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Major Shifts in American Politics — and their lessons for the British Left

Marco Rubio, Decades of Decadence: How Our Spoiled Elites Blew America’s Inheritance of Liberty, Security and Prosperity, (Broadside Books, 2023) 256 pages; £20

Johan Norberg, The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World. (Atlantic Books); 352 pages; £20

Patrick Ruffini, Party of the People, (Simon & Schuster), 336 pages; $30

John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, Where Have All the Democrats Gone? (Henry Holt) 336 pages; $28.99

Reviewed by James Pearce

Do Democrats have much to be happy about heading into 2024? That depends on your focus. The party recently triumphed in off-year elections. It took full control of Virginia’s state legislature and reclaimed the Kentucky governorship by a wide margin. The charismatic Andy Behsear won in counties that former President Donald Trump took by almost 50 points, positioning himself as a future presidential candidate. It also appears Democrats have found their kryptonite: abortion. From the reddest states like Kansas, Montana and Wyoming, to swingy-er states like Michigan and Ohio, American voters are coming out in force to defend reproductive rights.

The flip side is President Joe Biden. He is currently behind in five out six battleground states – and not only in a Trump rematch. Biden is worryingly losing the under 30 vote, as well as bleeding African American male voters and the Hispanic vote to Republicans (6% and 11% respectively). Most Americans are quite comfortable telling the pollsters that Biden’s age is a problem. In private, many lawmakers concede the same, particularly those in competitive seats sharing the ballot with Biden in 2024.

Four books published in 2023 reveal a lot about where both major parties are ideologically. Their pet issues and bases are changing. More striking is that both parties seem to be having very different conversations. Republicans are a lot more critical of capitalism than the left nowadays. The left, meanwhile, cannot seem to figure out why its voters are abandoning the national party.

Where Have All the Democrats Gone? is written by two veterans, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The left-leaning observers are celebrities in political-science circles and often credited for President Obama’s two election wins. The pair are organized-labour Democrats, a dying breed, who wrote the influential The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002. Then they argued that growing numbers of non-whites, Democrats’ rising strength in the cities, and those with university degrees set the stage for an enduring majority. Obama rode to victory on this coalition twice, but this has not aged well.

Working class voters of all colours are now deserting the Democrats. The authors blame “the cultural insularity and arrogance” of the Democratic Party, starting in Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The duo write that zealots of transgenderism, critical-race theory, climate eschatology and lack of immigration enforcement seized control of a party that was previously centered on the everyman. According to them, Democrats are now in a tough spot electorally. Democrats have replaced the old country club Republicans among richer voters with a university education, yet their talking in the language of the faculty lounge is alienating swathes of voters.

It’s hard to disagree, although their explanation is incomplete. Why would working-class voters turn towards the party of tax cuts for the wealthy, while the richer are shifting to the party that champions progressive taxation and programmes they and their relatives will never benefit from or use? Even though Biden is presiding over a strong economy, sympathizes with organized labour and has passed impressive legislation that benefits the working class, voters are turning elsewhere.

Ruffini feels he has the answer. Using impressive data collected from voters, the Republican pollster believes that Democrats misunderstood their core base. Democrats assumed that a pathway to citizenship was a winning issue with Hispanics. In fact, Hispanics are just as likely as white voters to support stricter immigration controls and strong borders. They also cringed at the term ‘LatinX’ (the gender neutral term, ignorant of the Spanish language) and tend to be more socially conservative – including the under 30s. Democrats treated minorities differently from the white working class, who were facing many of the same issues. Both now feel Democrats just do not listen and took them for granted. In doing so, Democrats have lost the blue collar workers of America who traditionally had their backs. Republicans are starting to make inroads with minorities, as well.

These are the voters who will decide 2024, making Ruffini’s book a timely warning. In crucial swing states like Arizona and Nevada, working class Latinos are a must for Democrats to win. In Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina, black men are a core group that could make the difference.

Republicans and the right, meanwhile, are having an entirely different conversation. Take Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, once the future American conservatives dreamed about. The son of Cuban immigrants who worked as dishwashers, Rubio understood poverty better than most Republicans. Young, charismatic, and socially compassionate, the fluent Spanish speaker cleans up in Miami-Dade, an area where Democrats need to win Florida.

