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Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Real Majority

The phrase "demography is destiny" is often erroneously attributed to Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century French philosopher of science, theorist of Positivism and pioneer of sociology. The actual authors of the phrase were two US political scientists, Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon, whose 1970 book, The Real Majority, argued that the future of American politics was centrist, combining economic liberalism and social conservatism. The misattribution to Comte arose from the desire to situate a demography-based theory of politics within the tradition of post-Enlightenment thought, rejecting the twin sirens of romanticism and revolution for the middle-way of empiricism and technocracy. That political affiliation is driven by social factors might appear to be nothing more that a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but the novelty is the substitution of a varying cast of demographic dimensions, from age through education to race, for the singular dialectic of economic class. No one dimension is constantly dominant, which means that the "decisive centre" can be redefined over time through the discovery of new dynamics. Thus Wattenberg and Scammon's definition of the centre as "unyoung, unpoor and unblack" would be replaced by the "Obama coalition" of blue-collar whites, minorities and urban professionals.

The title of the book reflected the way that the word "majority" had emerged as the corollary of "minority" during the Civil Rights era. It was an essentially reactionary self-consciousness, which was made obvious first in Richard Nixon's "silent majority" during the 70s and then later in the "moral majority" of the Christian right in the 80s. The ideological context was the ascendancy of neoliberalism, which sought to put the market and private property, and thus the operation of economic power through class, beyond contestation. As the dividing lines of the political superstructure became increasingly associated with commoditised values and preferences - what would come to be called the "culture wars" - so the base was recast in terms of demographic dimensions over which we had no control. This included not only the "destiny" of race and age, but the hardwired substrate of "moral foundations" as later theorised by Jonathan Haidt. This gave rise to daft determinism - "the coming gerontocracy" is no less silly than "white genocide" - as well as unintentional comedy as the choice championed by the superstructure was inappropriately applied to the base (e.g. Rachel Dolezal self-identifying as black).

Just as "demography is destiny" served to reinforce the dominance of "third way" politics in the 90s, so it also encouraged the belief that liberal values would out-compete conservative ones over time as the population of developed nations became more diverse and tolerant. This reached a peak of delusive stupidity in last year's US Presidential election when the Democrats assumed that Hillary Clinton would both build incrementally on the Obama coalition and benefit from being a woman and thus "overdue" the office. Despite her defeat, many centrist Democrats remain convinced that it really was "her turn" and that progress will be resumed once Trump inevitably fails. The election was also marked by the elevation of a hitherto neglected dimension to prominence, namely the division between large cities and everywhere else. Of course, this hasn't been neglected by sociologists or geographers - we have been worrying for half a century about the effects of deindustrialisation and rural depopulation in terms of age, education and income - but it is only recently that it has been seen to closely align with party affiliation.


In the UK, the dominant idea that motivates much contemporary political commentary (particularly around the general election) is the emergence of a conservative majority outside the larger cities, combining traditional Labour heartlands with Tory-dominated shires. This was made dramatically evident in the results of the EU referendum, even though it never managed to upset the political apple-cart in the various by-elections where a "metropolitan" Labour Party was meant to be vulnerable to rejection by a parochial "base". Two reasons for this discrepancy are that the EU results were aggregated at district council level, which served to obscure the variability of results at constituency level, plus the vote was close overall and more evenly-distributed than the stark, binary maps suggested. The 48% who voted remain nationally are not all clustered in metropolitan boroughs, while 40% of the vote in London was for leave. What the data actually suggest is not a cultural cleavage between metropolitans and the rest, let alone "anywheres" and "somewheres", but the tendency for city-dwellers to favour slightly more "progressive" politics.

Cities are sorting mechanisms. This dynamic is as old as cities themselves, reflecting the development of new economic activities and thus the need to attract young people - i.e. those prepared to learn new skills or launch new ventures - as well as the ability of cities to support more varied interest groups and social segments, from gays to graphic designers. The industrial revolution was unusual in that it encouraged the formation of new towns close to power sources (water and then coal), creating a dispersed industrial geography that worked against agglomeration. Prior to this, and then subsequent to it (once energy wasn't so geographically constrained), city formation and growth was driven largely by the convenience of communication (ports, access to trade routes and transport infrastructure). Even in the age of the Internet, this physical concentration remains dominant just as trade remains subject to the gravity model. The "rust-belt" can therefore be thought of as a historic anomaly that will gradually crumble back into the soil, having fulfilled its temporary purpose.

