Anti-establishment politics will always end in tears for mainstream parties, argues Allen Simpson
Modern politicians seem to be in perpetual competition to be the most anti-establishment. This is not just a recent phenomenon. Tony Blair’s glottal stop, Bill Clinton’s saxophone and Ronald Reagan’s cowboy hat predate Corbyn’s bicycle clips by decades, but they are part of the same fetishisation of authenticity and outsider status.
But stirring anti-establishment sentiment can come at an expensive price. Across the West, populist movements have overrun many establishment parties, either creating new electoral blocs or fundamentally changing the policy platform of their hosts from within.
This hasn’t happened by chance, and should not be ascribed just to post-crisis anger. Rather there is a strong sense that it is, at least in part, a self-inflicted wound by political elites themselves – the result of both strategic and tactical decisions taken by parties trying to encourage, harness, and weaponise political anger.
In Jewish mythology there is a story of a creature called a golem. Most versions of the story describe a monster made out of clay by a rabbi to defend his community from attack or to defeat an enemy. The rabbi brings the monster to life by writing the word ‘emet’ meaning ‘truth’ on its forehead. Inevitably the rabbi loses control of the golem, bringing disaster on himself or his flock. It is a story of hubris.
Rather than thinking of organisations like the US Tea Party or Ukip here in the UK as entryists, it is more truthful to recognise that they are to a large extent home-grown phenomena. They are golems, created by political leaders seeking to use popular anger as a political strategy, which ultimately, as the rabbi in the story discovered, prove impossible to control.
One lesson of modern politics is that when establishment parties try to cloak themselves in counter-establishment rhetoric, they will find to their cost that they are at as much risk as their opponents.
After all, the logic of these populist movements is obvious. “Yes, we entirely agree with you that the world is controlled by a sclerotic or corrupt establishment of whom we are not part. But we think you, our leaders, are part of that establishment too. So we won’t just overthrow our rival parties, we are coming after you as well”.
The rise of the Tea Party
It must be a strange thing to be a member of the modern US Republican party establishment. Objectively, this is a time of dominance. They hold the White House and both Houses of Congress. Their hegemony stretches deep into elected office at state and local level and into the civil service.
Yet it certainly doesn’t feel that way for many moderates within the party. After a decade of being routed by Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries and feeling forced towards a hard set of socially conservative policies, they have seen Trump push moderacy and the old ruling group even further from the levers of power.
But this is a self-inflicted wound, with its roots in clear intellectual and strategic decisions taken over 40 years to recast American conservatism as a revolutionary force. In his book Rise of the Counter Establishment Sidney Blumenthal charts a history back to networks that a young Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld founded with radical neo-conservative intellectuals while working for President Nixon in the 1970s.
As Blumenthal puts it, they became the rebellious insurgents. “Wherever the liberals stigmatised them as deviants they felt vindicated”. Their outsider status confirmed in their minds the idea that there was in fact an establishment and that the establishment was liberal.
Nixon himself saw the young advisors as difficult. Tapes from the Oval Office record him referring to the “Rumsfeld Problem” and suggesting the administration should “dump him”. Instead, both Rumsfeld and Cheney outlasted Nixon. Both men would serve as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, acting largely to frustrate the President’s moderate agenda.
They opposed Ford’s choice of moderate New Yorker Nelson Rockefeller as vice-president over either GHW Bush or their preferred candidate Ronald Reagan. Although they lost that battle in the short term, they systematically undermined Rockefeller’s role in the administration before convincing Ford to dump him from the ticket for the 1977 election. Without the north-eastern votes Rockefeller would have brought, Ford lost the election to Jimmy Carter’s Democrats.
Cheney led planning for the Ford campaign in ‘77 and was responsible for an instructive section of Ford’s stump speech which, in its appeal to social order and to faith, could easily have served as a manifesto for the Tea Party 30 years later: “We shall go forward as a united people to forge a lasting peace in the world based upon our deep belief in the rights of man, the rule of law, and guidance by the hand of God”.
