LGBT+ legislation is where Florida and 10 Downing Street meet

6 Apr

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden went to Washington, D.C. recently to tell the Americans about culture wars. The “war on woke” had reached our shores and was here to say, he said. This seemed curious. Did a British politician really need to lecture an American audience about the politicisation of gender, faith and freedom of speech? They’ve been experts in extracting political gain from thorny social issues for years.

The latest iteration of the culture clash over gender in the United States happened in Florida. The Sunshine State can often act as a test case for an extrapolated national political picture because of its importance to presidential elections as a crucial swing state. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557 late last month. It was born out of an attempt to restrict the freedom of teachers and education boards to teach children in school about social issues that for many parents belong in the family home, not the classroom. Its terms will come into effect from 1 July, with all school district plans required to be updated by June 2023.

It is the most fashionable policy trend in Republican circles and follows Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race. Youngkin put parent power at the centre of his campaign, at which point ‘Critical Race Theory’ looked like it would be inflicted on the nation as a whole. And so, the Parental Rights in Education Bill was introduced in the Florida state legislature by GOP lawmakers amid a spiralling nationwide debate about identity in schools. It bans classroom education on sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”. Parents must also be told when a child seeks counselling at school.

The ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ became the label attributed to the legislation by its Democratic opponents and LGBT+ organisations who argue it directly targets a specific group of students and staff while effectively silencing vulnerable students. After a 2021 study found that LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider, plan, or attempt suicide than their peers, critics argue that they need protecting, not silencing.

Viscerally opposed by the left, there is no denying that this kind of legislation has a core base of support. Governor DeSantis is one of America’s most cunning political operators. With a keen eye on the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024, he would not have thrown his political weight behind an unpopular policy platform doomed to failure. When DeSantis signed the bill into law, he said it would ensure “parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.” It’s the kind of political slogan that you could see catching on, even if its underlying practical application were more sinister than the soundbite.

Barely a month separates Florida enacting HB 1557 and Downing Street muddling its way towards a position on conversion therapy. The Government has decided it will legislate to ban gay conversion therapy, but not trans conversion therapy. Less than 24 hours earlier, Equalities Minister Mike Freer told the Commons the Government was “wholly committed” to bringing proposals forward.

The details matter, but the broader trend sees politicians either seeking electoral gain out of legislating for gender and sexual orientation, or outright struggling to take leadership on an issue with a profoundly personal impact.

It is impossible to imagine legislation akin to ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ being exported to the UK. But on these deeply complex and personal issues, there is no point pretending that for some the topic of gender and sexual proclivity are ones to be avoided, gender pronouns on emails curious, and different rainbow flags too complex to bother trying to understand. Hence diversity and inclusion groups pride themselves on wining over allies in the hope of creating a more understanding and tolerant society.

Where the clear similarity lies between the political context in the USA and UK is that politicians are finding it impossible to escape what appear to be rudimentary questions about gender and sexual identity. There looks to be a major difference in willingness to discuss it. Governor Ron DeSantis wants to zoom in on parents replacing educators in talking about gender because a similar strategy worked well for Glenn Youngkin in Virginia. But whenever a Member of Parliament is asked “what defines a woman?”, even the most rehearsed lines look to be nervously delivered.

The Government’s indecision on conversion therapy proves how difficult it is to legislate over sex and gender. But is sensitivity is an excuse for inaction? Canada and France both introduced legislation banning conversion therapy this year. “Being oneself is not a crime”, President Macron tweeted when the legislation passed. The Republican tactic in Florida proves that there are votes to be won by limiting discussion over emotive topics, or restricting them to the family home.

Downing Street wants to duck elements of the debate around conversion therapy, but the world is moving too quickly for inaction to be a viable path forward. On a near daily basis, sporting bodies are being asked to rule on what events trans athletes can or cannot compete in. The bravery of Jamie Wallis MP to come out as trans puts the conversation at the heart of Westminster.

Given the political temperature generally runs several degrees lower in Westminster than Washington, it seems unlikely the shape of the debate would duplicate here. But the Government will not be able to sit on the fence much longer. It must decide if it wants to be accused of fanning the flames of a “woke war” or stamp them out.