This instrumental way of thinking leads to the population of these areas being similarly categorised as redundant, which encourages certain (implicitly negative) characteristics to be over-stressed: ageing, limited educational attainment, poor health. The framing of these areas as "ailing" or "ruined", like the framing of their inhabitants as "left behind" or "damaged", is a callous hint that they ought to be put out of their misery. In practice this means a form of accelerationism, in which the young or able are encouraged to move to the city and so hasten their home town's inevitable demise, combined with the redefinition of these areas as reservations for pensioners and the flotsam and jetsam of society (the disabled, single mums, refugees). The left behind town is a caricature, which leads a cartoonish media to hunt for a suitable political expression. Enter UKIP, a party that is fundamentally a media creation and whose political purpose is now gone. Bereft of Brexit as a cause, it must adopt ever more controversial policies, like regularly inspecting the genitals of Muslim schoolgirls, or lose the media's attention.

Young people attracted to cities tend to be more liberal in their outlook, but this doesn't mean that all young people are liberal or that all older people are conservative. Small-c conservatives in their 20s are less likely to leave for the bright lights, while progressive oldies are less likely to fancy retiring to the country. This sorting effect exacerbates the impression of a generational divide because we imagine the typical youth to be urban and the typical elderly to be suburban or rural. Much of what we think of as the conservatism of age is simply habit or the need for internal consistency. For example, tolerance of variety in sexual orientation reflects environmental reinforcement: old people recall when homosexual acts were illegal while many young people are amused to hear they ever were. It also reflects the decline in religious observance, hence the sheer oddity of Tim Farron's struggles with "gay sex", which appears positively antique even to people much older than him because of its focus on "sin".


Following the EU referendum, there was much talk of the reactionary attitudes of leave voters with polls showing 53% of Brexiteers in favour of the restoration of hanging. Given that the actual number of leave voters was only 30% of the electorate, this tells us little. In fact, we know support for capital punishment has been steadily declining over time and is now under 50%. To infer from the referendum that the UK is an incorrigibly illiberal country strikes me as over the top, as does the assumption that the politically decisive centre is dominated by older people with minimal education and a Trident obsession. Educational attainment has steadily risen over time, so this (according to conventional wisdom) should be increasing liberal attitudes in aggregate. And sure enough it is, as the polling on capital punishment shows. Today's older cohort may include fewer graduates than today's twenty-somethings, but it includes more than the generation schooled in the 1940s who became the culturally dominant cohort of the "swinging 60s" and who helped elect an avowedly socialist Labour government in 1964 and then again in 1966.

The dirty secret of politics is that only a minority of the population (the "hobbyists") vote regularly. We drift in and out of elections based on our enthusiasm or distaste for particular policies or personalities, our expectation of whether our vote will matter locally (the first-past-the-post problem), and our expectation of whether it will matter in aggregate (e.g. more remainers than leavers skipped in 2016, assuming on the basis of polls and media coverage that the referendum was a foregone conclusion). The result is that most elections are decided by a minority of the electorate. If Theresa May wins a large majority of the vote this year, say around 45%, that will almost certainly be on a reduced turnout, possibly under 60% (a low previously only achieved in 1918, due to the exigencies of war, and 2001, due to the disappointments of Blair's first term and the poor state of the Tories under Hague). In other words, her desired mandate may be based on little more than 1 in 4 of the electorate, though I don't suppose she will lose any sleep over this. Likewise, the prospects for Labour depend entirely on boosting turnout among its regular and occasional voters, rather than chasing after the mythical centre or an untapped youth vote.

The consequence looks like being an election in which the two main parties will seek to maximise their core support. This strategy appears to have been influenced by the US Presidential election and specifically by the Democrats' relative under-performance in maximising their core vote in key Midwestern states. From the 35% strategy that dominated British thinking in the 2010-15 period, we appear to have moved to a 40/60 strategy in which securing over 40% delivers a handsome majority but is only possible when the opposition is sufficiently dispirited to push turnout below 60%. Viewed in this way, the Tories monotonous rhetoric ("strong and stable", "coalition of chaos", "security threat") and their refusal to participate in debate start to make a lot of sense. The aim is to refuse engagement, bore the neutral into abstention and finally steamroller key marginals through a combination of deceit and overwhelming ground force. Everyone cites the evil genius of Lynton Crosby, but this is like watching a team managed by José Mourinho.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk30 April 2017 at 16:15

    "The aim is refuse engagement, bore the neutral into abstention and finally steamroller key marginals through a combination of deceit and overwhelming ground force. Everyone cites the evil genius of Lynton Crosby, but this is like watching a team managed by José Mourinho."

    Brilliant analysis, though tragic as well.

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