Apr 1, 2023
Matthew Goodwin on Why the Last Decade of Politics Has Been So Bizarre
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. He is the author, most recently, of Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Matthew Goodwin discuss the left’s transition from a focus on the working class to college-educated professionals; how leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were able to broaden their electoral tents in the 1990s; and why the “cultural dimension” of politics isn’t going away.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: For the last few years I've been trying to think through the very significant change in the partisan alignment of the left and the right in most Western democracies, and perhaps particularly in Britain and the United States.
Why is it that 40 or 50 years ago, if I wanted to know who votes for Labour or the Conservatives, or for the Democrats or the Republicans, I could ask them straightforward questions about economics, the welfare state and taxation, and today, it feels like the answer to those kinds of questions doesn't correlate very clearly with whether you vote for Labour or Conservatives or Democrats or Republicans. What happened?
Matthew Goodwin: I think two things have happened. On the demand side of politics, we've seen the rise of what political scientists often call the “cultural dimension” in politics. Particularly from the 1980s onwards, we've seen the rise of globalization, high rates of migration, and ethnic and demographic change pushing through new issues relating to identity and culture which have become far more salient and are now expressed in the emerging debates over so-called “cultural war” topics but are really questions that are much more about “Who are we?” rather than “What do we have?”
But secondly, I think the supply side has changed as well. Some parties have simply been much better than others at appealing across those traditional party lines. If you look, for example, at Britain's Conservatives during the Brexit wars, if you look at Trump's Republicans, some conservatives have been very in tune with this unfolding realignment and they've been very adept at exploiting it and pulling it into politics. And some politicians, mainly on the left but not exclusively, have been, in my view, very bad at understanding how the tectonic shifts of politics have been changing. They've remained very wedded to this view, largely left over from the Industrial Revolution, that the foundation of politics is mainly about class and redistribution, and they have been very reluctant to enter into these new debates about identity and culture. Now that is beginning to change. You look at center-left leaders like Keir Starmer, and you look at how they change their positioning on issues like Brexit, patriotism, and defense; how Joe Biden has positioned himself on some issues, which are clearly designed to reconnect with working class, non-college-graduate voters that the Democrats have lost. You're beginning to see changes now on the supply side on the left. But, essentially, politics has become two-dimensional. It's not just left and right, it's now left and right and liberal and conservative. And that's pushed us into this new space. And it's created lots of opportunities for new insurgents, green parties, and populists. But it's also made it harder for the established parties to really respond to that.
That to me is essentially the story of the last 50 to 75 years in the politics of many Western democracies: we've left that first era of classic left and right politics, and we've entered into this new second era from the 1980s. And we're still living in that.
Mounk: One way of telling the story is to think about two “dilemmas.” The first dilemma was formulated by Adam Przeworski, an accomplished political scientist, when he pointed out that the Labour Party and the Democrats were trying to broaden their electoral tent from being mostly based on the working class to getting more and more of the vote in the professional managerial class.
What was the nature of that dilemma? And why do you think that to understand what's going on today, we have to think about a “second dilemma?”
Goodwin: In the 1980s, academics, politicians, and activists realized that the left was facing this very difficult dilemma between holding onto the traditional working class, which at that point, especially in democracies like Britain, was mainly white, and simultaneously reaching out to a more affluent, socially mobile and increasingly university-educated middle class. That tension really dominated left politics from the 1980s through to the 2010s. It still remains with us today, and those two groups have really been pushed apart not only by their economic experiences but by the fact that they hold fundamentally different sets of cultural values. We saw that in Britain, most noticeably during Brexit, when you have 150 Labour-held seats where voters decided to leave the European Union—were much more culturally conservative than many of their middle class, university-educated Labour MPs. And of course, you saw it with lots of areas that ended up flipping from Democrat to Republican in order to vote for Donald Trump.
That first dilemma still today remains very salient for left parties. But it's been joined by this second dilemma. One of my frustrations with my left progressive colleagues is that, historically, they've often argued that we can basically circumvent that first dilemma by doubling down on this notion that “demography is destiny;” that, basically, left parties can essentially not worry so much about the white working class because they are accumulating more and more support among groups that are on the rise—the graduate class, minority ethnic voters, and urban voters. Then you saw this in books like America Ascendant by Stanley Greenberg. You've seen it in arguments by prominent journalists. Jeremy Cliffe and others have talked about the “Londonization” of the country—that, actually, the future is with this newly ascendant emerging alliance of middle class graduates and minority voters, and that’s perhaps [even more true] in the United States. Ruy Teixeira was one of the leading voices arguing for this rising Democratic electorate.
Mounk: But his thesis has often been overstated and misunderstood by Democratic politicians and strategists, and in the pages of Persuasion, on this podcast, and in many other fora including The Liberal Patriot, he has now become the principal critic of this set of assumptions. Ruy is a very interesting figure in both helping this thesis get a larger audience but also in pointing out the flaws of a sort of simplistic reading of it that ended up being so influential in the world of Democratic politics.
Goodwin: And I should add that I'm a big fan of his work. What that narrative lost sight of—firstly, it exaggerated, as you say, the pace of social and demographic change. These groups were not growing as quickly as many people thought they were. And one of the reasons why Boris Johnson, for example, was able to win the largest majority for any Conservative since the days of Margaret Thatcher was because many of the sort of very strong ‘Remain’ voters who wanted Britain to stay in the European Union, who loathed everything about Boris Johnson, many of these university graduates and also minority voters concentrated in the same types of areas—in the big cities and university towns. And in the first-past-the-post system, you need to build that widespread support. You don't want narrow, concentrated support. So the narrative also overlooks the importance of geography.
But it also overlooks the growing divergence in the policy preferences of white graduate liberals, on the one hand, and minority working class voters on the other. They do look at a…