Politics & Policy

On the Road to Somewhere, the Divide between Elites and Populists

An excerpt from David Goodhart’s new book on populism and the emergence of new political categories.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, by David Goodhart. It is reprinted here with permission.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump — the two biggest protest votes in modern democratic history — marked not so much the arrival of the populist era in Western politics but its coming of age.

Looking back from the future, the first few years of the 21st century, culminating in those two votes, will come to be seen as the moment when the politics of culture and identity rose to challenge the politics of Left and Right. Sociocultural politics took its place at the top table alongside traditional socioeconomic politics — meaning as much as money.

This book, conceived at the beginning of 2016, was originally intended to, among other things, warn against the coming backlash against the political status quo — and in particular against the “double liberalism,” both economic and social, that has dominated politics, particularly in Britain and America, for more than a generation.

The backlash came earlier than I expected, but it did not come out of the blue. In fact it was widely predicted and has been several decades in the making. Britain has been catching up with more-established trends in Continental Europe and the US. The spirit of the new political era can be found in solid support for populist parties across Europe (many of which have been part of governing coalitions), in persistent opposition to large-scale immigration, in Trump’s election in the U.S., in Brexit, in the success of the Scottish National Party and of the middle-class left populism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and in the demise of much of the European center Left. This book will focus on Britain but will consider related trends in Europe and the U.S.

Both Brexit and Trump’s election were unexpected victories given a decisive tilt by unhappy white-working class voters — motivated, it seems, more by cultural loss, related to immigration and ethnic change, than by economic calculation. But they are also very different phenomena. Trump’s “strongman” appeal marked a more radical departure in both tone and content from what has gone before in Western politics and will, of course, have more far-reaching consequences than Brexit. If Trump keeps his isolationist election promises the world may slide toward a trade war and global economic depression, not to mention a free hand for Russia in her near abroad; if he jettisons them his core supporters may not take it well.

Since the turn of the century, Western politics has had to make room for a new set of voices preoccupied with national borders and pace of change.

Liberal democracy is unlikely to be toppled, even in the U.S. The habits of compromise and civic order are too ingrained, and America will remain a land of plenty for the vast majority. And in Britain large parts of politics will remain either technocratic or marked by left-right priorities — how best to combine state and market in infrastructure and social-care spending, for example, or how to rein in inequality. But since the turn of the century, Western politics has had to make room for a new set of voices preoccupied with national borders and pace of change, appealing to people who feel displaced by a more open, ethnically fluid, graduate-favoring economy and society, designed by and for the new elites.

Many liberal-minded people in Britain and elsewhere have been uncomfortable about granting space to these political forces and regard hostility to the openness required by European integration and a more global economy as simply irrational, if not xenophobic.

Some of those core Remainers reported waking up the day after the Brexit vote feeling, at least briefly, that they were living in a foreign country. If that was, indeed, the case they were merely experiencing, in political reverse, what a majority of people apparently feel every day.

For several years now more than half of British people have agreed with this statement (and similar ones): “Britain has changed in recent times beyond recognition, it sometimes feels like a foreign country and this makes me feel uncomfortable.” Older people, the least well educated, and the least affluent are most likely to assent, but there is quite widespread support from other groups too.

Even allowing for the querulous spirit that opinion polls often seem to inspire, this is an astonishing thing for the majority of the population to agree to in a country as stable, peaceful, rich, and successful as today’s Britain. It is a similar story in the U.S., where 81 per cent of Trump supporters said life was better 50 years ago. What is going on?

Much of the British commentariat see an “open versus closed” divide as the new political fault line. Tony Blair dedicated a speech to the distinction in 2007 just before he left office: “Modern politics has less to do with traditional positions of Right versus Left, more to do, today, with what I would call the modern choice, which is open versus closed.” He was partly right, but he failed to grasp why so many people find his version of open so unappealing. To understand that, we have to consider the great value divide in British society, echoed to varying extents in other developed societies. The old distinctions of class and economic interest have not disappeared but are increasingly overlaid by a larger and looser one — between the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.

Anywheres dominate our culture and society. They tend to do well at school — Vernon Bogdanor calls them the “exam-passing classes” — then usually move from home to a residential university in their late teens and on to a career in the professions that might take them to London or even abroad for a year or two. Such people have portable “achieved” identities, based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.

Somewheres are more rooted and usually have “ascribed” identities — Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife — based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they often find rapid change more unsettling. One core group of Somewheres have been called the “left behind” — mainly older white working-class men with little education. They have lost economically with the decline of well-paid jobs for people without qualifications and culturally, too, with the disappearance of a distinct working-class culture and the marginalization of their views in the public conversation. However, Somewhere ambivalence about recent social trends spreads far beyond this group and is shared by many in all social classes, especially the least mobile. Despite recent increases in geographical mobility, about 60 per cent of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were fourteen.

Populism can be a destructive counterbalance, but if we are to be tough on it, we must be tough on its causes, too — and one of those causes has been Anywhere overreach.

Of course, few of us belong completely to either group — we all have a mix of achieved and ascribed identities — and there is a large minority of Inbetweeners. Even the most cosmopolitan and mobile members of the Anywhere group retain some connection with their roots, and even the most small-town Somewhere might go on holiday abroad with EasyJet or talk on Skype to a relative in Australia.

Moreover, a large section of Britain’s traditional elite remains very rooted in southeast England and London, in a few old public schools and universities. Indeed they are more southern-based than in the past as the dominant families of the great northern and midland towns have gravitated south. But even if this part of the elite has not moved very far physically, they are much less likely than in earlier generations to remain connected to Somewheres through land ownership, the church, the armed forces or as an employer. They are, however, connected to the new elites. As has happened before in British history, the old elite has absorbed the new one — the rising “cognitive” elite of meritocrats, from lower social-class and sometimes immigrant backgrounds. In doing so it has often exchanged traditional conservatism for a more liberal Anywhere ideology — consider George Osborne, in whom the economic liberalism of the Right and social liberalism of the Left is said to combine.

In any case, Anywheres and Somewheres do not overlap precisely with more conventional social categories. Rather, they are looser alignments of sentiment and worldview. Both groups include a huge variety of people and social types — Somewheres range from northern working-class pensioners to Home Counties market-town Daily Mail readers; Anywheres, from polished business executives to radical academics. Although I have invented the labels, I have not invented the two value clusters that are clearly visible in a host of opinion and value surveys — with Anywheres making up 20 to 25 per cent of the population, compared to around half for Somewheres (and the rest Inbetweeners).

This book and the Anywhere/Somewhere categorization is both a frame for understanding what is going on in contemporary politics and a plea for a less headstrong Anywhere liberalism. The Anywheres have counted for too much in the past generation — their sense of political entitlement startlingly revealed after the Brexit and Trump votes — and populism, in its many shapes and sizes, has arisen as a counter-balance to their dominance throughout the developed world. It can be a destructive counterbalance, but if we are to be tough on populism, we must be tough on the causes of populism, too — and one of those causes has been Anywhere overreach.

READ MORE:

Liberals’ Class Warfare on the Working Class Keeps Trump Afloat

Why the Liberal Elite Will Never Check Its Privilege

Brexit, Trump and Le Pen Bring Together Outsiders Against Elites

— From The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, by David Goodhart. Copyright © 2017 by David Goodhart and published by Hurst & Company. All rights reserved.

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