Ben Roback: The ‘defund the police’ movement is a gift to Republican strategists – as Americans increasingly fear crime

15 Dec

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

American politics has been shaped by a minor handful of major events in recent years. Few predicted the transformative effect Donald Trump could have on the Republican Party, which now sits almost entirely in the palm of his hand.

No one could have knowingly predicted the outbreak of an obscure virus in Wuhan province that would lead to over five million deaths worldwide, leaving economies ravaged in its wake. But just like death and taxes are life’s two great known outcomes, crime remains a constant political problem that won’t go away. Is Joe Biden losing his grip on such a fundamental issue?

Keeping the nation safe is the first function of government. Fail on crime, fail to get re-elected. On that basis, public attitudes to crime in the United States are alarming. Consider the numbers revealed in the polling undertaken by Morning Consult in July of this year:

  • A staggering 78 per cent of voters said they believe violent crime is a “major problem” in the US;
  • 73 per cent said crime is increasing;
  • 52 per cent identified “too many guns on our streets” as a “major reason” that violent crime is increasing in the US; and
  • 49 per cent blamed police defunding for the crime surge.

Logic dictates that tackling and reducing crime should be a political priority from the White House to Congress, all the way down to state legislatures and town councils. The president is understandably spinning infinite plans – Covid, climate change, managing his own party to name three of the most time-consuming – and few could blame him for struggling to find time to fight crime. At the local level, that excuse does not wash. With such a stark backdrop, how can it be that Democrats still flirt with the idea of taking money away from police departments?

Is “defund the police” a vote winner or loser?

Progressive Democrats have for years been leading campaigns to “defund the police” in towns and cities across the US. This is not informed by any clear partisan divide over attitudes to crime. Republican voters (79 per cent) and Democrats (68 per cent) both overwhelmingly agree that crime is increasing.

“Defund the police” became turbocharged by the “Black Lives Matter” movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by an on-duty police officer. Since then, it has become an integral part of the American political vocabulary. Before that, it was largely the preserve of small, devoutly Democratic local jurisdictions overwhelmingly stacked with progressives in positions of power.

The left of the Democratic Party has been working hard to turn a slogan into meaningful policy. In the pursuit of defunding the police, more than 20 cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, diverting cash to fund the ‘solution’ and not the ‘problem’. Local government in Austin, Texas, passed a major cut to the city’s law enforcement budget and is now reallocating that funding to housing programmes. The city used to spend 40 per cent of its $1.1 billion general fund on law enforcement, whereas that figure is now just 26 per cent.

Calls to defund the police present two major headaches for any incumbent Democratic president.

First, it creates a fight with the unions that no Democrat wants to have. Not least Biden, a self-described “union guy”. Protecting their members jobs and to a greater extent their own existence, police unions have consistently opposed any reforms that might reduce the number of officers keeping the peace.

Some have pursued a middle ground in which they recognise the need for reform, but instead pursue more police with new training programmes and standards for community engagement – especially in the communities of colour which have historically so often felt the brunt of police misconduct in the US. Whether reform is a pill that police departments are willing to slow, even if it helps stave off huge reductions in their budgets and number, the very debate around defunding the police is reported as a major hammer blow to morale in the communities in which their existence is under threat.

Second, on the campaign trail it becomes manner from heaven for Republicans in any district or state that is anything but deep blue. Police reform is a worthy political priority in cities and states the length and breadth of the US where raging homicide statistics sadly speak for themselves. But for communities less affected and perhaps with a more traditional view of policing – visible, firm, respected – the “defund” campaign sounds like the beginning of the end for law enforcement. It gifts Republican strategists and candidates the chance to warn of police abolitionists and link surging concerns about crime, identified above, with a Democratic Party intent on making crime easier.

Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, lurching the Minnesotan city to the epicentre of the “defund” movement. Seventeen months later, in November of this year, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and replaced it with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. Even some cities that successfully defunded their police departments have begun to distance themselves from the slogan.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Oakland, San Francisco, where city council members once supportive of aggressive reform have shifted to terms like “reimagining” and “reinvesting” when speaking of their approach to policing and public safety. “Defund” has turned off voters that were tempted by police reform but turned off by the prospect of chaos in un-patrolled streets.

