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The tilting balance of local politics and global policies

United Kingdom – London – All politics is local, even if all policies are becoming global. In becoming global, policies become detached from the people they affect. Policies are less transparent, emotionally resonating, and under control. We always assumed the substance is in the policy. 2016 proved us wrong.

This has been the message resonating from the US elections. From Senator Bernie Sanders on the left and billionaire Donald Trump on the far-right, the message was one of a fight for control over policies, by politics. The left was asking for control over education, social mobility, healthcare, and the distribution of power in an increasingly unequal society. The right was asking for power over international trade, control over borders, and white, Christian supremacy. The common denominator was the quest for control.

This has been the message of Brexit. Those advocating for Britain to remain in the EU were not a homogenous crowd. But, there was a dominant social profile. The Remain camp (48%) was more likely to be young (18-39), urbanites, educated above average, read the Economist and The Guardian and vote Labour, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. They were also more likely to be middle class. The Leave camp (52%) was likely to be working class, read tabloids, have primary education, be older (age 50+), vote UKIP or Conservatives, and read the Mail, Express, and the Sun; they are from East Anglia and the Midlands.

Although parties have not neatly represented social class interests for nearly two generations in Britain and Europe at large, symbols still matter. The style of campaigning for the referendum was deeply symbolic and shaped by features that appeal to particular social classes. Remain featured sanitised and well-ironed multicultural youth. Leave drank beer, ate Cornish pastries, showed black teeth and blamed immigrants for poor health services and the cost of housing. Remain was the campaign of nobody, Leave was the campaign of anybody. The former was policy-articulate but suffering from an Empathy Deficit Disorder, the latter spoke from the heart but produced more policy hot air than anyone can smell or breathe.

As Europe makes its way towards a hot electoral calendar in the Netherlands (March), France (April), Germany (October), and perhaps at some point Italy and Greece, there are three lessons of interest.

The first lesson is that the people who do not look, feel, and reason like “you” actually vote. No one wins an electoral campaign by addressing the people who have nothing to fear from globalisation, automation, rising rents, unemployment, old age, loneliness, or even hunger. Campaigns are more about outreach and engagement than looking in the mirror. And no one can sell a policy unless they care about the politics. 

The second is that no one can win an election without a movement. In a day and age of social media, the issue at hand is not “fact-checking” and the revelation of conspiracies, but the delegation of the message. The first one to learn this was, in fact, Barack Obama. He was the first to launch revolutionary campaigns that crowd-funded from millions, rallied the voluntary support of thousands, and took up every debate, anywhere, with succinct messages that were emotionally resonating. Hillary Clinton never learned this lesson. But, Donald Trump did as much as Bernie Sanders.

The third lesson is that the status quo never recedes, it always crumbles. The Brexit campaign was the underdog as much as the Trump campaign. That was part of the winning recipe, pitting robust policy against emotional appealing political messages. The issue at hand for those who want to preserve a two-state solution in Palestine, defend the Paris Agreement, uphold social cohesion and mobility in America and Europe is that they did not do enough to address perfectly legitimate fears.

There are “working poor” in conditions of full-time employment in the UK, as there are in Germany, Hungary and Estonia. There is a housing crisis in markets with a surging housing bubble, as in Britain and Denmark. There are people in declining industries unable to fund their own “transition” from mining to robotics and from taxi driving to software engineering. The certainties of the 60+ generation for a lifelong job, a house, a pension, community and social mobility no longer apply; the American dream is gone, and there is little to replace it other than the promise “to make America Great Again.”

And policy centres can no longer tell their own story. The stories are being told on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, thousands of blogs and through hundreds of thousands of profiles. Narratives are no longer controlled. Stories are either emotionally engaging and appealing to real concerns, or irrelevant. Narratives are cues that are picked up or let down to sink into oblivion. In a world with more signatures than you can count, “your word is your bond”, and you can treat it like gold or trash it.

Outreach is never absolute and very much depends on style and content. This is why the message is centralised, but the storytelling is defused. Delegating the narration is critical because no one can be everything, be everywhere, and pick up every debate, with everyone. And that is what you have to do in post-modern political campaigns. As we breathe out 2016, the lesson is that shallow policymakers with no interest in local politics are a dying breed. They can ignore the spirit of our times but at their own peril.

Originally published with New Europe: