Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Best Thing I've Read on the British Elections (And the Left's Failures)

Robert Skidelsky, the leading biographer of Keynes and author of the recent (and highly recommended) Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics, has just published a terrific article on Project Syndicate about the British elections. He has the following to say about the origins of Brexit.
"Brexit was a reaction to economic betrayal, the British version of a European-wide revolt by what French President Emmanuel Macron called the “left-behinds.” This label is precisely right as a description, but overwhelmingly wrong as a prescription, for it suggests that the future is technologically determined, and that people simply will have to adapt to it. The state’s duty, according to this view, is to enable the left-behinds to board the cost-cutting, labor-shedding bullet express, whereas what most people want is a reasonably secure job that pays a decent wage and gives them a sense of worth.
No one would deny that governments have a vital role to play in providing people with the employment skills they need. But it is also governments’ task to manage the trade-off between security and efficiency so that no sizeable fraction of the population is left involuntarily unemployed.
Guaranteed full employment was the key point of consensus of the Keynesian economics of the 1950s and 1960s, embraced by right and left, with the political battle centered on questions of wealth and income distribution. This is the kind of dynamic center the Conservatives should try to regain."
He goes on to discuss what economic program is called for at the current time and whether the Tories are up to the task. He is skeptical that the Tories can do it but is skeptical of Labour for a different reason. Labour could get farther on the economics but could fail--and has failed--on the cultural front, by alienating many of the voters who should support their economic approach.
"Labour, for its part, needs to recognize that most of its voters are culturally conservative, which became clear with respect to Brexit. The election result disclosed a culture gap between Remainers and Leavers, which for a subset of London and university-campus-based Remainers amounted to a culture war between a politically correct professional class and a swath of the population routinely dubbed stupid, backward, and undereducated, or, more generously, misinformed. One symptom of this gap was the common media depiction of Johnson as a “serial liar,” as though it was his mendacity that obscured from befuddled voters the truth of their situation.
Political correctness ramifies through contemporary culture. I first became aware of a cultural offensive against traditional values in the 1970s, when school history textbooks started to teach that Britain’s achievements were built on the exploitation of colonial peoples, and that people should learn to feel suitably apologetic for the behavior of their forbears. Granted that much history is myth-making, no community can live without a stock of myths in which it can take pride. And “normal” people don’t want to be continuously told that their beliefs, habits, and prejudices are obsolete.1
In the continuous evolution of cultural norms, therefore, a new balance needs to be struck between the urge to overthrow prejudice and the need to preserve social cohesion. Moreover, whereas the phrase “left behind” may reasonably describe the situation of the economically precarious, it is quite wrong as a cultural description. There are too many cultural left-behinds, and their cultural “re-skilling” will take much longer than any economic re-skilling. But such re-skilling is not the right prescription. Metropolitan elites have no right to force their norms on the rest of the country. Labour will need to remember that “normal” people want a TransPennine railway much more than a transgender future.
In short, just as the right went wrong in forcing economic individualism down people’s throats, so the left has gone wrong in its contempt for majority culture. In the UK, the price for elite incapacity in both areas has been Brexit; in Europe and the United States generally, it has been the growth of populism."
So, yes, the British election does have implications for America and they are dire. If the American left is not careful, the kind of cultural elitism that sunk Labour could hand Trump another term. Don't think it could happen? Think again. Trump's entire game plan for 2020 is predicated on portraying Democrats as out of touch elitists who look down on ordinary Americans. He hopes that will energize white noncollege voters to give him even larger margins and turnout than he received in 2016. If you don't think that could happen, you're kidding yourself. And if you don't think that might hand him the election, than you obviously haven't read my report on The Path to 270 in 2020.
PROJECT-SYNDICATE.ORG
Leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, will be UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repayment of the debt he owes to the many Labour supporters who "lent" his Conservatives their votes. But "getting Brexit done" won't be enough for the Tories to hold on to their parliamentary seats.

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