President Biden is experienced enough to know a political problem speeding towards him. As the national murder rates rises, just over one in three Americans (36 per cent) approve of his handling of crime, down from 43 per cent in an ABC News/Ipsos poll in late October. His approval ratings on crime are tumbling just at the time when Americans are growing ever more concerned about it.

Ben Roback: If not Trump, then who will be the next presidential candidate for the Republican Party?

30 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

It is hard to think of the Republican Party without Donald Trump, such is his grip on the GOP. This is despite a clear culling of his reach of late. Banned by every mainstream social media platform and without even his own website to use as a blog – “From The Desk of Donald J Trump” flopped on launch – the 44th president has no form of direct communication with his supporters.

He has therefore made an eager return to the campaign trail, where big tech can’t “cancel” him. Speaking in front of a crowd of thousands in a small town in Ohio, a key swing state, Trump left the door wide open to running again: “We won the election twice,” he told supporters. “We may have to win it a third time.”

Obsessed with the size of his crowds since that infamous inauguration speech, Trump’s ability to draw numbers remains a useful measure of his support in the Republican Party. It is a bellwether, but not a science. Labour activists presumed Jeremy Corbyn would lead his party to victory in 2019 purely because he was adored at Glastonbury.

A presidential run by Trump in 2024 looks somewhere between obvious and entirely inevitable. Backroom operator does not suit Trump, whose obsession with attention means that it would not be enough to be the GOP kingmaker and have presidential hopefuls walk the gilded halls of Mar-A-Lago to kiss the ring.

Trump is still the Republican Party base’s favourite to run and win in 2024. If you follow the money, he is also the favourite with bookmakers. Having resumed in-person rallies in front of adoring crowds, and with a familiar script appearing that centres around a corrupt election, cancel culture and porous borders, the Trump 2024 campaign looks well underway.

Democrats hope to lay speed bumps on the road to the White House. Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues on Capitol Hill recognise that they have a political opportunity to use the riot at the Capitol on January 6 as a political tool against Trump. It is copied from the playbook deployed by Republicans who set up the Benghazi special inquiry that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2018.

Only 30 per cent of GOP voters blame Trump for the insurrection compared to 61 per cent of the wider population and Republicans argue that in order to “heal” the nation needs to move on from the attack on the Capitol.

Trump remains the darling of the GOP, but what about the others?

Nikki Haley

Haley boasts both an incredibly impressive CV and, crucially, worked for Trump in the White House but left the administration on good terms with her boss. While so many presidential appointments inevitably fell out with Trump and left in either embarrassment or disgrace, Haley resigned her post as US Ambassador to the UN popular with the president and his supporters. The former South Carolina Governor recently hosted Jared and Ivanka Trump at her home in Kiawah Island, signalling a desire to keep “the family” on side.

Notwithstanding the above, she has work to do to regain popularity with the Trump base. Having sided with Trump throughout his presidency, Haley pulled no punches in criticising his actions leading up the Capitol Hill riot in January. As a candidate, she will push her credentials and experience at the UN to further Trump’s “America First” mantra on the world stage. With a compelling background story that embodies the kind of diversity that the modern GOP lacks, in many respects she is the more developed and acceptable face of the Trump-wing of the Republican Party.

Mike Pompeo

The former Secretary of State will, like Haley, use his international experience as a springboard for greater ambitions. Pompeo lacks serious domestic political or policy experience to complement his track record abroad having only spent six years in the House of Representatives as a Congressman from Kansas.

Pompeo has effectively been running for the GOP nomination for months already. When it comes to fundraising and establishing a presence in the early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa, a head start is no bad thing. Pompeo left the CIA and then State Department having struggled to balance his deference and loyalty to Trump with the fact that his boss routinely turned against the US diplomatic and intelligence community.

Taken seriously in Republican circles, Pompeo lacks credibility beyond the core. If Trump runs in 2024, there would be few compelling reasons for the party to back Pompeo, a Trump-lite candidate without the showmanship or killer instinct.

