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20.02.17

Why things are not as bleak as they look for social democrats

Uncanny. That is what Nigel Farage says of the supposed similarities between the EU referendum and the US presidential election. This is not a comparison exclusive to him. Far from it. The excellent Gideon Rachman has made it as articulately as anyone in the Financial Times.

“This similarity is more than an unfortunate coincidence. I would point to three parallels between Brexit and the Trump phenomenon that should worry the Clinton campaign. The first is the potency of immigration as an issue. The second is the way in which the Trump and Brexit campaigns have become vehicles for protest votes about economic insecurity. The third is the chasm between elite opinion and that of the white working class.”

On immigration: In the race for the Republican nomination, Trump favoured a “deportation force” to eject the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented migrants living in the United States. No more. Trump is watering down his position because he has, finally, twigged that it is a loser.

On economic insecurity and the white working class: up to a point, Lord Rachman. Nate Silver has exploded the myth of Trump’s “white working class support”. Similarly, having reviewed the evidence, Zoe Williams has concluded of Brexit that: “The very most we can say is that leave had some popularity with the disaffected and the disenfranchised; but it was not limited to that group, and the people who swung the vote were affluent, older southerners.”

There is also an obvious and crucial difference between the EU referendum and the US presidential election. One concerns an office with which all Americans are familiar. In the context of a process that comes around regular as clockwork every four years. The other concerns an international organisation that Britons do not grasp as well as Americans comprehend their presidency. And upon which we are infrequently asked to take a view. And even then in the format of a referendum, one where the consequences of how we vote may be less well appreciated than in a general election.

In other words, the more accurate American equivalent to the EU referendum may be a popular vote on NAFTA. “What’s that?” said one of my American in-laws. It is the North American Free Trade Area. But their ignorance is my real point: it is something whose importance to America is not widely recognised.

In the more familiar contexts of US presidential and UK general elections, there is usually a change and a continuity candidate. Trump represents change. But in such a highly erratic and combustible form that the attractions of continuity under Clinton, and in an economy that is steadily, if not spectacularly, improving, are accentuated. At the same time, as potentially the first ever female president and the custodian of the highly liberal hopes of most of those who rushed to support Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate, Clinton also represents change.

The incompetence of Trump, therefore, makes Clinton both continuity and change. Which is a position from which she’ll be hard pressed to lose. Especially when Trump has managed to alienate so many crucial voting blocs: female voters, blacks and Hispanics, and young voters. To name but a few.

When Hillary Clinton becomes the 45th president, she will be well placed to succeed Justin Trudeau, elected in 2015 as Canadian prime minister on a pro-immigration, pro-infrastructure platform, as Uncut’s annual overseas inspiration and North America will be the globe’s centre-left hotbed.

That such a hotbed would exist, extending over such a massive geography and two major countries, stands in contradiction to another piece of conventional political wisdom: that social democracy is in decline, perhaps terminally so. Where Rachman advocated the Brexit-Trump parallel, his FT colleague Tony Barber has done so for the dying social democracy thesis.

When Clinton wins, the need for an important caveat to Barber’s argument will become more apparent: Social democracy is not in terminal decline but has suffered serious reversals in Europe, its traditional citadel. In the absence, however, of the challenges that Europe has faced with the Euro and refugees, it is doubtful that this decline would have been so precipitous.

The key to social democracy’s revival in Europe, therefore, consists in overcoming these problems. Which, oddly enough, is consistent with the circumstances in which Gus O’Donnell can envisage the UK staying in the EU. “I do have an idealistic outcome,” O’Donnell told the Times (£), “which is that the EU, confronted with all the problems that it has got at the moment, changes quite radically.”

Under this scenario, the Eurozone fiscally integrates to become sustainable, while the rest of the EU has more flexible arrangements that allow it to form tailored responses to other issues, including the movement of people across the continent.

The barriers to this outcome are much higher than those to President Clinton. If they can be found, though, we wouldn’t just be asking: How will the Hillary Clinton presidency build on the Obama presidency? But also: Will the second Clinton White House encourage social democratic innovation on the other side of the Atlantic as the Third Way did under the first?