Merrick: When politicians talk about Brexit and Trump voters feeling "left behind" by globalization, they tell only part of the story
They felt the empowerment given to them by social media, which made the sense of feeling left behind in the real world all the worse
Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
How did the twin political earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory happen? There are many reasons, but one answer lies in the technological and social media revolution of the last decade.
In 2006, Time magazine unveiled its Person of the Year as “You”: “You control the Information Age,” the headline ran. “Welcome to your world.”
Some months later, David Miliband, then a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, captured this zeitgeist by describing what he called the “I can” generation, who were coming of age at a time of unprecedented technological advance. The “I can” generation differed from the “I need” era of urgent public service provision after the Second World War, and the “I want” consumerist generation of the 1980s in Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain.
Miliband wrote: “The era of ‘I can’ is the culmination of the long decline of deference and automatic authority. It is the late flowering of individual autonomy and control … People want to be players, not just spectators. They want to be contributors, not just consumers. Technology is enabling these aspirations to be fulfilled. A generation is coming to political maturity that expects not just high standards of provision, delivered quickly to specification, but also real control.”
Miliband’s article did not mention Twitter – which was not in widespread use at the time – but it was nevertheless visionary: in the past 10 years, social media has become the great democratic leveler. Twitter and Facebook have allowed anyone from small town America or working-class neighborhoods in the UK the same access to the political debate as the liberal elites of Washington or Westminster.
Anyone can tweet at a politician – and quite often get a reply. Social media allows everyone to have a say and feel part of the debate. The Internet has brought people extraordinary consumer choice, but it has also given them an unprecedented sense of empowerment.
And yet, there has been a mismatch between this feeling of empowerment and the material circumstances in which people find themselves. Since the global financial crash, wages have been flattened, living standards have been squeezed. Today’s workers are facing the prospect of being worse off than their parents.
While there is nothing new in generations feeling the pinch, this mismatch did not previously exist because social media did not exist: there is now a gulf between the control that is felt only virtually, via social media, and the real control people feel over their own lives to improve their job prospects and living standards.
When politicians talk about Brexit and Trump voters feeling “left behind” by globalization, they tell only part of the story. They felt the empowerment given to them by social media, which made the sense of feeling left behind in the real world all the worse.
When Miliband wrote that the “I can” generation wanted “real control,” he was right. But this generation suddenly found itself saying “I cannot.” Having only virtual power – glimpsed, fleeting, intangible – led to a frustration and, in turn, a demand for real change. Twitter and Facebook became echo chambers of “fake news” and anger as this frustration boiled over.
At the European Union referendum in Britain in June and the presidential election, voters were given the democratic power to transform that frustration into global order-shattering change.
What matters now is how Washington and Westminster respond. President-elect Trump’s wooing of blue collar voters is echoed by Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to help the low- to middle-income families who are “just about managing.” But this has to go beyond campaign slogans and promises. There is a real danger that, if wages do not rise, or living standards improve, this generation will feel doubly let down.