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, is probably the most interesting Republican politician in the United States right now. He bucked the trend and rushed to open bars, barbers and businesses in his state when most other Governors were keeping the doors closed. As a result, he personified what “freedom” means in the context of the pandemic and Republicans elsewhere soon followed suit.

His willingness to engage in culture wars infuriates the Left and galvanises the Right. DeSantis has mandated patriotic education in schools and banned teaching critical race theory. DeSantis has ingratiated himself with the Trump base while remaining deeply loyal. When pressed about his own presidential ambitions, he is quick to back the former president, should Trump run. That had been reflected in the polling of Republicans, where Trump had consistently been the front-runner with DeSantis lagging in second.

At February’s Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference, the biggest annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders, Trump was out front on 55 per cent with DeSantis second on 22 per cent. Not so anymore. In a straw poll of attendees at the Western Conservative Summit in Colorado last weekend, DeSantis edged Trump by three points with a slightly higher approval rating of 74 to 71 per cent.

A Trump-less GOP?

Thinking about a Trump-less Republican Party seems premature and perhaps moot given the former president’s busy schedule of interviews and rallies. The non-Trump candidates like DeSantis, Haley and Pompeo know they can only win the GOP nomination if Trump decides not to run. If he does, the best they can hope for is to balance the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. If so, Haley and DeSantis are best placed given their home states of South Carolina and Florida respectively carry critical electoral college votes.

What odds then of Trump not running and opening the path to the also-rans of the GOP? Few have made money betting against Trump’s popularity in the Republican Party. If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prove unpopular and struggle to propel the US economy into recovery after the pandemic, while the crisis on the southern border gets worse in parallel, Trump will almost certainly consider the opportunity too good to pass up.

Ben Roback: Biden can continue to expand the state – now that Republicans are too distracted by the culture wars

7 Apr

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is free to grow the size of the state because no one is there to oppose him

Still within the first 100 days of his presidency, Joe Biden continues to call on the power of the federal government to dig America out of a Covid-shaped hole.

The size of the state is set to grow even further as Biden shapes the future of his presidency. He wants to use a major infrastructure package to fire up the economic recovery, and being able to pass it without any Republican support in the Senate means that the GOP has effectively abandoned the playing field in order to focus instead on culture wars.

Senior Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell appear much more focussed on telling big corporates to stay out of politics. Biden is free to grow the size of the state because there is no one left to oppose him.

An FDR-size presidency?

Recovering from a major “moment” like a pandemic or war presents governments with a rare chance to go big in policy terms. Voters are desperate for intervention and change.

History points to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as worthy examples. Both men inherited a huge political and economic crises, and both have tried to solve them with big money and big government. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was based on the principle that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression.

Fast forward to 2021, Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” is a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package with investments directed towards roads, schools, broadband and clean energy. Like Roosevelt’s political philosophy and vision, it is based on the idea that when Americans fall down through no fault of their own, the state can help them get back on their feet.

That economic agenda received a significant boost when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that Democrats could enact another resolution package this year. Put simply, this means that additional bills can be passed this year without any Republican support.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris making the tie-breaking vote, legislation would have been doomed to failure had it required the 60 votes typically needed. Republicans instead have the green light to oppose the president’s agenda without any consequence whatsoever.

That gifts Biden something of a free hand in a significant deployment of the power of the state. He campaigned citing infrastructure as something that all sides in Washington could agree on. A chance to put a bipartisan presidency into action.

For a country that is home to Wall Street on one coast and Silicon Valley on the other, far too many American roads, bridges and airports in between are crumbling. America gets a C- in its 2021 infrastructure report.

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, wants an increase in corporation tax (21 per cent to 28 per cent) to help pick up the tab. The legislation will only pass if Biden can keep his party united, and once again the main opposition will come internally within the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Republicans want a more focussed and cheaper plan that focuses on roads and bridges, but the consequence of the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling means that the real opposition will come from Democrats in competitive states like Sen. Joe Manchin who want less big Government, not more.

