James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
The British public’s vote to leave the EU was a surprise to British political and media elites. Trump’s winning of the Presidency was a shock to those same elites in the US. Why? And does it matter?
Answering the second question first: yes it does matter. If politicians and pundits end up with egg on their face after failed predictions, so what? But if those making political decisions, influencing them and analysing them are out of touch with large numbers of ordinary people, that’s a big deal.
Without an accurate sense of public concern, politicians can make decisions that take them further away from those they represent. That stokes up disillusionment, irritation and anger. That doesn’t mean politicians should always bow to public opinion (consider the death penalty). But politicians, advisers and the media must treat issues the public take seriously with the same seriousness.
Immigration is the most obvious British example. Public unease with immigration levels has been clear for years. Overwhelmingly, this related to worries about access to public services and jobs, rather than race and culture. The political and media class mostly ignored these concerns – and this led directly to Brexit.
The point is not that Brexit was bad and should have been avoided, but that major electoral surprises can happen, with unintended consequences, when those that govern lose contact with those they represent.
The ramifications of an out of touch media are less visible politically, but still count. The media generally purports to reflect public interest and effectively to offer a window into the public mind. Yet media outlets are becoming increasingly polemical and opinionated.
Politicians are less and less able to use the media for a guide to public concern – or even a sense-check on the desirability of their proposed policies.
Why is this all happening?
As I wrote last week, the British political and media class, with some exceptions, are either uninterested in provincial England or actively hostile to it. The same is true in its own way in large swathes of American public life. This simply means many in politics and the media don’t understand the values and policy priorities of vast numbers of people.
At the risk of over-generalising (certainly about American politicos), these political and media classes tend to recruit people that have metropolitan values, are very highly educated, love life in places like London, Washington, D.C., and New York City, and come from wealthy backgrounds. Many spend little time in less affluent parts of their respective countries.
This shouldn’t matter but it visibly emphatically does. It’s not so much the sneering tone that political and media classes take to provincial voters that causes the sorts of results we’ve seen – although it doesn’t help (after all, it’s not 100% clear how much people really notice it). But people clearly do recognise the fact they’re being ignored or wilfully opposed.
Revolutions are typically thought of as working class affairs, led by elites. In the UK and the US, we’ve seen leaderless revolutions of the lower middle class. The political and media class need to respond to the revolutionaries’ demands or they’ll have to get used to more people like President Trump.