Hungary, USA

The Rise of Illiberalism from East to the West: A Lesson About Class for the Left

As the world awakens from the shock of Donald Trump being elected, liberals and people on the left have started to draw the conclusions. Class plays a crucial role in the rise of illiberalism. You just have to ask the right questions to realise how. Restoring class analysis and class politics is the first step towards combating illiberal politics.

Apparently, it takes some time until the elite learns that economic frustration is a seedbed for illiberalism. For decades, economic critiques of financial globalisation and socially disembedded economic liberalism were marginal until the 2008 financial crisis turned our views mainstream overnight. Now, the West has to learn another lesson that people in Eastern European peripheries have been taught for some time: prolonged economic dysfunctions result in political whirlwinds that sweep established liberal truths and institutions. The rise of Polish or Hungarian illiberalism is as much a result of globalisation’s discontents as it is a product of reckless political manoeuvring of right wing political bullies. Our focus on the shortcomings of political leaders should not distract our attention from the politics of class.

We can safely conclude that the stagnating or by some measure even worsening quality of life for working class people was a crucial factor behind Trump’s rise.

The problem is that it seems some liberals are still refusing to accept not only the end of liberal capitalism as we knew it but also the role of class in illiberalism. They point out that the poorest, financially or racially most disadvantaged people do not support the Right neither in the current US elections nor in Hungary (although supporters of the Hungarian radical Right came from poorer regions with higher unemployment). They then conclude that higher support for Clinton among low earners is a proof that class does not matter. If you go with the assumption that class does not matter then you can make everybody believe that there are no systemic, structural problems with the economy, the focus can remain on race or on the alleged “stupidity” of voters. Without denying the presence of racial prejudice and hatred and without questioning its importance in illiberal politics we can assert with confidence that the above argument is a plain misunderstanding of class and class analysis.

The liberal interpretation of poverty is the lack of income, equating low personal income with low socioeconomic status and thus low class position. But a proper conceptualisation of class (be it Marxist, Revisionist or Weberian) goes beyond income. A proper definition of class would be a socioeconomic position defined by one’s role in the social division of labour. It might refer to common interests and common experience but it does not necessarily refer to common identities and collective action. Armoured with this conception of class we can find plenty of evidence for the centrality of class in driving support for Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK or illiberal politics in Eastern Europe. Beyond the obvious facts that Trump supporters felt they had no political voice and were angry about the performance of the political elite, and the definite racial profile of Trump and Clinton voters, there is so much going on underneath that can be captured with class analysis.

Liberals who argue that Trump received less support among those who earn less forget that low earners have been leaning towards the Democrats for many a decade. The right question is: how has the support of low earning groups changed over time. By asking this question we learn that Democrats have lost support among those who earn less and increased their support among those earning more. According to exit poll data compiled by the New York Times in 2004 Democrats received 35 per cent of the vote of those earning more than $200,000, the Republicans 63 per cent. The support for Trump has decreased to 48 per cent in the $250,000+ category by 2016 and the share of Democrats rose to 46 per cent. Among those earning less than 30,000 dollars Trump has extended the support of the Republicans from 35 to 41 per cent whereas Democrats went down from 63 to 53 between 2012 and 2016. If we only look at Republican voters we can also see that compared to his rivals during the primaries Trump received bigger support among low earning Republicans and lower support at the upper side of the income scale.

Asking the right questions about class experience we understand how a vast part of the working middle class got dissatisfied and started to look for a radical change in the status quo.

Occupational class position and economic activity captures more of the class experience than income. Blue collar workers, especially in the construction and manufacturing sector have a significantly higher preference for Trump than office or white collar workers. Analysing county-level primary voting data the CNBC found that Trump has won big in counties with above the average unemployment rates. A positive correlation with regional unemployment does not necessarily mean that unemployed individuals are supporting Trump (although there is empirical evidence for such positive correlation at the individual level also). Trump supporters overestimate unemployment compared to Clinton supporters: they equate their personal experience with the country as a whole. Economic experience is also highly correlated with the place of living, those in cities are easier to find jobs compared to those in deindustrialising rural areas where Trump has overwhelming support. This again resembles the Hungarian experience with illiberalism. In the Hungarian context young people were particularly badly hit by unemployment after the 2008 crisis, a factor that drove the support of illiberal parties (Fidesz, Jobbik) among younger people. We also know from surveys that in Hungary the Left had lost its crucial support before the 2010 election among those living in the countryside and rural towns, and also among skilled workers and secondary school graduates. In other words, among working and young middle class citizens living in rural towns where it is harder to reap the benefits of globalisation.

We also know that Trump has significantly increased the support for Republicans among whites with no college degree whereas republicans lost support among the well-educated from 2004 to 2016. Education and the place of living are also highly correlated with one’s ability to cope with the economic changes and with the chance of upward social mobility. Men who have not gone to college often feel trampled by globalisation. Indebtedness is also a useful measure of economic vulnerability and is a vital part of a substantive class analysis. People whose earning failed to grow during the last decades have increasingly turned to consumption through private indebtedness. For some years this seemed to fuel economic growth but turned out to be the most toxic component of the financialised growth model both in the US and in Eastern Europe. Although they are richer than Clinton supporters on average, Trump supporters have a slightly higher average total balance on all debts, which includes mortgages, auto loans, student loans and credit cards. Again, in this dimension we find a crucial parallel with Hungary: the high popularity of the dominant right wing party (FIDESZ) among indebted families before the 2010 elections.