Neither fish nor fowl, but it will taste awfully good

After the financial crisis and at the outset of the Obama presidency, the White House sought similarly to expand the role of the state. Republicans opposed the 2009 rescue package on the grounds that it was a significant government overreach that swelled the national debt to irresponsible levels.

The White House slowly limped along, enacting a slimmed down stimulus package amid fears of inflation and the political risk of growing the debt too much. Two years later, they were punished by heavy defeats in the midterm elections.

Biden, a first-hand witness to those decisions in 2008-09, wants to act quickly and boldly while his party has unified control of Congress, knowing full well that could change next year.

In an electoral system peppered with elections as frequently as in the United States, good politics often trumps good policy. Biden, with one eye on the first set of midterms in which the governing party is historically punished, understands that he and his party will be judged on their handling of the pandemic and the immediate steps to recovery. In that context, he is seeking to use the full force of the state to deliver for voters who care more about results than how they were achieved.

In 1933, Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority into law. Controversial at the time, Roosevelt said: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.”

Biden campaigned with promises to control the pandemic and end decades of hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington. If he can deliver the former and turbocharge the economic recovery, will Americans really care about how he did it? Or that he abandoned the latter?

Once a dominant force in the Republican Party, the freedom caucus, and conservatives whose raison d’être was small government, are now a fading force. Instead, the GOP is abandoning domestic politics writ large in order to fight culture wars in the press and on Capitol Hill.

It is much more Donald Trump than Paul Ryan. In that respect, Biden’s calculation that he can grow the size of the state could be a shrewd one – if nothing because there are no Republicans left to oppose him.

Lord Ashcroft: For many voters, America’s election was not about Biden – but a referendum on Trump

20 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Joe Biden’s inauguration today will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by millions in America and around the world. The moment crowns the victory not just of Biden, but of the institutions of American democracy that many still fear are under threat. After a fortnight of extraordinary drama that saw the storming of the Capitol building and a second impeachment for an outgoing president, it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – the movements that brought American politics to where it is, and their effect in the election that feels as though it took place not just eleven short weeks ago but in another age.

If the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House will stand as one of the defining political events of our time, its successor last year was in many ways at least as remarkable: the supposedly unpopular president winning more votes than any previous Republican, losing only to the candidate with the most votes ever. This week I am publishing my analysis, based on four years of research throughout the US as well extensive polling and focus groups during the 2020 campaign. The research both helps to explain what happened and why, and gives some clues about what we can expect in the next chapter of American politics. Here are some of the key points.

What is President Biden’s mandate?

With a record-breaking haul of 81 million votes, Biden is the most successful presidential candidate in American history. But for many voters, the election was not about Biden but a referendum on Trump. I found 99 per cent of Trump supporters saying they approved of the job he had done, and nine in 10 said they would be voting for the incumbent; 94 per cent of Biden supporters disapproved of Trump’s performance and a quarter said they were voting mainly to get rid of him.

Those switching from Trump to Biden were most likely to mention disillusionment with Trump among their reasons; having high expectations of Biden or liking Democrat policies were at the very bottom of the list.

While policy concerns were different for Trumpers (the economy, immigration) and Biden backers (Covid, healthcare), another telling difference was the kind of leader they wanted. While three quarters of Trump enthusiasts would rather have a president “who does the right thing even if it is divisive,” a majority of Biden supporters would prefer one “who will create a more civil political climate and build consensus even if I don’t agree with everything they do.”

In other words, for many voters Biden had one job – to see off Trump – and he will accomplish his task today. The new president’s problems will begin with whatever he decides to do next. As with any successful political movement, especially one of this size, the coalition that elected Biden in 2020 is far from being a monolithic bloc. Its foundation is the Democratic base, many of whose members yearned for a more liberal, progressive direction and found the compromise of nominating an established moderate quite agonising. Many of them hoped that Biden’s victory would, in fact, usher in a much more radical Democratic era than might have been suggested by the new president’s record in Washington or his reassuringly temperate campaign style. These were joined by a group of new voters, younger and more ethnically diverse, who were opposed to Trump and all his works and were particularly driven to address racial injustice.

