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Status Disaffection and Populism
Political realignment may be less a matter of class than before.
The political fallout from the 2008 global financial crash remained relatively obscured until the twin harbingers of 2016: the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Much of the political analysis has attempted to explain the trajectory of electoral trends since 2008, including beyond the U.S. and UK in countries like Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, or Brazil, in terms of the traditional definitions of "Left" and "Right", differing primarily in social conservatism/liberalism and economic conservatism/liberalism.
In this analysis, even prior to 2008, a political realignment was underway shifting from class-based concrete issues to values-based issues. In ‘Twilight of Democracy’, Ann Applebaum provided a synopsis of this shift from the traditional centrist Left-Right order; the emergence of a “cultural left”, which lacks political power but exerts authoritarian influence by enforcing homogenous views in institutions like universities and corporations, and a “political new right”, which has political power but, unlike the centre-right of the past, is cynically against the institutions of State, democratic norms, and social and political elites.
Particular attention has been paid to economic issues: the consequences of failed “trickle down” economic policies, the catastrophic effects of austerity, and the consequences of globalisation in offshoring whole industries. In this analysis, the anger and resentment created by this economic landscape finds expression in support for Right-wing populist parties. And there is evidence for this in the demographic shifts of Left-Right and the economic drivers of political realignment. However, by emphasising class-based issues, it may be an incomplete analysis.
Moreover, when viewed through the lens of the liberal press, these economic and class-based factors have also become a tired trope that still plays out in the pages of the Guardian or the Washington Post: that of the stereotypical “angry old White male” voting against immigrants and motivated by little more than xenophobia and national nostalgia.
The problem with the liberal commentariat's perspective isn't merely that it is incorrect (for example, many South Asian communities in the UK supported Brexit due to concerns over EU migrant workers). It is the fact that, if we view this issue through a different lens than economics and class, it becomes painfully apparent how regressive a rhetoric this is for any self-styled “progressive” political party.
I recently came across some fascinating research that forced my own lens adjustment on this question; an adjustment to a focus on status, rather than class. While class and status share some relational similarities, research has shown that status is conceptually distinct from class. Class may be defined as employment relations in labour markets, i.e., relative to an individuals position in the economy. Conversely, status may be defined by alignment according to cultural and social values, and thus status can converge across a range of economic classes.
This distinction has important implications for considering political realignment, particularly in relation to the traditional analysis through the Left-Right lens, because research indicates that the political correlates of class and status differ. To quote from Chan and Goldthorpe:
“Class is dominant with regard to left–right issues that involve primarily material interests. Status, however, prevails when it comes to libertarian–authoritarian issues...”
Given that political commentators have been attempting to explain the rise of authoritarianism, it appears that a status-oriented, rather than purely class-focused, analysis would potentially be more instructive. In a 2019 paper, Gidron and Hall analysed support for far-Left and far-Right parties across Europe with status as the predictor of interest. Their analysis revealed that perceived low status, particularly defined as marginalisation from social and cultural developments, and alienation from the political system, strongly predicted support for populist parties at both ends of the political spectrum. This was independent of factors like economic redistribution or immigration. To quote:
“We have found that people who believe they are more marginal to society, typically because they feel less social respect, have less trust in others or are less engaged in social activities, are more likely than people with higher levels of subjective social status to be alienated from mainstream politics, to abstain from voting and to vote for parties of the radical right or left. We have also presented evidence consistent with the proposition that several longterm economic and cultural developments have increased feelings of social marginalization among people with low levels of income or skills.”
Consider a paper entitled ‘The status stratification of radical right support: Reconsidering the occupational profile of UKIP’s electorate’, in which the authors investigated support for UK political parties, adjusting for both status and class. Their analysis indicated that the relationship between status and voting preference was not stratified purely on class lines. To quote:
“Class and status effects cross-cut each other: working class professions tend to have lower status than middle class ones, but both working class occupations and higher social status predict higher Labour support, while both middle class occupations and lower social status predict higher Conservative support.”
When honing in on the vote for the far-Right party, UKIP, however, the effect of class had no significant association with a preference for UKIP, while status was the strongest predictor, independent of demographic factors.
When status is considered in the analysis, it becomes entirely unsurprising why a bunch of university-educated, bougie urban professionals with technocratic skills and safe salaries that label decimated low-income communities as “racist angry old White men” is perhaps a recipe for social and electoral disaster. This is precisely what is predicted when the political analysis incorporates status. And it is precisely the rhetoric that has characterised parties like the Democrats in the U.S. or Labour in the UK, and their supporting media channels, since 2016.
Brexit provides the most revealing insight into both the independent effect of status, and the debilitating consequences of the rhetoric from the London Labour set in the aftermath of the referendum. Despite the stereotype trope of who voted for Brexit and why, as Oxford's Professor Danny Dorling has extensively detailed, Brexit was a middle-class revolt. Southern counties had far and away more Leave voters than the North. And, areas that voted Leave were the areas with the least immigrants.
As a case in point, Somerset voted Leave by 52.3%, or 288,122 total Leave votes; this was more votes for Leave than all of the Northern voting districts of Darlington, Hartlepool, Harrogate, Stockton-on-Tees, Middlesborough, Hambleton, and York, combined. The vote was driven primarily by Shire conservatives in the South, not the “angry anti-immigrant Northener” of Guardian stereotype infamy.
