By Fareed Zakaria
Impeachment is big news — justifiably so — but the battle cries around it have drowned out another momentous event, with important lessons for the 2020 campaign — the recent seismic British elections.
The simplest way to understand the UK results is to look at one fact: Even though the Conservatives ended up with their largest majority in Parliament since 1987, the overall vote for the party went up just about 1 percentage point from two years ago, when Theresa May was its leader. In the 2017 elections, the Tories got 42.4 percent of the vote; this year, they got 43.6 percent.
The Labour Party, however, went from 40 percent in 2017 to 32 percent, a collapse of historic proportions. Labour ended up with its fewest seats in 84 years. Its famous “red wall” that encompassed working-class areas in the north crumbled, with seats that had voted Labour for more than 50 years going to the Conservatives. Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former constituency, had voted Labour since 1935. This time, it went Tory.
There are several reasons Labour collapsed. The party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is dour, uncharismatic, radical and has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism. His opponent, Boris Johnson, is colorful and lively, having been a popular mayor of London, a city that typically backs Labour. But Johnson”s victory was paved by more than personality. It had to do with two strategic decisions that were risky but paid off. Both will be important to keep in mind in the United States.
Johnson clarified and simplified the election, making it a referendum on Brexit. He purged his party of moderates on this issue and said to the public: Vote Tory to “get Brexit done.”
Compare that to the other side. Labour was anti-Brexit, sort of, with a leader (Corbyn) who had been pro-Brexit, sort of, for his entire political life. Labour’s position on Brexit was muddled. The Liberal Democrats were resolutely anti-Brexit but are a smaller party, so the public was confused as to whether a vote for them would be wasted. In politics, a simple, clear message will always trump a complex, murky one. Remember “build the wall”?
Johnson’s second strategic decision was to shift the Conservative Party’s positions on economic policy. Under David Cameron and May, the Tories had been the party of limited government, cutting spending through a sweeping set of austerity measures. Johnson junked all that, promising to increase government spending on everything from the National Health Service to schools to potholes. He rewrote his party’s fiscal rules so that he could borrow and spend an additional 100 billion pounds.
That second bet worked spectacularly. The Conservatives won over large swathes of the working class, voters who might have shared the Tories’ skepticism about Europe but who could never vote for a party whose economic message was resolutely free-market. Johnson speaks of creating a “One Nation Conservatism,” consciously evoking legendary Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli. Whether he can sustain this coalition remains to be seen, but it is striking that Johnson has been able to take in many working-class voters without losing the party’s traditional base with the upper middle class.
In 2016, Trump similarly campaigned as an economic populist, embracing left-wing positions on trade, social security and Medicare. He was able to gain working-class votes in Democratic states while keeping traditional voters with him. The Trump-Republican Party is now a coalition of free-market types and working-class populists. There is a tension between the two groups (and their wish lists), but polarization and party loyalty are so great that there appears to be little danger that traditional Republicans will abandon Trump for a Democrat.
The Democrats have a larger base than Britain’s Labour Party. But because of American geography and the Electoral College, they face the same vulnerability — losing socially conservative, working-class voters in a number of crucial states. And they are doing little to address this vulnerability.
Democrats keep arguing over economic issues, lurching ever leftward, but the public is largely supportive of the party’s existing positions on these issues (allow people to buy into Medicare, fix America’s infrastructure, tax the rich more, increase the minimum wage). The party’s Achilles’ heel is immigration. Half of the Democratic candidates have said they want to decriminalize illegal border crossings and even more want to give undocumented immigrants free healthcare. Large majorities of the country disagree with these policies, and you can expect Trump to turn this into a wedge issue during the campaign.
The irony, thus, is that the Republican Party, like the Tories, has become ideologically a big-tent party, while the Democrats — historically defined as a large coalition — are ideologically narrow on the issues that might well define the 2020 election.
Fareed Zakaria’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group