Then there is a much more moderate set of voters who wish above all for a calmer, less acrimonious form of politics. Less inclined to dismiss the Trump years out of hand, they were more likely than most to prefer a president who creates a more civil political climate. If they had doubts about Biden it was over his age and health, and the prospect that he might quickly be succeeded by a new face with a more radical agenda. What they wanted was not a Green New Deal but a bit of peace and quiet. Yet with Vice President Harris having the casting vote in a 50-50 Senate, the Biden administration has little excuse not to be bold. The potential for conflict and disappointment among his supporters is already apparent.

Trumpism without Trump?

Some see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trump and it’s presidency. Arguably, it’s a funny sort of repudiation that sees a president win 11 million more votes, and a higher vote share, than he did four years earlier. For many, the temptation to dismiss Trump supporters as the “basket of deplorables” and lump them all in with the Capitol-storming extremists will be greater than ever. But this would be an injustice and a mistake. As his reputation implodes, it is as important as ever to grasp what it was about the Trump offering that nearly half the electorate found so compelling.

Looking back at what he did and what his supporters told us during four years of research, I think this can be distilled into what we might call the Seven Tenets of Trumpism. An enduring belief in American exceptionalism – the idea that the US is different from, and in important ways, greater than, other countries; conviction that constitutional freedoms like free speech and the right to own guns are important and need defending; the belief that it is possible for anyone who works hard to be successful in America, whatever their background; rejection of political correctness and identity politics; belief in business, low taxes and deregulation; support for a forceful, independent foreign policy; and – crucially – willingness to tolerate a good deal of friction in politics in the cause of advancing these things.

The question for the Republican Party is whether this powerful proposition can be disentangled from the 45th president himself. Could you have Trumpism without Trump? In my research, one in three Trump supporters told us they approved of what he had done as president but disapproved of his character and personal conduct. This meant two thirds of his supporters said they approved of both his actions and the way he behaved. That’s not to say most will not have been horrified as they saw the seat of their democracy under attack. But for most of his presidency, what others saw as his outrageous behaviour was not just part of the package, but part of the appeal – a feature, not a bug. Many loved having a president who said exactly what they thought, refused to conform to politically correct orthodoxies and remained a political outsider.

Some would like the Republicans to put the whole Trump era behind it, but it won’t be that simple. The two parties in American politics have always drawn the base of their support from very different constituencies, but over the last forty years that fault-line has shifted completely.

On this map, the vertical axis represents security, in terms of things like health, income and occupation – the higher up, the more secure. The horizontal axis represents diversity, which includes factors like ethnicity and population density – the further to the left, the more diverse. Over the last 40 years, the Democratic party’s base of support has in economic terms grown steadily more upscale, while the Republicans have become the party of rural and small-town America. The coalition that sent Trump to the White House is different from the one that elected George W. Bush, let alone his father. In charting its new course, the Republican Party cannot simply trade this coalition in for a new one.

The task the Republicans now have is to hold together that base of support, and even expand back into the suburbs and cities themselves. To say that President Trump’s performance since the election has made this task harder would be an understatement of colossal proportions. Those who want it to remain “Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (as Don Junior had it at the fateful rally) might try the patience of mainstream Republicans beyond endurance: being uncouth on Twitter is one thing, inciting insurrection is altogether another. But those who want a Trump-free future for the GOP must find a way of distancing themselves from him while holding onto the millions – minus the extremist minority – that he brought into the Republican fold. This leads to another question – for another day – of whether the GOP will even continue to exist in its current form.

Can Biden reunite America?

For four years, Trump has been the focal point for divisions in American politics. But if he exacerbated those divisions, he did not create them. As we can see from this dashboard of our polling during the campaign, there are deep and genuine differences in outlook, priorities and values: the issues they care about, whether they believe minorities enjoy equal rights and opportunities, the role of the government, how the Constitution should be interpreted, and the things they worry about on a daily basis.

Combining these various views and attributes on one map makes for an interesting picture of the electorate. We see here how different issues, attributes, personalities and opinions interact with one another. The closer the plot points are to each other the more closely related they are.

We can see how issue concerns, political outlook, news sources, views of American life and Trump’s presidency were associated with support with one or another candidate at the 2020 election.

Such a divergence of views and priorities is the stuff of politics, and an equivalent map could be drawn of the electorate in any democracy. The divisions are made more acute, however, by the way each side views the motivations of the other.

Two thirds of Republicans said they thought people who vote Democrat and support Biden were “good people who want good things for America, we just disagree about how to achieve them.” However, only just over half of Democrats were prepared to say the same about Republicans and Trump voters: 42 per cent said these were “bad people who want the wrong things for America,” including majorities of those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries and those who describe themselves as very liberal, and two thirds of self-declared socialists.

Nine out of ten Biden enthusiasts said either that they thought Trump was the biggest cause of recent divisions in society or that he had made existing divisions worse. Most Trump supporters, meanwhile, thought America would be just as divided even if he had never run for president.

Accordingly, the two camps took different views when asked about politics in the post-Trump era. Only a small minority of voters thought things would go back to normal quite quickly when Trump left office. But while a majority of Biden enthusiasts and almost half of Biden-Trump switchers thought things would gradually return to normal, six in ten Trump enthusiasts thought politics would either remain just as divisive or become even more so after Trump’s departure.

While Biden supporters often said they wanted more unity and less division, this often seemed less evident in the way they spoke about the people who voted for Trump. “There’s a lot of effing stupid people in our country,” said one Democrat reflecting on the 2016 result. “Idiots and frickin’ old, racist white men.” The idea that his voters had simply lacked guidance by better informed people such as themselves was also a regular theme: “Did we not do enough to reach out? Did we not do enough educating the people in our lives?” agonised one woman. “Some of my friends have Trump signs all over their yard and I still love them, and our children still play together. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have received stupid misinformation.”

Trump voters, meanwhile, felt strongly that the calls for agreement and consensus were only really aimed in one direction. “I’m a middle-aged white conservative Christian male. All of this inclusiveness and unity, and what they’re really saying is that nobody else has to change their mindset but me.” The supposedly tolerant left “is only tolerant if you agree with their opinion. If you voted for Trump, then you’re the enemy.” As for the idea of Biden ending the divisions, “It’s like they’re going to wave a magic wand and fix everything that’s wrong now. If Jesus came back and was the President, I’m not sure he himself could do it.”

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Reunited Nation? American Politics Beyond The 2020 Election is published this week by Biteback.

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure: As the recent US election showed, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat

11 Nov

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure is the Director at FTI Consulting.

The President-elect may well come to regret his offhand comment in a radio interview earlier in May, where he joked that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”.

In one sense, he was right: black voters did overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And yet exit poll data shows that Donald Trump doubled his vote among black women. The number of black men who voted for him increased by 25 per cent. More Hispanic American men voted for him this time round; and Hispanic American women, and American Muslims, and white women. The influence of the Cuban vote in Florida has already been the subject of extensive coverage. In an ironic twist, the major demographic shift towards the Democrats came from the much-derided category of white men.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the GOP has somehow morphed into the party of minorities. But, aside from being the highest Republican share of non-white voters in a presidential election since 1960 (quite the result for someone it’s long been fashionable to dismiss as a white supremacist), these results show that increasingly, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat.

The coming months will doubtless see much soul-searching about why the Democrats failed to make electoral inroads into these demographics. Some conclusions will be sensible and some will be ugly: already Twitter is full of depressingly predictable slurs about minorities being bamboozled by anti-socialist propaganda, attracted to the macho idea of the strongman, or desperately trying to assimilate into their new society by voting in a way their white neighbours would approve of.

The answer, I suspect, is simpler. It is that conservative values speak to minority communities in a way that the Left simply does not understand.

You cannot, of course, lump all “minorities” together. There is, for instance, a distinction to be drawn between recent migrants, such as those pesky Cubans and Mexicans that voted the “wrong” way, and communities that have been in America for centuries. And within ethnic groups there are also significant differences in culture, cohesion, and attainment. But there are also important similarities.

