Trump, Brexit, and the other America

James Hartley shares his political ideas.

By Keely Savoie

James Hartley, professor of economics, says his lifelong love of politics is for its drama, and the importance of it in the lives of everyday people. Increasingly, he says, people feel alienated by established structures of power and democracy, and class divisions that have grown deeper, not just along economic lines but along cultural and social boundaries as well.  

On the heels of Britain’s Brexit vote, and with the recent nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President at this week’s Republican National Convention, Hartley offered his take on the current state of politics in the United States and the world at large.

As an economist, your work touches on many areas, including culture and politics. How does economics influence these spheres in ways that we might not expect?

Economics, politics, culture, and society are much more intertwined than people usually think.

There is now a sharp divide in America. On the one side there are the elites, which includes everyone who is reading this interview.  These are the academic, media, political, and business types.  On the other side there is the other America, the people who do not work in high-status occupations.  These two groups rarely interact; they live in different neighborhoods, they eat at different restaurants, watch different TV shows and movies, engage in different recreational activities and so on.

There is no better example of this divide than how completely baffled the elites are about the Trump phenomenon. Elites in the media, the academy, and everywhere else they gather simply cannot understand how anyone can vote for Trump. They literally don’t know anyone who would vote for Trump. Trump is not even remotely trying to get their vote.

Trump is speaking to that other America, that set of Americans who are tired of the elites looking down on them and telling them what to think and what to feel. The other America is tired of being told they are ignorant racists and sexists clinging to God and guns. The other America doesn’t want more government programs to regulate every aspect of their lives.

It is worth noting that this is not a divide along traditional party lines. The elites are both Democrats and Republicans. The other America is also both Democrats and Republicans. Both parties had a noticeable insurgency movement in the primaries by an outsider. The elites in the Democratic party did a better job than the elites in the Republican party of keeping the outsider from winning the nomination. But the basic phenomenon is quite similar.

The US entered a major recession in 2008. How has that influenced politics and how does this help us understand the current election cycle?

The most obvious result was that Obama became president. But the effects have been longer lasting. The long, slow recovery has amplified the divide in American life. The effect of the recession on tenured professors, for example, was quite small. The effect on blue collar workers was much larger. This is why things like the Keystone XL Pipeline became such a political battle.

On the one side are the elites who wanted to stop the pipeline from being built. It is easy to oppose a project like this when there is virtually zero personal cost. On the other side, the workers who would have been hired to build the pipeline were not thrilled that the elites stopped the project—it was, after all, a potential job. In these debates, the elites showed surprisingly little concern for the fact that there were people out there who wanted the employment.

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom threatens to destabilize the UK and possibly Europe. What effects do you imagine it will have internationally as well as at home?  

It is far too early to even guess what the economic impact of Brexit will be. It all depends on how quickly new trade agreements are signed.

But the Brexit vote was never about economics. By coincidence, I was at a conference in Wales for the vote. The next morning, I was surprised at how unbelievably depressed all the academics at the conference were. I was the only happy person in the room. Listening to them, the light bulb went off. It is exactly the same thing we are seeing in America. Perfectly liberal academics were in utter despair wondering why there had to be a democracy in which all “those people” got to vote on things “they” didn’t understand. The campaign signs for the pro-Brexit crowd were all over: We Want Our Country Back.

It is the same divide. Lots of citizens of Great Britain are tired of the academic, media, government, and business elites making decisions from afar and sneering at everyone who disagrees with them. “We Want Our Country Back” sounds a lot like “Make America Great Again.”

I don’t know of any quick and easy solutions to this problem. If this is right, it is worrisome, to say the least.

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