Nowadays, he sounds more like Trump on immigration, but blames the plight of the American worker on the capitalist system. In some instances, financialism, oversized military budgets and woke corporations bear the brunt of his wrath, as does China. Rubio pummels JP Morgan Chase for supporting Black Lives Matter and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Capital for boosting investment in China, which, according to him, the Bushes, Obama and Biden have been too soft on. A Senate colleague, Ted Cruz of Texas, also recently published a book called UnWoke: How to Defeat Cultural Marxism in America, much to the same tune.

In other cases, Rubio reminds readers that free markets are profoundly unconservative: they bring rapid change, make more people richer and disrupt the old ways of doing things. On that aspect, the new right shares a hatred of free markets with the old left: they supposedly let rich countries exploit poor ones, as China is exploiting the west now. Norberg argues the same. However, we now live in a world of emerging markets, and many of those ‘poor countries’ are prospering.

The three main areas that Rubio focuses on are taming Wall Street, bringing critical industry back and rebuilding the workforce. Sound familiar, leftists? Reminiscing about the days when “we took it for granted that most of the things we bought… were made right here at home by our fellow Americans”, Rubio blames China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation for the fact that “too many hardworking Americans who want to...live normal, decent lives are unable to do so.” We should, according to Rubio, think of Americans not as “workers, fathers and citizens'' but as “consumers…nothing more”.

The biggest weakness of Rubio’s book, however, is that he somehow assumes the culture war issues will resolve themselves with economic healing. Women in the South might strongly disagree given that the average cost of giving birth in America is $14,000. Rubio assumes that the richer people get, the more influence they will have, which seems naive.

Over to Norberg, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, a right-wing think-tank. He is more positive in his take down of capitalism. He dedicates his book to ‘classic liberals of all parties’ before defending protectionism and admitting he got things wrong in his famous book In Defense of Global Capitalism. It is a book that preaches to a choir, but one the unconverted must read.

Norberg shows with ample examples that in the three decades after 1990, when globalisation took off, we have seen greater improvements in human living conditions than the previous three millennia. Poverty is down, lifespans are longer, workplaces are safer and technology that only the Pentagon could afford in 1990 is now on every smartphone. “I am not saying that the era has been unequivocally good, only that it has been better than any other era humanity has experienced,” he writes.

He is not wrong. Global poverty has been reduced by roughly one third since the 1980s. Yet, Norberg also claims that all the proposed solutions have been tried before, with dismal results. One example of the new right achieving their aims Norberg notes is the COVID lockdowns (which it largely opposed). Borders were closed, migration halted and supply chains were disrupted. The result was soaring poverty. One study he cites of 50 countries with populist leaders also found that fifteen years after they take power, their economies are a tenth smaller than those of comparable countries.

On predicting China’s authoritarian model would fail, Norberg states, “I got it wrong last time [that] continued economic liberalisation will lead to openness and diversity that will eventually undermine the dictatorship… What I don’t believe is possible is that a totalitarian superpower will be able to replace the leading role of the United States and Europe.”

China showed the world that the ideas of two liberals, Keynes and Friedman, do not require democratic freedoms. In fact, dictatorships have shown Keynesianism’s best results. These dictatorships survive for years just by keeping enough of the population economically satisfied and politically demobilised. Moreover, by having less government oversight in macroeconomics, citizens become more economically savvy and proactive. They gain the illusion of more freedom without having to worry about politics. China has now overtaken the US and EU in many key economic areas, whereast the emerging markets prospering are autocracies, fragile democracies, or elected democracies in name only.

So as Labour and the Democrats head into their respective 2024 elections, what are the important lessons from these books? First is to understand one’s voters and what motivates them to vote . The second is to not take them for granted. Third, and this will prove unpopular in Cambridge, stay away from culture war issues! It has proven time and again a losing issue for the left.

