Beware the pundit who speaks for “the people”

Steve Bannon, the former political adviser to Donald Trump, regularly portrayed himself as a crusader against an “out-of-touch, cosmopolitan, liberal elite”. So it was a nice irony that, when he was recently arrested on charges (which he denies) relating to the “We Fund the Wall” campaign group, he was onboard a Chinese billionaire’s yacht at the time.

It is pretty presumptuous for anyone to claim to speak for “the people”. The people think quite divergent things. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 caused a lot of commentators to proclaim that “the people” had rebelled against political correctness or neoliberalism or some other factor. But 65.9m people voted for Hillary Clinton; only 63m for Trump. It was only the distribution of votes in the electoral college that put Trump in office. Every time you read a sentence about how Trump’s election means, for example, that liberals are out of touch, remember to add the rider: “but most people voted for Clinton”.

Indeed, it is conceivable that Mr Trump loses the popular vote this year but wins the electoral college again. If that does happen, the most appropriate response would be “why doesn’t America’s electoral system deliver what voters want?” Instead, of course, the response will be dominated by takes saying “why did the media/pollsters underestimate Trump again?”

One can see something similar in commentary about the British Brexit vote, which is often portrayed as a revolt by people in the provinces against those who live in a “Westminster bubble”. But when you look at the actual data, you can see that 60% of those in Manchester vote Remain and 58% of those in Liverpool did the same, along, of course, with 62% of those in Scotland, who have their own reasons for resenting the “Westminster bubble”.

So the population tends to be closely divided on big issues. One possible response to this would be for the winning side to say “My victory was marginal. I won’t push through my most radical agenda”. Instead, the British government has pushed for the most extreme form of Brexit and Trump has governed in a highly divisive way.

For the roots of this problem, we have to go back 150 years. Ever since the franchise started to be extended, the wealthy have worried that democracy would lead to the majority of voters using the polls to enhance their own economic interests, at the expense of the elite. This has required a kind of philosophical ju-jitsu by wealthy conservatives who have tried to find ways of allying themselves with the working classes.

The first person to crack this problem as Benjamin Disraeli, a British Conservative who faced a strategic problem in the 1860s. British parties had grown from aristocratic roots, and the Conservatives had become associated with the agricultural interest. Disraeli had risen to prominence through his association with the cause of tariffs on corn, which rewarded farmers at the expense of higher food prices for consumers.

With Britain fast becoming a manufacturing-based urban nation, and with pressure for the franchise to expand,the Conservatives looked doomed. But Disraeli performed a neat U-turn, passing his own version of an expanded franchise, and using patriotism to appeal to the working classes.

A strong element of modern conservatism is the campaign against government regulations of many kinds, partly on philosophical and partly on economic grounds. More regulations require a bigger state, and thus higher taxes; more regulations also restrict the ability of companies to make profits. In America, that has led to rich businessmen, such as the Koch brothers, donating to Conservative causes. Ronald Reagan steered the Republican party into representing this strain of thought.

However, 2008 caused a bit of a rethink on the right. The collapse of the financial system dented the appeal of the “free market” philosophy. And Barack Obama’s election seemed to suggest the Democrats might be able to claim power for a long period of time, with the help of a coalition of young and ethnic-minority voters.

“Populism” initially emerged as a reaction to the bailout of the banks, which seemed to reward those who caused the crisis. But it quickly morphed into a retread of the Disraeli tactic; emphasising patriotism and thus discouraging both immigration and free trade. This required a bit of a switch by traditional Republicans; restricting the movement of goods and people requires regulation, after all.

But conservatives proved willing to be flexible on these issues because the economic gains from tax cuts on corporations and wealthy individuals outweighed any trade-related losses. And that element of the conservative coalition that focuses on issues like abortion have been rewarded with the appointment of Supreme Court justices who are sympathetic to their cause.

However, there are real costs to this. Traditional conservatives who supported Trump because of his electoral appeal find that the Republicans have been remade entirely in his unpleasant image. And business groups who supported Boris Johnson as the only alternative to Jeremy Corbyn find themselves facing a more extreme Brexit than they wanted. You can put a saddle on the populist horse but it is very hard to ride.

As for “the people”, are they getting what they want? Impossible to say. But with taxes down and the American stockmarket at an all-time high, the wealthy elite don’t seem to be suffering.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine