Angry People

The alienated Angries who supported Brexit and Trump are not going to go away.

          If any question why we died,  

          Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s bitter couplet, written shortly after the death of his son at Loos in September 1915, is an alternative view to the current commemoration – even celebration – of the events surrounding the First World War. It has a kind of eternal verity, does it not: Johnson in Vietnam, Bush and Blair in Iraq, Putin in the Ukraine?

But as angry as the couplet is in a military context, it is also about today’s upheavals in domestic politics and its interaction with the international economy. For the basic message of the Angries, supporting Trump, Brexit and a host of similar movements in other countries, is that the elites are lying to them.

It is not quite as simple as this, but I was struck by a recent lead editorial in the London Economist of October 1. As you would expect, the publication was staunchly supportive of the open economy and opposed to the ‘anti-globalists’, as it describes them. However the editorial was so busy talking to the elite who read the magazine that it was not listening to the grievances of the dissenters who don’t.

It is all very well listing the Angries’ demographic characteristics but, unfortunately, most of the surveys do not ask about what they actually think. One report said that a widespread view among Brexit voters was they did not trust experts; there must be a similar attitude among Trump supporters.

It is all very well the elite saying ‘you are not listening’. The Angries’ response is ‘you lied to us’ or more temperately, ‘you are not listening either.’ A Brazilian colonel captured it, after having taken the expert advice of neoliberal economists: ‘how come the economy is doing well but the people are not?’

Of course the elite may be doing well. Recall that the top 10 percent recovered their previous disposable income levels after a couple of years of Rogernomics; it took the bottom 30 percent two decades to get back to their pre-Rogernomics levels, by which time, the elite had experienced considerable income growth. (Even the second-to-top decile took over a decade.) How can the majority support Rogernomics and its successors given that its promises to the majority were not met?

There are similar stories elsewhere – the majority are not going to listen to those who talk about how well the economy is doing. How are they going to believe that globalisation is beneficial? (To make my position clear, I do not think trade deals need be neoliberal, but it hard to get this across.) It is easier to think, and say, the elite are lying.

The same applies to many Brexiters and Trump supporters. For them the elite – ensconced in London and Washington – have not been acting in their interests.

Practically, democracy is not a rule of the people. Rather, it tries to put constraints on the ruling elite so that they act in the interests of the people. The practice does not always work well, especially when the elite does not listen and when institutional arrangements blunt the ability of the wider population to express themselves and influence the rulers. Those who are angry become alienated. But institutional oddities have enabled the Angries to finally articulate their anger in public. Unlike on early occasions they turned-out to vent their alienation.*

How often have you heard the view that Cameron should not have allowed the Brexit referendum? (Though it could have been better organised.) The way American parties choose their presidential candidates plus the US electoral system itself let Trump bolt through.

The Angries are not going to go away as long as the elite ignore them rather than listen to them. Sure, much of what they say suffers from truthiness – that truth is determined by belief rather than by facts. But is that not also true for the 'truths' of the elite?

I do not know where this goes. One possibility is a retreat into the sort of neo-feudalism – as it is sometimes called – of Putin in Russia and Xi in China. To avoid it, or some equally unpleasant fate, the elites are going to have to surrender some of their privileges, to listen to those whose interests they profess to rule, to describe the world in terms which are not biased towards themselves, to stop ‘lying’. Or rather, to understand their truthiness is seen by others as lying. A big ask.

In the interim the Angries in charge may cause havoc. The best will in the world is finding Brexit hard to unscramble. Trump may find himself much more limited than he expects (even though he has a Republican Congress).

Shakespeare – as so often – got it right. In his Cymbeline, Princess Imogen (Innogen) is lost in a wood. She says:

          Two beggars told me

I could not miss my way: will poor folks lie,

That have afflictions on them, knowing 'tis

A punishment or trial? Yes; no wonder,

When rich ones scarce tell true. To lapse in fulness

Is sorer than to lie for need, and falsehood

Is worse in kings than beggars.

Absolutely; kings need to set a standard. If they and their courtiers do not, given the chance the underlings will rebel.


* Among the things that Bob Chapman taught us was the importance of the Non-vote Party. Not only in New Zealand but elsewhere. The outcomes in both in the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election depended on the Non-vote Party losing a lot of support.