BREXIT & TRUMP: HOW THE MEDIA AND ESTABLISHMENT USE ‘THE WHITE WORKING CLASS’
Since Brexit happened, most of the debate has focused on whether or not welfare or immigration played the biggest role in the shock result. It’s a pretty narrowly defined debate — both in terms of the topics discussed and timeframe. “Maybe if Cameron hadn’t cut so much”, “Maybe if we had listened to people’s concerns about immigration” — it goes on and on and on. What’s more, it’s all taking place in the same London-centric circles that failed to realise that Brexit was a possibility. It’s the same faces on the late night debate shows and the lecture circuit. The same voices on radio and podcasts. The same articles and arguments published again and again.
What’s been missing from the conversation is any mention of the deep rooted frustration and anger that exists outside of Britain’s major cities. It’s a kind of long term hopelessness and anger that is difficult to put words to. I was brought up in one of the poorest communities in South Wales — the kind of community that only ever shows up in national discourse as a place you’d never actually want to live in. During the referendum, I tried to talk around the issues and talk to local people about how many of the myths around immigration were built on falsities. It usually involved a lengthy deconstruction of what were clearly talking points people had heard on TV or read in newspapers. But again and again I’d find agreement only to be met with the fact they were still happy to vote to leave — “Well, things can’t go on the way they are.”
They were not wrong. I began to realise that many people here would happily cut of their own arm if it meant even a remote chance of change. And how could I argue with them? They’d seen their town rot away for decades. They’d been told that things would eventually get better — they didn’t. Policy after policy had failed to even alleviate their pain. They knew that successive governments had abandoned them. I always remember what my late grandfather had once said to me: “At least Thatcher hated us. We don’t even exist to Blair.” The older generation had experienced all of this. They’d seen their children experience the same. Some were even seeing their grandchildren go through it. I can’t blame them for not finding much alignment with a lecture on the merits of socialism.
The challenge is to actually get out and engage with these people. Listen to them. It didn’t happen in the referendum. The campaign to stay in the European Union, and its presentation in the media, was built almost entirely on “What is best for the City?” and business leaders threatening people in precarious economic situations with job losses if they didn’t vote to remain. After decades of falling wages and unemployment, you can hardly blame people for feeling like they had nothing to lose by voting to leave. Nobody had ever spoken of their plight in the preceding decades — Thatcher gutted them, New Labour was built on the premise that you could forget them and win an election, and nobody had seen anything like a ‘recovery’ since 2008.
I don’t want to pretend racism and bigotry weren’t a factor. They were. But there’s a big difference between deeply entrenched hatred and people who are blaming immigrants after being bombarded with headlines telling them that it’s actually foreigners who are to blame for all their problems. That line can be blurry but the tendency to write off these places as insular and bigoted is foolish. The fact that Britain is a highly centralised country that contains some of the most peripheral and poorest regions in Europe within its borders is rarely raised in mainstream media. Nor is the historic lack of a coherent regional investment policy or any commitment from Westminster to ensure wealth is spread more evenly across the country.
With Donald Trump winning the US election, I see the same mistakes being made. There’s been a tendency to either write off a lot of these former industrial areas — like the Rust Belt — as simply being racist. “It’s just white men being angry that others have made gains at their expense” they say, ignoring that people have made gains at their expense — although it’s to do with class and geography, not race. The most many can cling to is a brief mention of “economic anxieties” — a term that ignores just how long and how deeply rooted these issues are.
The big problem is that the right knows exactly how to feed off this sentiment. Both Brexit and Trump’s ‘anti-establishment’ messages were carefully crafted to appeal to it. Brexit spoke of out of touch elites who knew nothing of what most people’s lives were like (a sentiment which the left is too quick to laugh off), Trump argued that a metropolitan elite was engaged in a great conspiracy against the American people.
I don’t pretend to have an answer as to how we combat this. But I know now that an overly national and London-centric media is never going to have that conversation (Similarly, the role of New York and Los Angeles based national media outlets in the USA presents a similar problem). Already the media focus in both the UK and USA have pointed the finger at “fake news” and notions that we increasingly live in increasingly isolated bubbles or echo chambers. There’s also the declaration that we’re now living in a post-truth society. While there’s perhaps an element of truth to these points, they’re also a convenient way for the media to absolve themselves of blame for creating an unrepresentative media with narrow parameters of what is acceptable discourse. It’s a lot easier to blame people for being stupid and uneducated on the issues you’re feeding them than it is to actually listen to their problems and reflect on how you represent them. It’s the exact same sentiment that got us here in the first place. Like Trump and the Brexit camp, this “fake news” is built on the notion that the elites in the media aren’t telling you everything — and the sad thing is, they’re not wrong.