Expert Opinion

The US election and the New Politics of Inequality

Whatever happens today in the Presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, says Professor Alex Nunn, the US election result will show that we are witnessing a ‘New Politics of Inequality’.

Voters in the US go to the polls today to choose their next President as well as the complexion of the House of Representatives and 30% of the Senate. As usual it is the Presidential race that has captured most attention, and particularly because of the bitter nature of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

On this side of the Atlantic most attention has been paid to the seemingly outrageous behaviour of Trump. It’s fair to say that a Trump victory would be met here with widespread outrage, while a Clinton triumph would generate a sense of relief. Afterall, who would want such a volatile, aggressive, sexist and racially divisive character as Trump in charge of the world’s most powerful military?

But whatever way Americans vote today, the campaign has already shown us that we are witnessing a new kind of politics. The unprecedented support for Trump in some ways mirrors the rise of anti-establishment political movements and parties in Europe and the recent Brexit referendum here. A Clinton victory might pose fewer immediate worries, but either way there is cause for considerable concern.

As part of Leeds Beckett University’s Global Inequalities Research Programme, I have argued that we are witnessing a New Politics of Inequality (see links at the bottom), from both above and below.

From below, this New Politics is manifest in populist political movements in support of anti-establishment positions. For example, across Europe many post-2008 elections have seen the emergence of new political parties of both left and right gain support, as well as popular protest movements such as the Indignados and Occupy.

While there are different contexts and local causes to these movements, rising inequality and the deep-seated feelings of insecurity that this generates are surely one. As I shall argue at a special event this Thursday at Leeds University, Brexit and Trump’s success so far can be read as unsurprising but unpredictable ‘convulsions’ in the political landscape.

From above, political elites have tried to control this new politics. They do so through a mix of denial, superficial legitimation of existing programmes and through separating out those they think can be targeted for authoritarian treatment. For an example of denial see the disavowal of Trump by senior republicans. For superficial legitimation, see Theresa May’s promises to govern in the interests of the disenfranchised while continuing with punitive austerity measures targeted at the poorest in society. For authoritarianism, see the treatment of Black Lives Matter protestors in the US or any number of protest groups across Europe. My colleague Steve Wright is busy doing work on the militarisation of policing and border control technologies that offers further support to the argument that states are busy boosting their capacity for authoritarian control.

So if Trump wins, we can expect a tumultuous ride ahead. Who knows if he would be able to put in place even half of the policies he has proclaimed in the election race? But even half would be pretty scary.

What seems reasonably clear is that, given his own position and wealth, it would be unlikely that he would really pursue the interests of the disenfranchised white working class voters that he has courted. It is worth noting that these are the same voters that the Democrats lost a generation ago when Clinton (Bill) was in the White House. Much like the outcome of Brexit, a Trump presidency probably won’t benefit many of those who voted for it. The future in that scenario just looks set for more bitterness, more polarisation and more ‘convulsions’.

And if Clinton wins, it won’t be easy to reunite a country so bitterly divided by this election campaign. One thing she should try to do though, is listen more to the voices that her husband’s presidency forgot as it pushed through trade deals that hurt the working class and removed welfare protections.

Whichever way the election goes, we are in for a future of ‘interesting times’; this is not the end, but just the beginning of the ‘New Politics of Inequality’.

Research outputs on the New Politics of Inequality

And others forthcoming, for these keep an eye on:

For Blog Posts see:

See also Alex’s Inaugural Lecture on our Youtube Channel.

Other work in the Global Inequalities research group of relevance to this is Sophia Price’s recent paper in The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

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