Clinton’s failure was a result of a delusional strategic choice of the liberal party elite that the Democrats could win by bidding farewell to the working class and recomposing the party’s electorate along racial and age division.

Taken the above together we can safely conclude that the stagnating or by some measure even worsening quality of life for working class people was a crucial factor behind Trump’s rise. All the talk about trickle down aside, there has been no growth  for ¾ of the American population for the last decades. Slow income growth in Hungary was also a crucial factor behind the rise of Fidesz and the 2010 power grab by Viktor Orbán. According to the OECD Taxing Wages Report the Hungarian average wage in purchasing power parity US dollars for single persons without children has been among the lowest in Hungary throughout the OECD in 2009 that resulted in a nationwide economic frustration. By another measure, between 1999 and 2014 mortality rates in the U.S. rose for white Americans aged 22 and 56. Working age men in economically less advantageous parts of America are experiencing an increase in mortality just like Eastern European men experienced during the transition especially in countries with rapid privatisation and no social protection. As a study by Gallup researchers has also shown, people living in areas with lower social mobility and worse health are more likely to vote Trump. Asking the right questions about class experience we understand how a vast part of the working middle class got dissatisfied and started to look for a radical change in the status quo.

All the above factors might explain well why Trump supporters worry more about money than other Americans. No matter how rich they are, Trump supporters feel more economic anxiety. A survey also found that a much greater share of Trump supporters (81%) than Clinton supporters (19%) said “life in America today is worse than it was 50 years ago” for people like them. Again, we find a similar tendency in Hungary before the 2010 illiberal turn. An EBRD survey found that even the members of the top third income category thought overwhelmingly that they were worse off in 2007 than in 1989 before the transition from socialism to capitalism began. This economic anxiety results in a psychological insecurity that pushes people to seek for solutions that they consider would reduce this existential fear. As the global economy erodes virtual and real boundaries the majoritarian identity of the nation is an easily available source of identity and psychological security. As Arjun Appadurai has argued in his great book, in this context everyone and everything that is a threat to the majority becomes a threat against personal existential security. This is how the social psychology of vulnerable working middle class position is translated into xenophobia, hatred against migrants and minorities. Similarly to the Hungarian illiberals, Trump successfully addressed economic anger in a way that resonated with the anti-elitist disposition of voters who feel left behind.

The classism of the liberal elite disguised as antiracism portrayed the working class as “white trash”, inherently racist, dumb, and their advocates as ridiculous.

Clinton was facing an obvious credibility problem and was handicapped by her inability to emotionally connect to working class voters even though her policies were much better for working class Americans. This is not just about her personality, her lifetime involvement in politics or race. Hilary Clinton has lost because she lost those lower income mid-Western working class voters who were ready to vote for her husband and because she lost a lot of those white working class voters who a few years ago backed the first black president of the US. It is the low support for the Democrats that lost the election and not the turnout of Republicans. Again, a parallel can be drawn with Hungary, where the illiberal Fidesz government was re-elected in 2014 with less votes as they received in 2006 when they lost the election. Clinton’s failure was a result of a delusional strategic choice of the liberal party elite that the Democrats could win by bidding farewell to the working class and recomposing the party’s electorate along racial and age division. They thought that by winning the Hispanic, the Black and the Millennial vote they would amass an unbeatable majority. They thought that hammering Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” would be enough to legitimise their strategy. When Bill Clinton suggested Hilary’s campaign to fight for the working class he was dismissed with a hand wave by senior campaign strategist saying that “the voters from West Virginia were never coming back to his party”. The classism of the liberal elite disguised as anti-racism portrayed the working class as “white trash”, inherently racist, dumb, and their advocates as ridiculous. By focusing on “poor whites with poor character” the liberal elite wanted to distract attention from the discontents of globalisation and maintain the supremacy of economic liberalism.

We now have to pay the price for this liberal myopia. The failures of liberal economic globalisation erode the legitimacy of liberal institutions. Class politics is here to stay and it cannot be replaced by race based identity politics. Race and class are interwoven: the most crucial social problems are racialized class problems. The politics of identity and the politics of distributive justice can only go hand in hand if the left wants to prevail. Class analysis reveals that structural problems in liberal capitalism go way beyond the problem of the “underclass” or income poverty. Through low income growth, though the threat of unemployment, through lower social mobility, through worse health and through indebtedness these structural problems affect the poorest, the precarious and the working middle class alike. There are important parallels how the demobilisation of the left among its former core constituency, the working middle class, opened the way for right wing illiberal politics in Eastern Europe and in the US. Of course, there are some very important differences as well. Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK cannot be equated with the wholesale destruction of democracy as it happened in Hungary under Orbán. Class cannot explain everything and is no suspect in all crimes.

But there is a common lesson for social minded liberals and democratic socialists in the West and the East alike: a class analysis is crucial to understand our malaise. The European Left is at a crossroads just as liberals in the US. After the multiple catastrophes that were apparently not enough to challenge the dominant free market vision of society it is high time to restore class analysis. This would be the very first step to design policies and politics that can successfully compete with the increasingly radical right. Without putting back class analysis and class politics to their proper place, we better prepare for a long and harsh political winter.


Gábor Scheiring
Gábor Scheiring is a former Hungarian MP, currently a research associate at the University of Cambridge, doing research on the political economy of post-socialist mortality and on democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. He is the chairman of the Progressive Hungary Foundation, a think tank dedicated to progressive policy research and public education.