Most importantly, the left also has a real problem with recognising progress. Consider that the average 2016 Trump voter earned $75,000 a year. Some were struggling financially and suffering an identity crisis, like in the midwestern rust belt – but most were not. America’s economy is now doing well after two years of Democratic rule in DC, even with high inflation. But where is much of that current economic success coming from? The reddest states, where Democrats are almost an extinct species.

Utah and Idaho’s business sectors are booming. Both are currently in the top ten of most attractive states for business investment. North Dakota has America's fastest population boom. California’s and New York’s population are in decline as are their revenues. South Dakota has one of the fastest economic growths of any state, whereas the reddest state in the union, Wyoming, had the equivalent of a year’s worth of state spending on hand at the end of 2022. Blue New Jersey had none, whereas Arkansas had a surplus.

Yet, these states are not the image of American capitalism’s success. It is still those which control the film, tech and financial industries. The above-mentioned states have little in the way of quaint suburbs or buzzing metro areas, like Georgia or Virginia – let alone the glorious coastlines Maine or Maryland (all four voted for Biden). Instead, they consist mostly of farmland and national parks.

Biden and the Democrats would do well to note the success of rural states where they once used to compete, like the Dakotas and Arkansas. Instead, they do not show up. Meanwhile, Governor Beshear went to Kentucky’s reddest counties, and won. Conservative America’s disillusionment with capitalism stems from the fact that many feel the rules and norms set in DC, San Francisco and Hollywood do not reflect their reality. They feel unconsulted, disrespected and often ridiculed.

Over to Britain, and Norberg also has similar lessons for Labour on capitalism. First, is that voters have proven resilient in capitalism’s recent trials. Yes, Britain is getting poorer and its economy is shrinking. But the fact is that Britain’s cost of living crisis has resulted in trade offs rather than going without for key voters. Since 2010, most voters have not had to compromise on their living standards. Ed Miliband was right in wanting to make capitalism kinder. It just was not a priority for most voters, especially those opting for UKIP and the SNP. David Cameron did not promise things would get better and the public knew they would not. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss both promised better (unworkable) futures and failed miserably. Starmer and Labour rather ironically need to heed Ed Miliband’s advice from 2015, and that of Blair and New Labour: under promise and over deliver.

Moreover, Conservatives are very good at packaging and changing the message. Compare a family in the blue wall with a £300,000 mortgage and one in the red wall on benefits. Both are affected very differently by the cost of living crisis. Both may use it as a reason to not vote Conservative. Yet, neither are sympathetic to policies like ULEZ or Disney’s virtue signaling in its recent films. The mortgage will get paid somehow and inflation will come down. But why, voters ask, does my six year old need to worry about Transgender rights? Why should I pay more taxes to drive my taxed car on roads I was taxed to build and fix? As Beshear showed, stay on message and do not get dragged into bare knuckle boxing matches.

A final lesson is that the world is changing and has moved on from the Cold War. Since 1990, it was assumed capitalism would naturally promote liberal values in parts of the world previously under dictatorship. It was assumed even in countries that had no experience of democracy and other western values that our ideals would instantly be more attractive. Instead, democracy is declining on every continent and the world is at a critical moment in history. New thinking is needed and the parties should do better to understand why non-democracies are attractive to people living in democracies.

Overall, what these four books show is that the parties’ understanding of voters and their lives is not great. When voters feel neglected, threatened or misunderstood, they lash out. Often, that means voting against their own self interests. For Labour and the Democrats, it means the 2024 party is ripe for gatecrashing.

Biden may well win a second term against Trump. Democrats may well retake the House by a slim margin and cling onto the Senate. But if voters keep ditching them, Democrats will not win again for a while. For its part, Labour may well trounce the Conservatives next year. But that does not mean voters like them, or are prepared to vote for them again.

James Pearce did his PhD with Dr Jonathan Davis at Anglia Ruskin University, which was then published as a monograph: The Use of History in Putin's Russia (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2020). His most recent publication is Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: What Did We Miss? for the International Studies Perspectives Journal. James has taught Russian and European history at the University of Liverpool, the College of the Marshall Islands and spent eight years in Moscow lecturing and freelance writing. He is currently writing a history of Russia's Golden Ring Cities to be published with Lynne Rienner in 2025.