When we try to understand the Brexit and Trump votes through the lens of the economic assumption that people vote in line with their narrowly defined self-interest, the votes make no sense. Why did so many poor people in rural America vote for someone whose policies will take away their benefits under the Affordable Care Act and give tax cuts to corporations? Why did voters in Wales, which has done so well out of the European Union, vote so strongly for Brexit? In Australia why did so many rural voters vote for One Nation and Nick Xenophon, when these parties have protectionist platforms, and we know that protection hurts rural interests the most?

Is it about education?

There are inevitably people who will put these votes down to bucolic stupidity, and they may even claim to have supporting evidence. In the US the Trump vote was highest for those without college education, and in Australia the One Nation vote was highly correlated with low tertiary education.

But to suggest that living in the bush leads to crankiness, or that the rural support for Trump, One Nation et al is a manifestation of ignorance, is as fallacious as it is offensive, because it confuses correlation with causation.

[Trump: it wasn’t the economy, stupid — it was racism]

And we should beware of the limit of “education” as an indicator of people’s intelligence or their capacity to see through political charlatans. Farming, for example, is an intellectually demanding occupation, but it does not require a trade certificate or a university degree as an entry permit.

Education correlates strongly with income and wealth, which means those correlations between education (or the lack of it) and the vote for Trump or One Nation are probably simply another presentation of the attraction of those parties to those who feel, or know, that they have missed out.

Also it’s easy to forget that among Americans and Australians of all classes education levels have risen over the years. It’s a fair proposition that the people who voted for Roosevelt in 1932, and for Whitlam in 1972, both well to the left of Clinton’s Democrats, had far fewer years of schooling than those who voted for Trump in 2016.

A more compelling explanation is in terms of economic conditions: people without post-school education and people who live outside the big cities tend to be those who have not enjoyed a fair share of the benefits of economic growth, and their education opportunities have been limited. In non-metropolitan regions these conditions are thrown into starkest relief, but they’re present even in our inner cities — regions full of opportunities for an able young person with a double degree in law and engineering, a trade skill in demand, or a PhD, but places of struggle against housing costs for those less qualified.

The politics of the protest vote

A compelling explanation of the Brexit and Trump votes is that they are voices of protest. Australian psychiatrist and local government politician Tanveer Ahmed says that they come from people gripped by a free-floating anger that will latch on to anything that happens to be nearby. We all know that feeling and how it can override our rationality. So gripped, we often do really dumb things. And sometimes we knowingly bear a cost to give vent to our anger.

[Rundle responds to Keane: no, it is the stupid economy]

There are probably British people who voted Brexit, even though they knew it was not in their nation’s interest, because they were upset at the way successive governments had negotiated EU arrangements. There are probably Americans who knew that Clinton’s policies would be better for their individual and collective interests than Trump’s, but who were really annoyed — at the way the Democratic Party machine had crushed Sanders, at the notion of the Clintons as a presidential dynasty, at her husband’s deals with Wall Street, or at her all-too-scripted public presentations.

The phenomenon of “costly punishment” is well-researched in behavioural economics — the branch of economics that considers how and why people actually make decisions, breaking from the assumption that people make “rational” decisions in line with their calculated individual self-interest.

If we drive across town to avoid the local merchant who is ripping us off, even if the cost of the travel is more than the ripoff, we’re engaged in “costly punishment”. The benefits of such behaviour accrue to society, not to the individual. They may bore us at Christmas parties, but we all have a debt to the assiduous shoppers who spend hours looking for a saving of a few dollars, and who go out of their way to complain about minor defects in products and services.

Another explanation offered by Paul Williams of Griffith University is that the Brexit and Trump votes, rather than being made in a fit of rage, can simply be a way of signalling “we want change” — change that goes beyond the constrained offerings of the dominant political parties. These voters can include people who knowingly take the risk of voting for demagogues in the belief that they will not get over the line (another risk with opinion polls), or that if they do get over the line the system’s checks and balances will contain them.

Although “small government” advocates — Reaganite Republicans in America and Liberals here — have tried to latch on to this discontent, it is hard to find evidence that disaffected voters support a right-wing or “small government” agenda. There is no credible movement in the bush calling for less spending on roads, schools, broadband, dental services or local hospitals. This is something members of the National Party know too well, and as successful independents such as Cathy McGowan and Bob Katter remind them, they know that their survival would be threatened were they to align too closely with the economic dries in the Liberal Party.

Not much evidence of a swing to the right

Whether the Brexit and Trump votes reflect a protest or a desire for change, the message is still one of dissatisfaction.

If there is such dissatisfaction in Australia, there’s no reason to see it as a swing to the “right”. It’s easy to draw on recent examples of support for right-wing parties, but less than two years ago Greeks, for example, were voting strongly for the far-left Syriza coalition.

As pointed out many voters in the country have voted against the main parties, but even One Nation’s preference flows are only mildly biased to the Coalition, and the Xenophon philosophy seems to be distinctly centrist.

A plausible explanation is that country people feel that decision-makers in Canberra and in distant state capitals have forsaken them. Naturally their annoyance is directed against politicians and public servants, but it is also directed at bankers, stock and station agents, insurers and others in the private sector. The talk in country pubs may be laden with expletives about bureaucrats in Canberra or the state capital, but the same angry people, in the next breath, will sing the praises of the local schoolteacher, police officer or nurse. Similar sentiments are to be observed, in a more muted form, in the outer suburbs.

That may read like a rationalisation for the politics of Trump, One Nation and other populist movements, as if they are simply filling a space vacated by traditional political parties that once represented the interests of those without economic power.

But there is a difference between the current populist movements and the traditional social-democratic parties. Both can ride on people’s legitimate feelings of loss and betrayal, but the populist movements channel (and intensify) their supporters’ anger not at the real sources, which would mean acknowledging and dealing with all the trade-offs of public policy and issues of shared responsibility, but at convenient scapegoats. And they are offering simple solutions to complex problems.

*Read the rest at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations. This is part of an eight-part series on Trump, Brexit and the Lucky Country

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey