British voters have now delivered two electoral shocks in 12 months. A year ago, they stuck a finger in the eye of the political establishment by voting to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum. On Thursday, they shocked Prime Minister Theresa May by delivering a hung Parliament when she was hoping to emerge with a huge Conservative majority.
The British vote follows a French election earlier this spring in which the voters handed the presidency to Emmanuel Macron, a novice politician who had never held elected office and who campaigned against the status quo from the center during a time when leaders of many traditional parties are moving further left or right.
Then, of course, there was the election of 2016 that brought Donald Trump, the outsider, to the Oval Office, an outcome that has turned Washington and the rest of the country upside down. During Trump’s campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination and general election, voters rebuked two dynastic politicians, Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton, who embodied the establishment ideas and practices of their parties.
Next up will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces potentially difficult elections in September.
Searching for a clear pattern across these surprising election results can be a frustrating exercise, given the unique elements country by country. These elections unfolded differently, influenced by different factors. They were not all cut from the same cloth.
In France, voters rejected the two major parties (the Socialist candidate, representing the incumbent party, ran fifth) to set up a runoff between Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose antiglobalist, nationalistic message contained echoes of Trump’s campaign.
In Britain, the two major parties — Conservative and Labour — saw their vote percentages increase compared with the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, the U.K. Independence Party, whose leadership had successfully championed leaving the E.U. in last year’s Brexit vote, saw its support crater. And the Scottish National Party, which has pushed for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, lost 21 seats.
Different constituencies took center stage in different places. In the wake of the vote in Britain, there is new focus on the strong support for the Labour Party among younger voters. In the United States, in the wake of Trump’s victory last November, there has been an intense focus on the non-college-educated white voters who were at the foundation of Trump’s surprise victory. Democrats are debating how they can win some of them back.
Underlying forces are important, but so too are the personalities and campaign skills of the candidates. In 2016, Clinton was saddled with historically high negatives; she was only a bit less disliked than Trump. That was a contributing factor in her defeat.
In Britain, May proved to be a candidate whose flaws significantly outweighed her strengths. She was standoffish — refusing to debate rivals — and was pilloried for proposing what became known as a “dementia tax.” Ouch. The campaign also was disrupted by two terrorist attacks.
May made a big bet by calling the election — believing she could significantly expand her narrow majority in Parliament. It went disastrously wrong, with her party actually losing seats and its majority. She heads into the upcoming Brexit negotiations dramatically weakened, leading a fragile coalition government.
As Martin Kettle, a columnist for the Guardian, quipped in an email, hers was “the greatest prime ministerial miscalculation since last year!” It was a reference to former prime minister David Cameron’s costly decision to hold the Brexit referendum. He stepped down the morning after Brexit passed.
The British results have proved a boon to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who until this election was dismissed as one of the party’s weakest leaders in a generation and a politician who could never lead his party to a general-election victory. Labour ran second to the Conservatives, but it was the biggest winner, gaining 32 seats as the Tories lost 13. Though it’s far from clear that Labour can win a majority in a future election with him as leader, Corbyn’s stock has risen dramatically.
The British results will be read in the United States as good news for the Democrats and particularly for the progressive left of the party. Corbyn often was compared to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), though his views are decidedly more left-wing than Sanders. Nonetheless, what happened in Britain highlights the energy on the left, which Democrats hope will translate into a surge of voter support in the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans, take notice.
Yet if finding clear-cut parallels in these elections is difficult, the results seem to point toward one common theme, which is the roiling discontent of voters when given the opportunity to render their judgments of the status quo and the political leaders in charge.
Trump’s election triggered talk of a nationalistic populist uprising that could sweep across the Atlantic to influence elections in Europe. That hasn’t happened. It fell short in the Netherlands in the early spring, and the French election seemed to be evidence that the populist wave has crested.
But if the antiglobalist movement fell short in France, it still has some potency. Le Pen, after all, won more than a third of the vote in France. In the United States, Trump’s ratings are more negative than positive, but about 40 percent of the people support him and his ambitions.
Populism is a term applied liberally to the uprisings that are taking place, and it comes in different flavors. There is the kind of economic populism of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), which highlights income and wealth inequality and warfare between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent, between Wall Street titans and working people.
There is the populism that is grounded in cultural or racial divisions, where issues like immigration and national identity play a dominant role. This was one aspect of Trump’s appeal to white, working-class voters, and it has drawn outsized attention in the explanations of why he won the presidency.
Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster, offers an insightful distinction between the populism of Sanders and Warren and that of Trump in an essay that is part of a series hosted by the American Prospect examining Democrats and the white working class. What he writes could be instructive for politicians across the ideological spectrum.
“Trump’s political populism is, fundamentally, a story about the failure of government,” he writes. He adds later in the essay, “The distrust of government is, by far, the least-appreciated factor underlying Trump’s 2016 victory.” But he notes that this distrust is “driven by antipathy toward political leaders rather than governmental agencies and departments.”
That, if anything, could begin to explain what has happened across countries and continents. This is time of enormous change and therefore of great unrest, and it comes atop electorates that are closely and deeply divided.
In this country and in Britain, the gap between the two major parties’ support in the most recent elections is narrow. The Tories won 42 percent of the vote to Labour’s 40 percent on Thursday. Clinton won 48 percent of the popular vote to Trump’s 46 percent last November (though he won the electoral college).
No one saw Thursday’s British results ahead of time. Even more than the Brexit vote and more than Trump’s victory, this was a shocker. But as the Brexit vote signaled potential trouble for the political status quo (and therefore Clinton) in the United States, the results in Britain should be another warning sign to politicians here that rhetoric, talking points and slick promotion are no substitute for honesty, plain speaking and above all, results.