

  • Much sense from Angry Steve. This site needs a Like button.

  • The other point is that even if these findings were 100% accurate the problem still persists because there is a mismatch between what the electorate want and a policy of free movement of labour. It also isn’t just England and America either. If the polls are to be trusted at all, mass immigration scores high on the concerns of the electorate in virtually every Western democracy and is not an issue outside of this circle mainly because a lot of other societies don’t really really attract or allow it (Japan and China spring to mind). It is feasible to control immigration to a greater degree, but it isn’t feasible to abolish the electorate. I suspect culture is a factor. However, it isn’t going to go away and it also means that building more homes etc will simply cause locals to complain that not only are they having their jobs undercut, but now the government is giving immigrants new homes. Would it not just be easier to control immigration than expect a huge change in the psyche of the electorate? Maybe the point with liberal ideas is they require balance and stress testing because otherwise the structure can collapse. For all the claims made for global change and the new reality of fluid borders, the reality is that they exist within the limits imposed by nation states and are subject to the approval or rejection of national electorates voting on local issues.

  • Agreed David
    Jedibeeftrix – fair point – part of the problem with trying to deal with both the US/UK data together. Actually in the US case – Economy was the most important according to this one study – but therein lies a problem:
    I think what most of the comments made above are saying, is that trying to extrapolate conclusions from simple questions such as “how important is equality/Poverty to you? How important is immigration to you? how important is the economy to you? etc is questionable at best, simply because as many have just pointed out, it all depends how you interpret the question!

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Nov '16 - 10:34am

    @ David Hopps,
    I found your post interesting.

    I am from Rotherham. When did people last debate issues in Rotherham, unless it is to discuss parents stuffing junk food down their children’s throats or child sex abuse?

    When I left my village, the communities would differentiate themselves by describing themselves as working class communities and places where the posh people lived. There was social class solidarity often forged through Trade Union Membership, which united people in similar economic circumstances rather than divided people by the colour of their complexion etc.

    The industrial base that forged this solidarity has now gone, but the decision to refuse an enquiry into Orgreve suggest to me that politicians on the right, and I include many Liberal Democrats, do not want to find the underlying explanations as to why people think that immigrants are taking their jobs etc. An enquiry might just throw up some hard facts and light on who really took their jobs, or stood by when they were taken, caring little about policies that might be needed to replace them. An enquiry might just remind people, especially the younger generation who did not live through Thatcherism, of those politicians who didn’t think then , and until very recently, still didn’t think, that their social and economic losses are of no import , because they lacked the power to do anything about it.

    UKIP, Brexit and and Trump have proved careless politicians wrong.

    We now have the uphill challenge of proving to those who have been taken in by the likes of Farage, Johnson and Trump, that those who support them are looking to the wrong people for help, and are being taken in by the wrong solutions.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Nov '16 - 1:41pm

    The two refrains I heard most at Trump rallies? ‘Build the Wall’ and ‘Lock Her Up’. The Trump campaign was run on bigoted and divisive policies with no detail to his economic blather. There were no explanations as to how he would bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, none on how he would ‘Make America Great Again’.

    All the US electorate got from Trump was populist fluff which pandered to the base instincts of white, blue collar americans. The reason Clinton lost was the reversal of Obamas huge bump given by African American voters.

    My bet for 2020 – Michelle Obama will be the Democrat candidate and will walk it.

  • A social liberal.
    What if you’re wrong and he does okay? Surely, one of the biggest problems with HC was the certainty she would win and the conviction Trump was flaming out. Reagan won two terms, effectively 3 because Bush Snr replaced him , George W also two terms and even Nixon won two terms. The electoral power of GOP should not be underestimated.

  • Barry Snelson 16th Nov '16 - 3:02pm

    In the limit, Trump’s USA can throw up trade barriers. They can grow enough food, frack their own energy. What do they need they can’t use their own people to make?
    His foreign policy is sound in that he is on the same side as the Russians, Al Assad and Iran so they have a real prospect of defeating ISIS.
    We might have joined them but Saudi Arabia, that well known bastion of tolerance and freedom have told us we can’t.
    I don’t much like Trump either but I can imagine his appeal to those who think everything else has been tried and failed.

  • OK Joe – I for one am willing to take a massive step back and stick my neck out here.
    I’m particularly interested in your “tide raising all boats” analogy and the psychology of saving face.
    You said 3 things below:
    “And, for those in the lower half of the income distribution, it is an entirely noble sentiment to wish to lift all boats rather than seek redistribution from others”.

    “………..perhaps a fear of cultural annihilation that isn’t racist but can look like it is. This exists; it swung the elections for Trump and Brexit”.

    “Worse it is to keep saying: lets ignore the culture and focus on the economics, when we’ve just lost an election and a referendum on the economics”

    Lets assume just for a minute this argument has legs, no matter how challenging.

    We know Sovereignty and/or cultural identity (English, Scottish, Welsh, Yorkshire 🙂 etc were arguably as great if not greater reasons for Leave voters, than the perceived immigration issues (even if misplaced as we’ll argued above).

    So, what cultural questions do think think are worth discussing, which may lead to reasonable proposals/policies which would not be seen as compromising Lib Dems values and crucially which the ’52’ would see as us compromising with them on, without giving the impression we are pandering to Populism at the expense of our credibility?

  • I still think that conflating Trump with Brexit is understandable, but a bit misleading. The surprising part of Trumps success is that he won the Republican nomination rather the election. Administrations don’t tend to last more than two terms. He actually got less (if I’m certainly wrong, amend to not much more) votes than Mitt Romney and did not win the popular vote. Hillary Clinton in contrast attracted around 10 million fewer votes than Obama. The first part of the equation is somewhat akin Corbyn winning the Labour leadership against the odds and the second is closer to the Nick Clegg or Gordon Brown factor. Strip all the hoopla away and what you have is the Republicans winning a general election against a two term Democratic administration, which fits with an established pattern. The thing all these events have in in common is inaccurate polling, possible, being loaded to give an answer that verges on be a propaganda tool and the over confidence of the commentariat.

  • In the Trump win and the Brexit vote there seems to be an anti-globalisation vote. This is economics. When the Harvard Business Review article talks of manly dignity for working–class men included within this are manly jobs – industrial jobs, warehouse jobs and vehicle driving jobs i.e. blue-collar jobs as well as a wage that makes them feel like the breadwinner. When a person states things were better in the 1960’s it is possible this is not about identity politics, but is about economics, job security, well paid jobs, rising living standards, low unemployment and reducing inequalities.

    In the thread entitled “It’s the inequality” I posted comments similar to Mike S, Jim Williams, AndrewR and David Hopps stating that Eric Kaufmann’s analysis is flawed and there are likely to be economic reasons behind Leaver voters stating immigration was there top issue. However if the main reason is not economic but cultural then liberals have a real problem.

    Can we as liberals protect British culture? Can we as liberals say that the free movement of labour within the EU is not the best policy? Can we get European liberals to agree that dealing with economic inequalities across the EU has to be a priority? Can we get European liberals to agree that we have to deal with the causes for why people wish to move to a new country? Can we get European liberals to agree that the EU is a failure where the costs of being a member are those that Greece paid? Can we have policies in the EU to fight globalisation or its effects?

    How would we address the problem of labour shortages in particular industries (e.g. agriculture, NHS and care) if immigration was further restricted?

    Can we as liberals recognise that classical economics only really works for the rich?

    Can we as liberals have solutions that provide ways than ensure that people can have well paid jobs and that the future for their children will be better than theirs?

  • Michael BG
    Some fantastic questions – thank you.
    I agree if there is a cultural problem, it’s a big challenge for Lib Dems.
    But if true, it needs identifying and meeting head on.
    Ducking a key issue won’t make it go away.
    Your questions are a great starting point I think.

  • Joe
    thank you for your reply.
    Real food for thought.

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