The ‘why’ in the Brexit context is illustrative of how status can transcend traditional class-concepts of social division, because status overlaps across class. Chan et al. hypothesised that if Brexit was about traditional economic factors, voting Leave would stratify along class-based lines; if it was more driven by cultural values and national identity, it would stratify more along status lines. The results were that, while both class and status issues were factors, the weight of the vote was predicted by status. To quote:
“But Leave-support goes far beyond these groups. Indeed, quite a lot of people in comfortable circumstances or living in leafy neighborhoods support Leave. Many of them do so because they subscribe to a more nationalistic view of Britain's place in Europe. Of course, such a worldview is itself shaped by social and political processes. It remains a challenge to understand the appeal of this outlook to a large section of the British public. But it would be misleading to pin the Brexit vote outcome on the left-behinds alone.”
What might explain the emergence of status, rather than class, as a source of social and political discontents? A paper by Bukodi and Goldthorpe examined the role of status in the rise of support for populist parties, but went further in the analysis by positing a link between the rhetoric of meritocracy, and status. Specifically, in societies like the U.K. the prevailing socio-political-economic ideology emphasises that society rewards hard work and effort, when in fact it primarily rewards those who start from a baseline of opportunity, wealth, and privilege. This fact isn't lost on people who, once upon a time, had dignity in labour, employment opportunity, housing security, and living wages. The authors call into question, both morally and politically, the discourse of meritocracy, particularly factoring in the evidence for total collapse of social mobility and failure of meritocracy.
One quote from their paper, in the context of the role of status in relation to meritocracy, is instructive:
“Resentment appeared most marked where it was felt that either an intellectual or a moral ascendancy was being claimed. In the case of Brexit, which most in the focus groups supported, anger was expressed over graduate Remainers implying that Leavers were ‘misguided’, if not ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’. And strong objections were made to accusations of ‘racism’ being levelled against those who questioned uncontrolled immigration on the basis of direct experience of its impact on their communities. Politically, these views then translated into a deep disillusionment with the Labour Party. This was seen as now dominated by graduate metropolitan elites – whether Blairite or Corbynite – obsessed with political correctness, and more concerned with telling the people they were supposed to represent that they were ‘wrong’ than with trying to understand the conditions under which they were living and their responses to these conditions.”
“Ignorant”. “Stupid”. Does Hillary Clinton’s “Deplorables” comment ring a bell here? This is the very rhetoric which guided the Democrats to the 2016 election loss, and will no doubt guide them to further loss. In this excoriating article by William Deresiewicz, he nails the same issue on the other side of the Atlantic:
“So much for 2016. Four years later, it was clear that nothing had been learned. Trump improved his showing among women, gays, African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos. Progressive elites, still incapable of imagining their way into the experience of anyone beyond their well-upholstered bubble, had nothing to offer by way of explanation other than the usual identitarian arguments. White women identify with the patriarchy. Gay white men are just white men at this point. Asians are white-adjacent. Black voters who supported Trump had internalized the point of view of the oppressor. Especially confounding were the results among Latinos. Latinos are supposed to be the great salvation of progressive hopes, the cavalry that’s riding to the demographic rescue. So why were they drifting away?”
The nascent research on status and its political implications is striking because, over and above class-based and traditional Left-Right analyses, it explains why the rhetoric of parties like the Democrats or Labour is mosquito repellent to vast swathes of the electorate. Divisive, alienating, determined to order society into identity-based silos, and speak on behalf of such groups as if they are each monolithic entities where everyone thinks the same way, and where a tiny cabal of self-ordained identitarian high-priests speak on their behalf to the ignorant masses. Determined to order society based entirely on the status of identity.
Of course, as Deresiewicz highlighted, nothing has been learned by these parties. He writes of the aftermath of the Virginia gubernatorial elections last November:
"I write this in November 2021, in the wake of yet another electoral fiasco. Again, the same alibis, the same determined ignorance. “Virginia showed that white supremacy is alive and well.” No, Virginia showed that parents are worried that their children’s schools, like the culture at large, are being taken over by an ideology that no one voted for. I often think of something that Mike Huckabee would say to evangelical audiences when he was running for president. “I’m not coming to you,” he’d say, “I’m coming from you.” Unless the Democrats start coming, not to the parts of the country they’ve neglected or taken for granted (though that would be a start), but from them, then 2022 will look a lot like 2021, and so will 2024, and 2025, and 2026…”
This appears to the case on either side of the pond.
This also appears to be why Right-wing populism is reaping most of the reward of status disaffection: they are the ones dispensing with opaque talk of "democracy" and speaking directly to issues pertaining to the nation state and personal identity. They have captured territory that was historically the realm of the former political Left: mistrust of selfish commercial interest, cronyism, and institutional power at the expense of ordinary people. They speak to the reality that society is controlled and ordered by a cosy alliance between government, big business, and the financier and landlord classes. And that, as a result, policy-making only benefits “the haves”, not the “have-nots”.
It is also clear why the only strategy of liberals appears to have been to double-down on the exclusionary rhetoric of identity politics: it is the cop-out liberals take to absolve themselves of their complete unwillingness to reach out to anyone outside their self-ordained in-groups and attempt to understand their concerns, of having to understand why their rhetoric turns people away from them. An identity-based summary dismissal of grievances means any valid complaints can be delegitimised.
If status is a stronger predictor than class for populist support, and if status correlates more with authoritarian inclinations than traditional Left-Right class-based concepts of political mobilisation, then it appears that the Right side of the spectrum will continue to prosper, and support for authoritarian administrations increase. If that trend continues, the real blame will lie with liberals for being too consumed with their own righteous arrogance to see that belittling a majority of the electorate as moral inferiors is not exactly a winning ticket.