Moderates at the time were unnerved by this close coupling of civics and faith. Contrast it for example with Rockefeller’s comments five years earlier when, as governor of New York, he vetoed an appeal to the Roe v Wade abortion law: “I do not believe it right for one group to impose its vision of morality on an entire society”. Ford himself described dumping Rockefeller as “the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done…[for] not saying to the ultra-conservatives “it’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences”.
The other tenet of this emerging anti-establishment Republicanism was mistrust of the public sphere.
When Ronald Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, he was setting out more than simply an agenda for small-state government. He was also firing a first shot in a battle against the idea of public elites.
In the decades that followed, these tropes evolved into an explicit electoral strategy. Reaganism versus a sneering anti-American metropolitan elite. The GW Bush victories which cast first Gore then Kerry in the latter role are direct reflections of the intellectual and political decision to reformulate Republicanism as a counter-establishment force.
As one writer on the rise of this new conservatism has put it – “if a liberal drives an SUV it is the car of the elite. If a Republican does it, it is instantly the car of the common man. They have a whole stereotype that they’ve spent years building”. It scarcely needs pointing out that Kerry and Bush are identical in their Ivy League credentials. This is less about reality than optics.
Rumsfeld and Cheney themselves were really the very definition of an insider. In Kissinger’s words, “a special Washington phenomenon: the skilled full-time politician-bureaucrat in whom ambition, ability, and substance fuse seamlessly”.
The conceit proved to be self-defeating. Many registered Republicans were fully willing to believe that there was a liberal establishment which did not share their aims or respect their cultural choices. But they felt too that the leadership of their own party fitted the description, and began organising to replace existing Republican candidates and officials.
The Tea Party defeated a number of GOP candidates. Florida, Delaware, Utah, Alaska and Nevada all saw moderate Republican incumbents lose primaries. In 2010, nearly 140 Congressional candidates had Tea Party backing, and the fear of being targeted in a primary by a Tea Party candidate had an inevitable chilling effect on more moderate Republicans.
Moderate conservative John McCain was forced to add Sarah Palin to his ticket to balance suspicion about his politics. The centrist Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney did manage to overcome a Tea Party challenge to secure his party’s presidential nomination but was pulled far to the right during the campaign, away from his own record, towards the Tea Party and towards defeat.
And the establishment’s candidate for the 2016 nomination – Jeb Bush – was soundly beaten by the Tea Party choice Ted Cruz, and ultimately by Trump himself. The Republicans have lost their own party to a counter-establishment golem of their own making.
Consider an alternative history of the 2016 presidential election where Clinton’s success in the popular vote brings her a victory in the electoral college. Four years on, a chastened Republican party run the dully centrist Jeb Bush who wins against a flagging Democratic machine. The Democrats then run the talented and charismatic Michelle Obama against him, who sweeps the electoral map and serves two terms. Seven presidencies spanning 45 years, with two people of colour, and two women – but drawn from only three families.
Understanding why to many in America this looks less like diversity and more like oligarchy is crucial to understanding how anti-establishment politics have proven so powerful. Trump, cast against a revolving set of political dynasties, seems to be an iconoclast even with his vast inherited wealth.
Conservatives and Ukip
We can chart a similar history on the right of British politics. Direct intellectual and political lines can be drawn from the Thatcher phenomenon to the rise of Ukip as an electoral force, 30 years later.
From the early days of her premiership, Margaret Thatcher set herself against the existing social hierarchies of class and an emerging one of public sector technocrats as much as she set herself against unionised labour. She built a coalition of traditional Conservatives and a new breed of aspirational working-class and lower-middle class voters for whom pushing against a liberal establishment was a deeply personal aim. It is a set of ideas which continues to define conservative politics in the party, the media and the wider country today.
One part of this coalition is particularly important. Self-employment and small business ownership grew more in public consciousness than in reality during this period. But there was a growing sense of self-identity amongst a broad grouping of skilled manual workers and of entrepreneurs who felt common interests and cultural norms, and saw themselves in opposition to the same groups Thatcher had set herself against.
So much in politics is a dispute between competing understandings of fairness. For this new coalition, fairness was found in personal responsibility. These voters rejected both a politics and a labour movement which they felt were supporting people unwilling to work, but had nothing to say to ‘hard working families’ and which, they felt, understood direct employment – particularly by the state – but saw self employment as somehow gauche. And they contrasted a deeply felt nationalism with a culturally and politically globalist elite across civil society for whom New York was closer to their personal experience than Grantham.
For Thatcher and her supporters, Europe became the embodiment of this statist, internationalist elite. As she said in her Bruges speech in 1988:
“Europe is the result of plans. It is in fact, a classic utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure”.
The experience of knocking on doors in the 2015 general election illustrated just how much this remains the case.
Europe was one of the most commonly raised topics by voters. It was not raised in isolation. It would sit as part of a matrix of issues including gay marriage, immigration, MPs’ expenses, bankers, and often a specific personal example of being failed by the system. Our constitutional relationship with the continent had become a proxy for a wider discussion about the future of our society – about personal responsibility versus personal freedoms as the central gravity of your moral universe.
For recent Conservative leaders, this has posed a tactical problem. Appease this post-Thatcher strand of patriotic individualism, or try and outflank it on the centre? David Cameron unwisely tried both. His Big Society project sat uneasily against the increasing anti-Europeanism of his back benches and the country. Intermittent spasms of uneasy nationalism only served to increase demand for a more red-blooded conservatism.
The result came in a sharp increase in the political relevance of the anti-establishment, anti-Brussels and socially conservative Ukip, and ultimately in the decision to hold a Brexit referendum. It also meant that following Cameron’s resignation, liberal Conservatives now find themselves significantly diminished in the party’s hierarchy. By 2014, Ukip were polling as high as one quarter of the total vote. Analysis of Ukip’s vote has consistently shown a large amount of that support came from people who 35 years previously had formed Thatcher’s new coalition – these were the heirs to her Bruges Speech.
Her electoral success in convening a counterestablishment bloc of lower middle and working-class voters was, a generation later, proving the largest single risk to Conservative electability.
Today it seems that the Ukip force has faded away, but not before they had a remarkable impact on the future of the Conservative party and the country more broadly.
Miliband and the rise of the left
Watching the confusion of many Labour MPs over the rise of Jeremy Corbyn brings these parties’ histories to mind. There is genuine bewilderment about how such an apparently old-fashioned figure could be swept to office on a wave of youth power.
Part of the reason is the strategy followed by Corbyn’s immediate predecessor. Those of us of an age to be annoyed by the rise of 90s themed retro nights can easily forget that a 20-year-old Momentum activist would have been only 13 when Ed Miliband became leader.
For these young people, their entire politically aware lives had been spent with a Labour leader making a powerful argument that the system was rigged. They were told by Miliband that “the 21st Century choice is: are you on the side of… the producers or the predators?”.
Time and again Milibandism described – not without reason – a capitalist system operated corruptly in favour of an economic and social elite. Young people took the message on board, but were less convinced that Miliband or any of his peers had the radicalism needed to address the problem. They also recognised the establishment when they saw it, and the Miliband tribe of former special advisors, children of previous MPs and other fellow travellers is without question an insider group.
Corbyn is the natural and inevitable result of the political programme that the Labour leadership group followed under Miliband. Perhaps more than even the rule changes Miliband introduced, it was the question he posed to the left – ‘how can we get rid of the establishment?’ – that led to the party’s transformation.
Just as with the Republicans and the Tea Party, or the Conservatives and Ukip, Labour’s elites found themselves the victims of a counter-establishment golem that they had themselves encouraged.
It is easy to see why politicians are attracted to an idea of themselves as fighting the establishment. But when we draw our political leaders from an ever-narrower pool, any claims to outsider status will struggle to ring true.
For people energised by these new movements this is an exciting time, and it is hard to argue that the old political establishments deserve protection when they have singularly failed to make an effective argument for their survival.
But as society and our politics become more polarised, we might all pause to ask whether populism is best placed to address the challenges of the coming years.
The rabbi in the story brought the golem to life by writing the word ‘truth’ on its forehead. Many mainstream politicians have attempted to confer the same endorsement onto populist movements. Time and again, that has proven to be a deep strategic error.