Trump and Brexit: How Cognitive Elitism Caused Nations to Divide

Journalist

There's a schism between the idealism of globalization—i.e. that a more connected, educated, and mobile world is going to make everything better—and that of populism, which demands a more insular, community-orientated way of life and thus world at large. In 2016, both the U.K. and the U.S. made it overwhelmingly apparently that the schism had reached a boiling point: the UK voted to leave the European Union without, seemingly, any forethought as to what it would do to the economy. And America elected a reality TV star, Donald Trump, who advocated both sexual assault and violence against journalists. Good times! But David Goodhart says we should have seen this coming—that there has been a battle between "Anywhere" and "Somewhere" tribes for decades, and that the issues don't all come down to "elites" versus "non-educated". It moreover comes down to a political system that favors one over the other. So what can we do? Perhaps see the other side for who they really are: one of us, just with a different view on the world.David Goodhart's new book is The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

DAVID GOODHART: My book is basically about the value divides in modern societies. I focused a lot on Britain, but I think a lot of it applies to America too. And I'm talking about not so much the kind of elite/non-elite divide—when we talk about elites we often mean I think the top three or five percent of the population—I’m talking about a much bigger divide between the educated and often mobile people, who I call the “Anywheres,” who tend to value openness, autonomy, fluidity—they can surf social change comfortably, they tend not to have strong group attachments. They are about 20/25 percent of the population, at least in Britain, possibly similar proportions in America. 

Then on the other hand you have the “Somewheres”.

They tend to be about half the population. So a big proportion of the population but much less politically and culturally influential. They tend to be less well educated. They tend to be more rooted to places. They tend to value security and familiarity, and they find a social change harder to surf and they also tend to have much stronger group attachments. 

There's also a very useful distinction that parallels my Anywhere/Somewhere distinction that comes from the American sociologist Talcott Parsons talking about human identity, he talks about people with achieved identities and ascribed identities. 

We all have a mixture of the two, but Anywheres tend to have a higher proportion of their sense of themselves that comes from their own achievements. They passed exams when they were young, they have been to good universities, they have more or less successful professional careers. So their sense of themselves is more kind of portable, they can fit in anywhere. 

Whereas if you're a Somewhere a bigger proportion of your identity is linked to particular places in groups and therefore is more easily discomfited when those groups or those places change as a result of immigration or just social change in general. 

So I think what obviously a lot of contemporary analysis is focusing on, this the educated versus the less educated divide—I think what is distinctive about my look at things is stressing both how large the educated group is and how dominant in our political system it has become, but also focusing on two things that distinguish the so-called Anywheres from the Somewheres. 

One is attitude, feelings about social change: on the one hand relatively positive, on the other hand pretty negative. 

And also feelings about group attachments: in the case of the Anywheres pretty weak, and in the case of the Somewheres much stronger. And this I think he has a huge impact on politics, on divisions so Anywheres both of right and left tend to stress politics of equality, kind of more universalist equality, a sort of horizontal politics if you like, whereas Somewheres tend to stress group attachments and more kind of vertical communities if you like.

One must stress here is that both of these world views are completely legitimate, both of them are completely decent, at least in the mainstream variations. But the problem for our politics in modern liberal democracies is that these world views conflict in certain fundamental ways. I'm an Anywhere myself, I mean most of the people watching this will be Anywheres, but I think Anywheres have over dominated politics and some ways have felt excluded, and that has created the instability that has led to Brexit in Britain and Trump in the United States, and I think we need to take those political events as a kind of a warning, a kind of early tremor of what might come, and we need to adjust. 

We need to create politics in which Somewheres feel they have a louder voice and feel that their priorities and their intuitions are taken seriously. Because I spend some time in my book just going through the extent, the domination of the political and policy agenda in a country like Britain, I think it applies to America too—of Anywhere priorities. If you look at everything from the economy to education policy to family policy to attitudes of social mobility and the achievement society, we have created societies in which cognitive ability has become the kind of gold standard of human esteem, human measurement. 

And a lot of people, by definition half the population, are always going to be in the bottom half of the cognitive abilities spectrum. But even people who are not in the bottom half of the cognitive abilities spectrum I think often feel rather alienated by society dominated by cognitive elites who perhaps feel less attachment to duty to non-elites, they are less paternalistic than the previous generations of elites.

I think one of the interesting questions is why is this happening now? On the face of it you might say that society has always been divided to some extent between the highly educated and mobile people with perhaps more open minds, and more rooted people with more skepticism about the outside world. But why is this now risen to such an important place in our politics? I think there are two reasons for that. 

One is that, and this is particularly true I think of Britain and Europe, one is that the framework of politics until quite recently has been essentially socioeconomic, it's the key blocks have been social classes, the issues have been about size of the state, attitudes to equality and inequality, these have been the things that have dominated British and European politics. In the last generation or so you've seen the emergence of what one might call sociocultural politics, politics that stresses issues of security and identity. And that's relatively new in Europe. It's perhaps not so new in America. Religion and race has always played a bigger role in American politics than it has in Europe, at least recently.

So I think you've seen sociocultural politics emerging to kind of challenge the traditional dominance of socioeconomic issues. And that is in itself partly a reaction to the much greater openness of our economies and our cultures over the last 20 or 30 years. It's a reaction against that openness that you've seen the sociocultural politics emerging so strongly. And the second reason is simply that the number of Anywheres as grown quite dramatically. I mean just go back 50 or 60 years... American common sense was essentially Somewhere common sense, British common sense was essentially Somewhere common sense. It is now in the public realm almost entirely Anywhere common sense. What it is to lead a good life, an achieved life is about being an Anywhere, it's about leaving, it's often about leaving your hometown going to a good university, becoming a member of the kind of upper professional class, being part of that cognitive elite. And it's logically impossible that everybody can do that. Not everybody can join the upper professional class. And I think we've kind of eroded the stories for people who are not part of that that successful achieved group. 

And you see it also in the way in which – we talk about the knowledge economy. I mean the knowledge economy by definition is one that is beneficial to the highly qualified, and at the same time, as we've seen the emergence the knowledge economy, we've also seen the disappearance of so many of those middling jobs that used to give people status and protection.

Somebody said to me the other day, I actually didn't write this in the book but it's something I've learned talking about the book is: somebody who used to be a manual worker said that so many jobs used to require not a huge amount of cognitive ability but a lot of experience to do well. And that I think applies particularly to the kind of skilled manual manufacturing jobs that we've lost so many of. And jobs that you couldn't just walk in off the street as a kind of successful Harvard graduate or whatever and do that job, there was a protection to your status for the fact that it required a lot of experience to do well. And I think we've seen that kind of replicated, we've seen it kind of draining away. 

This is so much more I think about this is Weber not Marx, I mean this is so much more about issues to do with status and recognition and what we might call, it sounds rather old-fashioned, what one might call “social honor” that people used to feel they had doing ordinary middling things that they no longer feel they have. They feel the kind of status, it's not just – that we've also had stagnant wages, particularly in America for a generation or more, exacerbated obviously by the financial crash, but certainly in Britain and Europe I don't think this is primarily an economic issue, it's much more a cultural issue, much more to do with status and recognition.
Obviously the two things are very tightly wound up together in many cases and rather hard to disentangle.