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Revenge of the Working Class

The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce, Atlantic Monthly Press, 226 pages

The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, David Goodhart, Hurst, 256 pages

In the span of less than one year, Great Britain begat Brexit, America’s Electoral College delivered President Trump, and France’s Marine Le Pen crashed her way into a runoff election. But it does not end there. Since his inauguration the president has further raised the temperature in our ongoing semi-civil Civil War. Voters once derided as deplorables, that is those who came up short in the march toward globalization, have reminded Washington and Westminster that they will not be ignored. Brexit and Trumpism are harsh verdicts cast on a supposed “end of history,” a denouement in time that left too many behind. The world is no longer flat, and blood and soil are highly relevant.

Edward Luce’s Retreat of Western Liberalism and David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere are timely and thoughtful examinations of how we reached this intersection. Importantly, Luce and Goodhart understand that citizenship, social cohesion, and reciprocal obligation matter. Both conclude that neo-liberalism’s self-celebration has slammed headlong into a wall, and that the Great Recession and its epilogue have irrevocably altered the established order.

Yet, there are differences between Goodhart and Luce. Road to Somewhere emphasizes the downsides of open immigration, and is programmatic in its discussion of what may come next. Retreat of Western Liberalism is a clear-eyed lament of liberalism’s decline, and America stepping back and turning inward. “Donald Trump, and his counterparts in Europe, did not cause the crisis of democratic liberalism. They are a symptom,” writes Luce.

Luce rightly refuses to characterize Trump’s victory as the “dying gasp of America’s white majority.” Instead, he observes that the liberal order has eroded globally, with the world a less democratic place than it was a decade ago. Luce is not sanguine about political life returning to the way it once was, that is before the stock market’s collapse.

As Luce sees things, our political winter has been a long time coming, a storm that was “brewing since the early 1990s,” with its seeds having been sown decades earlier. Recalling the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, Luce writes that while Chicago’s white working-class police “came off the better” in the immediate scrum, over the long haul the “hippies won the war.” Ultimately, the coalition that delivered the Democratic nomination to George McGovern in 1972, would take control of the party of Jefferson, Jackson and FDR.

In Luce’s eyes, liberalism itself is partially to blame for where it now stands. Among other things, he chides Barack Obama for his repeated efforts to shame half of America into submission. Luce points to President Obama’s over-reliance on the phrase “That is not who we are,” and its abuse as a cudgel to quiet opposition. Luce rejects Obama’s repetition of that very same line to denounce the massacre of school children at Sandy Hook, and then to upbraid Americans who had the temerity to vote for Mitt Romney, oppose open immigration, or support capital punishment.

Retreat of Western Liberalism also takes Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to task for its reflexive worship at the twin altars of identity politics and political correctness. As Luce puts it, “the subtext of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was that she was the harbinger of a new America in which whites were rapidly turning into a minority,” and that “adapting to this new multicultural world would require an ongoing revision of our vocabulary.” Luce further rains on Clinton’s parade by noting that “more than half of America’s Hispanics consistently say they would prefer to call themselves white.” As if to drive Luce’s point home, the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that white voter turnout jumped in 2016, in absolute and relative terms, even as the percentage of white Americans drifted downward. Democrats would do well to weigh all these factoids as they salivate over their prospects in 2018.

Luce also criticizes 2017’s Davos Confab for acting as if Brexit and Trump never happened. Coming from Luce, a speechwriter to then-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, this indictment should carry even greater urgency. Yet, Luce is also disturbed by an electorate that in its anger is cynical and potentially anesthetized, one that looks at politics and reality television as flip-sides of the same coin: modern-day bread and circuses. Said differently, the election of a body-slamming congressman is a feature, not a bug.

Although Luce’s Retreat lacks a detailed roadmap of forward looking prescriptions, Luce writes that “Democracy cannot survive for long in a swamp of mutual dislike.” He believes that there is a “link between the duties of citizenship and the right to draw benefits,” and maps a direct path between a vibrant middle class and a thriving democracy. Luce quotes the scholar, Barrington Moore Jr., who said, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” How all this plays out in the years ahead remains the open question.

