Lessons from the 2020 US presidential election
Since I restarted my blog in September I have been trying to develop a new argument about the nature of the modern politics in which the government is engaged. The core of this politics is to be found in the way in which it appeals to the emotions of its core vote – and ignores the rest.
As an example of the new politics I suggested that we need to completely rethink the way in which we understand some of the most important government announcements. In the past policies and announcements were evaluated in terms of what they were actually intended to do. That meant that blogs like this, people like us, would look at what was intended in the policy detail and begin to work through whether and how it would actually work in practice. Over the last few years of my blog nearly all my posts have been about the detail of the way in which policy works out. Surely that was what politics was about. Wasn’t it?
More recently I have been suggesting that the new politics being played out by Number 10 is now much more about the range of emotions that bounce through announcements. And that this signifies a sea change in what politics is about. This new politics is based upon No 10’s successes in the 2016 referendum and the general election in 2019. Both of these campaigns, by strongly appealing to emotions, successfully consolidated 52% of the vote in 2016 and 43.5% in 2019.
Given that they were so successful in those campaigns, their plan for the politics between now and the next election is to consolidate that 43% of the vote. Do that next time and they will win comfortably. There is therefore no point in Number 10 talking to those of us who are not a part of that 43%. We are not part of the game plan. At best we are to be ignored, and at worst battered.
For decades this has not been the way in which politics has been played out. So most of us are a bit bemused by this. On the one hand we are used to looking at the detail of implementation and on the other we are also used to being a part of the audience that is being targeted. We, and our concerns, are used to mattering. But not anymore.
Some people who have talked to me about this find it puzzling. Surely no government can be cavalier about the detail of policy? All this political emphasis on emotion may be important but surely things have to actually work on the ground? If they don’t the politics of competence will surely prevail in the end?
I agree that was the way things were in the past.
I have been involved in 16 general elections and one of the consistent truths of all of them has been that governments lose elections because of issues of competence. History taught us that, all this emotional content from No 10 aside, in the end the politics of competence will be what matters. In the end, over a 5 year term, surely whether government works will be what concerns the electorate?
I write this as the final votes in the 2020 US Presidential election are being counted. Over the 4 years of his Presidency Donald Trump has not spent much effort on developing competence as a trade mark of his term. However bad the UK response to the Covid crisis has been, Trump has led a chaotic and dangerous set of policies that has played a part in so many deaths. He was elected to bring back coal and steel jobs and to build a wall between the USA and Mexico. None of which has happened. Most people who know anything about US political history would agree that his term has been the most chaotic and incompetent.
It is now certain that the number of people who have voted for Trump in 2020 will have increased. OK, a much bigger turnout overall, but the reality is after 4 years of bedlam and ineptitude his core vote has grown. On the same day exit polls show that two-thirds of the electorate think that their country is on the wrong track. But that thought has not stopped his vote from growing.
The point I am making is that he has spent the last 4 years doing one thing and one thing only. He has created a strong emotional bond between himself and his electoral base. He has done that every day. He has not been talking to the rest of the country. He has not worried about the competence of his policies and how they actually work.
Now the USA is NOT the UK. And Donald Trump really, really, is not Boris Johnson.
But, over the last few months, Number 10 has developed a new mode of politics that uses emotions to talk strongly to their electoral base and they will be heartened by the numbers of people who have come out to vote for Donald Trump. His base in 2020 is bigger than 2016. The lesson is that this new politics works. It’s very rough with a lot of chaos and anger every day. But it looks like it works.
I am suggesting that for as long as No 10 is running it the new politics that it is using to run the government and that I have been discussing for the last few weeks, is here to stay.
And we had better get used to not being the people that government is aiming its announcements at.
If we are have any relevance at all, we are all going to have to work hard to translate what is going on into a language and an understanding that is ours.