Party elites and mainstream media have lost touch with grassroots opinion
Besides the fact they dominated headlines on either side of the Atlantic during 2015, few observers of UK and US politics will find much in common between Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. Especially if they support either of them.
However, regardless of the stark differences between their ideologies, values and priorities, there is a distinct parallel to be drawn between their surprising success. Understanding it is essential to predicting politics going forward.
In fact, this is not restricted to the US far-Right or UK far-Left. We’ve just seen another earthquake election in Spain, with two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, taking over a third of the vote combined.
Another huge political story from 2015 was the Scottish National Party – combining nationalism and left-wing rhetoric – taking 56 out of 59 parliamentary seats. In the same UK General Election, UKIP – combining nationalism and right-wing rhetoric – won 4M votes.
What all of these individuals or parties share in common is populist rhetoric, authenticity and a convincing ‘outsider’ brand – representing a challenge to the status quo, or to political orthodoxy.
Every one of them is or was feared by political elites. Most were dismissed as amateurish, extreme, unelectable or some other charge that would scare the masses from straying outside their usual voting choices.
In each case, that scaremongering has had limited effect, at best. Not necessarily because the charges were false – in many or most cases it remains to be seen whether their effect will be positive, negative, transformational, chaotic or orderly – but because the voters didn’t do as they were told.
The explanation must involve the diversification of media. As much as we would all like to believe we are in control of our own minds, we are and always have been reliant on media for political information. Short of direct contact with a politician or their press office, how else could we find things out? Let alone decide which, among thousands of political decisions taken every day, are worthy of attention.
And until very recently, even voters in the ‘free world’ have been restricted to very few choices of political news. In the UK, that meant the BBC, ITN, Sky or our famously partisan press. That meant the party leadership needed to extensively court media moguls and editors, who in turn could guide their audience towards their party.
So when, during the Labour leadership contest, all of those mainstream outlets paid little or no attention, derisory when they bothered, to Corbyn’s candidacy, it is no wonder the bookies dismissed him as a mere 4% chance.
Here was a candidate who had rejected the mainstream consensus as a career choice. Who had never played by political/media establishment rules. Corbyn never sought the approval of the Murdoch press or Labour leadership.
As a result, Corbyn had very few allies in parliament and even fewer in the media. He doesn’t speak or even dress like mainstream politicians of recent decades. Nobody had run an even remotely successful campaign of this kind in living memory.
Yet the people who actually vote in party leadership contests are more concerned with having their clearly formed views represented. They tend to prefer somebody who doesn’t calculate the fallout before expressing a view. And unlike the old days, they can consult a much wider set of media options – where they can discuss their chosen, niche subject in as much detail as they desire. Corbyn’s election effectively stemmed from a Twitter campaign.
From the moment Corbyn secured the necessary nominations to make the final ballot, the difference between the Labour elite, their mainstream media allies and his online supporters became stark and hostile, and remains so to this day. The former think he’s extreme, unelectable and out of touch with the wider country. The latter that his critics are corrupt sell-outs – reinforced by their refusal to acknowledge his massive, democratic mandate.
It matters not who is correct – the key point is the former no longer have much influence over the latter, and that makes a massive difference to both politics and betting. Having failed so spectacularly to foresee Corbynmania, (just as they missed Ed Miliband in the same race five years earlier), why should we take any notice of mainstream media predictions?
The same issues apply to the ongoing race for GOP Nominee. Trump has virtually no allies in mainstream politics or media. His candidacy was initially treated as a joke. Yet six months on, he remains way ahead in national polls and his party’s hierachy are getting very worried.
Though an elected politician, my long-range outside pick for the nomination is also way beyond the mainstream. Ted Cruz has virtually no allies in Washington, and no shortage of media enemies. The negative ads have started in force, but Cruz remains well on course to win the opening Iowa Caucus.
Again in both cases, I doubt hostile media coverage makes much difference to the voters in question. Trump and Cruz supporters are more likely to be following their impressive social media operations – in Trump’s case, tweets that are either his own work or a remarkably authentic copy – or Conservative websites that are loyal to and enthusiastic about their campaigns.
Indeed, when Cruz attacked bias from moderators in the CNBC debate, declaring that “This is why the American public don’t trust the media”, it resonated with focus groups like never before.
Predicting this GOP race will boil down to whether the mainstream party hierachy destroy these outsiders, in favour of a safe, approved candidate. Someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. Or whether the revolutionary, grassroots fervour that created the Tea Party is now in the ascendancy.
When it comes to the General Election, a further question must be asked, about whether this grassroots phenomenon applies to societies as a whole, or just the relatively small number of people that vote in party leadership contests. To take the UK example, Labour do not look anymore electable since Corbynmania doubled it’s membership.
My long-term analysis of the division within the Republican Party is that insurgents increasingly hold the edge. That the base, or a majority of it, want an outsider who will genuinely take the fight to Washington and seek to tear down what they regard as an institutionally corrupt consensus. My early bets were placed on that premise and so far it’s looking good. Within a couple of months, we will be much closer to an answer.