Brexit was also a reminder that there is more to England than the City of London and a foreign-fueled real estate boom. Historically, gulfs between mercantile hubs and the polities in which they are lodged are not new. Looking at America’s first astronauts and Manhattan’s celebratory ticker-tape parades, author Tom Wolfe wrote, “Like most military people,” our astronauts “didn’t really consider New York part of the US. It was like a free port, a stateless city, an international protectorate, Danzig in the Polish Corridor, Beirut the crossroads of the Middle East.”

Noticeably missing from Wolfe’s list was London, but not anymore. As Gillian Tett, a Luce colleague at the Financial Times, commented in 2014, “London has become like Constantinople—the centre of a trading empire divorced from its hinterland.” Luce paints the transformation more ominously “Nowadays London is the place where Russia’s oligarchs park their money.”

Enter Road to Somewhere, which takes a deep demographic dive into what drove Brexit. Goodhart places a premium in describing how a sense of belonging has come to shape politics in an uncertain world. In Goodhart’s typology, society is divided between “Anywheres” and “Somewheres,” with the archetypal Anywhere possessing a degree or two from Oxbridge or the Ivy League, a portable skill set, and a spouse who shares similar credentials. By contrast, Somewheres lack those same markers, and consequently find the larger world to be a less welcoming place. Goodhart cites to polling from Gallup that reflects a groundswell in Americans’ self-identification as working class. At the turn of the century, only one-third of Americans identified themselves as such. Yet by 2015, the figure had risen to nearly one-half.

Somewheres correctly observe that England c.1950s was an easier place for them to navigate. Back then, the absence of a college degree was a statement of fact, not a character flaw, and the work-world paid homage to a breadwinner who brought home the bacon. As a May 2017 PRRI/Atlantic survey revealed, cultural displacement drove the white working class in the U.S. to embrace Trump, even more so than economics.

Obviously, things have changed over the last 60 years. For example, marriage has emerged as a luxury item, according to Goodhart. Instead of physicians stereotypically tying the knot with their nurses, they marry other physicians. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., in 24 states at least half of all births are covered by Medicaid, while nationally two out of five babies are born out of wedlock.

Goodhart convincingly drives home the point that in liberal eyes free immigration in the guise of a borderless Europe now reigns supreme, with refugees to be sacralized, regardless of whether acculturation and assimilation ever follow. In the aftermath of the Boston and Manchester bombings and the attacks in London, this conceit demands reconsideration. As Road to Somewhere makes clear, societal change has also morphed into a source of understandable and intense resentment. Broad swaths of England have been made to feel like strangers in their own home.  

For Goodhart, the break and transformation within the British Labor Party illustrates this point. In the 1940s, the government of Clement Attlee pushed liberal patriotism, one that called on England to build a New Jerusalem. By the 1990s, Labor was home to Tony Blair, the Third Way, and neo-liberalism. Now, Labor is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a statist to his core, but one who appears reluctant to have government treat Corbyn’s fellow Englishman better than a foreigner.

A proponent of Remain and a dormant Laborite, Goodhart calls himself “post-liberal and proud,” and stresses that most Brexiteers were not bigots. While Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party set the table for the Leave Camp, it took a lot more than one man to light the fuse. The powder that exploded last June was all around.

Against this backdrop, high-end Blue America will need to learn to listen to those who are outside the Democrats’ upstairs-downstairs coalition. As Election Day taught us, multiculturalism’s virtues are sorely limited. Also, when America’s military service academies skew red and its elite universities are seas of blue, the U.S. has a national problem, one that bodes ill for the long haul. To put things into perspective, even as Clinton garnered a 2.86 million vote plurality, Trump won 60 percent of the veterans’ vote.

On May 9, two days after Marine Le Pen outperformed her father’s legacy in a runoff election, an embattled and embittered President Trump sacked FBI Director James Comey, after he had refused to kill the Russia investigation and pledge personal fealty. Less than a month later, Jared Kushner, a senior White House advisor and Trump son-in-law, found himself mired in scandal and suspicion. Sadly, the realities that brought America to this point are not disappearing anytime soon. Tribe, place, and resentment stand to define and drive our politics for as far as the eye can see. Luce and Goodhart remind us of all this, but it is We the People who must search for a solution, assuming there is one to be found.    

Lloyd Green, an attorney in New York, was opposition research counsel to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.

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