When we speak of “communities” this implies a group of people with shared values. And, to a lesser or greater extent, these values include patriotism (both where you originate from, and where you have settled), a belief in the family as the basic building block of society, self-advancement, education, thrift, religion, and a sense that rights also confer responsibilities.

These are, in other words, conservative values. To some they might appear as old-fashioned, even a little embarrassing. One could well make the point that there are many within those communities that have abandoned some (or all) of these values. But to many more, they are instantly recognisable as a decent set of values to live by – and to vote by.

For recent immigrants, the link is even stronger. These are often people who have taken significant personal risk to leave their old life, settle in a new place, start again from the beginning, often in lowly and glamorous jobs, and carve out a better life for themselves and their families. Many know the ugly side of repressive regimes and the evils of an all-powerful State; others have bitter and direct experience of what happens when anarchy is allowed to flourish. They have shown courage and determination to get this far, and want to succeed further. Is this not conservative?

We see much the same debate taking place in the UK. For a long time, the narrative has been allowed to develop that it is only the Left that can help immigrant and minority communities.

This is not just patronising but potentially dangerous. The implications of much of what the Left tells minorities – that we live in an endemically racist society, that we are doomed to underachieve, that we cannot meet our full potential without a great big helping hand – all of this, though often well meant, is grating at best, and at worst risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell a person they are second-rate often enough and they will eventually believe you.

It is also intellectually lazy. There are big problems existing in the UK to do with failures of integration, under-achievement in specific communities, genuine racism, ghettoisation, and the fact that a regrettable number of individuals come to the UK to do wrong. I arrived here from Romania with my family almost three decades ago, and, though I’ve been hugely lucky, I can’t claim it’s always been an easy ride.

But these problems cannot be allowed to become the entire story. Because – as in the US – the overwhelming objective, particularly for recent migrants, is to get on, make a success of your life, exercise personal responsibility, and reap the rewards in later years. And that’s what most of us have been trying to do.

There is a rich electoral seam to be explored here. For too long, Labour successfully claimed a monopoly on migrant and ethnic minority votes. Conservatives were smeared as golf-club racists, Little Englanders, or migrant-hating xenophobes. Genuine concerns about immigrant criminality, or the rate at which the UK could absorb new people, were caricatured as simply wanting to send everyone back. And, it has to be said, there was a small but vocal section within the Party whose rhetoric was hardly geared to win over ethnic minority voters.

What Labour excelled at was being offended on our behalf. When I was growing up, for instance, it was a left-wing trope to label The Daily Mail evil for daring to run stories of Romanian pickpockets. And the other Romanians I knew were, like me, furious about those stories: furious, that is, at the disgraceful behaviour of our fellow countrymen.

Beware of generalisations. But there are many, many in the UK, migrants, or the children of migrants, or from established ethnic minority backgrounds, who have a robust, common-sense approach to life that chimes exactly with conservative values.

They don’t want to be patted on the head; they’d far prefer lower taxes. They appreciate law and order being maintained, but distrust the hand of the State intruding too far into their private lives. For them, patriotism isn’t a dirty world, and they have an instinctive understanding of the importance of national sovereignty. They prize academic rigour and aren’t embarrassed by ambition or the pursuit of excellence. They would vigorously reject the notion that rising to the very top – say, by becoming Home Secretary or Chancellor – “isn’t for the likes of you”. They are natural conservatives. But, tragically, too many of them still don’t vote Conservative.

As in the US, there is some evidence of the dial beginning to turn. If upsetting The Guardian is a measure of success, then its article complaining about the “prominence” of British Indians in the Conservative Party is the most back-handed of compliments to the Party’s engagement programme. Similar efforts are gathering results with Jewish communities, which, at the last election, can only have been bolstered by the fact that we were fighting against Jeremy Corbyn.

Elsewhere, however, the “anyone but Tory” narrative still holds sway – and changing that offers an electoral prize well worth the effort. A good start would be a full-blooded programme of measures that incentivise economic growth, help the pursuit of educational excellence, reward aspiration – and challenge, at every opportunity, the toxic narrative that ethnic minorities are in any way second class.

What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.