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Saturday, 12 November 2016

Asking "Why?"

"Mummy, why are your trousers wet?"
"Because you squirted water all over me while you were in the bath my precious little sugar plum."
"Why Mummy?"
"Well I think you got a bit excited and thought it would be funny."
"Why?"
"Err, because you're a giant pickle!"
"Why?"
"Sigh. I don't know, you tell me!"
"Why?"
"Ugh. Right, lets do your teeth."

So goes a standard toddler "why" conversation. It's enough to make you want to put your head under the bathwater and not come up for air. But right now, in both America and the UK, WHY is a vital question to ask. People who didn't vote for Trump are furious. People who didn't vote for Brexit are too. But above all, they are confused and uncomprehending. They do not understand WHY people voted as they did. They simply cannot see how it could be possible for anyone not to see the truth that they do, not to be repelled by the deeply negative, regressive values pushed by these campaigns. I know I can't, not really. Yet something must have turned people into Leavers and Trumpers.  What was it?

Plenty have, and will continue to make guesses. Some will be pretty spot on, others less so. In the USA there is now a sea of speculation to swim through. It was Hillary's robotic delivery, it was Bill's adultery, it was misogyny, it was pure racisim, it was the coal mines, it was the FBI, it was Russia... It was in truth probably all of these things and many more, with different issues being the vote winners for different demographics and different individuals within those demographics. Rather than left wing speculation however, liberal Americans need to hear the reasoning from Trump voters themselves.  However wincing and uncomfortable it may be, their voices have to be listened to because without this, as with Brexit, the other side just becomes a generalised characature, and not a set of real people with real lives and worries. And when you reduce people in this way, it becomes incredibly easy to ignore them, with the consequences we are seeing today.

More than just individual anecdotes, Americans will also need objective, broad studies of all voters. In the UK, the Lord Ashcroft poll for example went some way to providing this at a high level after the Brexit vote. While it served to confirm many common assumptions, it also showed there was diversity in opinions and voter profiles. Brexiteers had a generally more negative outlook on the current state of the UK (and life in general) and tended to be older, in lower social classes and less progressive in their beliefs. But not everyone was. Some 27% of leavers were under 24 and 43% were in the highest social grouping. People voted out primarily because they wanted decisions affecting their country to be made in Britain (49%) with immigration and border control concerns (33%) ranking second as the main reason. The assertion made by some trying to "excuse" Brexit - that it was not actually about xenophobia (overt or not) but the more palatable, fluffy promise to better fund the NHS - was shown to be a bit tenuous. It was a factor but only about 12% of people polled voted Leave primarily because of this.

Statistics aren't sexy, but gathered well and combined with more in depth, qualitative research, they can pinpoint the most common and deepest held reasons people voted the way they did. This matters because it is only by understanding why people do the things that they do that we can begin to come to terms with new realities, move on and make effective changes. Progressives in both the USA and UK need to look forward and plan how to address the fears and motivations of their populaces - from every walk of life - in a way that is based on realism, generosity and practicality rather than fear, negativity and untenable populist policies. This doesn't mean liking, condoning or even tolerating Trump, Brexit or whatever other right-wing nightmares are in the pipeline.  It does mean putting stereotypes aside and calming the anger to find effective, evidence-based ways of winning back the hearts and minds of people who clearly feel the establishment have left them behind. We must all be two year olds and ask "WHY?".

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