Open Conversation

David Goodhart

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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‘I have a clearer eye for the limits and contradictions of modern liberalism and its arrogance.’

IN AN ANGRIER, resentful world, the establishment politician is an endangered item. Defying the divisions of ideology and the restrictions of demography, the aggrieved legion is asking for change and politics-as-usual has only shop-worn platitudes to offer. Here comes the insurgent. Call him the populist, the nativist, the isolationist, or whatever it may take to describe the new troglodyte at the gate. Brexit, a vote that sought to make Great Britain worthy of the adjective, was the first salvo. Then Trump happened, turning both red America and blue America on their head. In his new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst; 278 pages), David Goodhart calls these epochal events in democracy a backlash against ‘double liberalism,’ economic as well as social. The populist surge, he argues in one of the most original books to come out in recent times on the fault lines in liberal democracy, brings out a division that makes the old Left-Right dichotomy redundant. We are set apart by ‘the people who see the world from Anywhere and the people who see it from Somewhere.’ Anywheres, the dominating class, are the types with “portable ‘achieved’ identities based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.” Anywheres, as apostles of progressive individualism’, put ‘autonomy, mobility and novelty’ above ‘identity, tradition and national social contracts (faith, flag and family)’. They are globalists, and at home with immigrants. Somewheres include the rooted and the economically left-behind class, ‘socially conservative and communitarian by instinct.’ They prefer the familiar to the unknown. They resist change—cultural as well as demographic—that makes their life miserable. Goodhart calls their worldview ‘decent populism.’ For so long the Anywheres, the so-called metropolitan elites, dominated power in developed societies. Goodhart makes a case for a ‘less headstrong Anywhere liberalism.’ Populist revolt may not be the ideal antidote, but, as he writes, ‘if we are to be tough on populism we must be tough on the cause of populism too—and one of those causes has been Anywhere over-reach.’ Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect, a London magazine popular with brainy Anywheres, has left the fold. Currently a think tanker and full-time writer, he calls himself an Anywhere apostate. The liberal make-believe is falling apart, and the alternative is not exactly Trump or his little variations sprouting up across Europe, but a new deal between ‘decent populists’ and rooted globalists. ‘Even in our richer and more mobile society most people are rooted in families and communities, often experience change as loss and feel a hierarchy of attainments and moral obligations to others. Too often in the past generation Anywhere liberalism has looked past, or down upon, such people, but their affinities are not obstacles on the road to the good society, they are one of its foundation stones,’ Goodhart concludes. Once, it was the disillusionment with communism that marked the boldest testament of an intellectual. Today, the breakaway liberal wins the argument. Excerpts from a conversation with Goodhart.

Is the rise of populists a backlash against the cosy assumptions of liberal democracy?

The more sensible populists are not against liberal democracy but they are against a politics and policy agenda that has been very heavily dominated by the highly educated and mobile metropolitan elites. I call it Liberal Overreach. All the main political parties (apart from the populists) are dominated by the priorities and assumptions of this group—the knowledge economy with its high rewards for the highly qualified along with the disappearance of so many middle-skill/middle-income jobs, the rapid expansion of higher education and relative neglect of non-academic routes, the greater openness and fluidity of the economy and society symbolised by immigration and rapid demographic change, family and gender policy which discourages domesticity and traditional family arrangements. The gold standard of human valuation has become too narrowly focused on cognitive ability and this is a source of humiliation to many people.

Are liberals as shrill as populists?

Yes, they can be just as shrill, just as narrow in their social networks, just as subject to group thinking. But the issue is not so much their shrillness as their blindness to the extent that they have shaped a society to suit their own interests thinking it is the general interest.

Have the liberals failed to read—or accept—the social fault lines behind the populist eruption?

Liberal thinking still tends to be dominated by the centrality of socio-economic politics and the old Left-Right argument, rooted in disputes about the size of the state, and equality. This has not disappeared but it has been supplemented, and in some places even been eclipsed by, a much stronger socio-cultural politics in which issues of ‘security and identity’ have become more prominent.

In my new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics I talk about the much greater importance, in the past 20 or 30 years, of the value divides in Britain and other rich democracies. The main divide is between the 20 to 25 per cent of the population—I call the Anywheres—who are well educated and mobile and tend to favour openness, autonomy, freedom and a larger group of people (about 50 per cent of the population)—I call the Somewheres—who are less well educated, more rooted and value security/familiarity and place a much greater emphasis on group attachments (local, ethnic, national) than the Anywheres.

The world overall is becoming less unequal, thanks in part to the rise of India and China. And in Britain the rising inequality story is largely a myth, inequality rose sharply in the late 1980s under Margaret Thatcher but has remained pretty steady since

Anywheres are generally comfortable with social change because they have so-called ‘achieved identities’, a sense of yourself derived from your educational and career achievements, which means that you generally have a social confidence that allows you to fit in pretty much anywhere. Whereas Somewheres have ‘ascribed identities’ based more on place or group, which means that their identity can be more easily discomforted by rapid social change.

This sounds like a very binary distinction but there is also a big In-betweener group of about 25 per cent of the population and there is a great variety of both Anywheres and Somewheres—the more extreme Anywheres, for example, I call the Global Villagers (about 5 per cent of the population) and the more extreme Somewheres I call Hard Authoritarians (about 5 to 7 per cent of the population).

And it is important to note that I have invented the labels but I have not invented the value groups—they are there in the opinion and value surveys, in particular the British Social Attitudes survey, of course the groups are fuzzy at the edges and change over time but they are real.

They overlap to some extent with social class but are distinct. Social types who might find themselves on different sides in the Left/Right divide might be allies in the Anywhere/Somewhere divide—for example, the successful management consultant and the radical professor who are both comfortable with immigration and support European integration and on the other hand the conservative middle-class farmer and the northern working class pensioner both of whom are worried about society and traditional values changing too fast.

Is it that we are living in an age of resentment, in a world where inequalities are wider socially as well as economically?

The world overall is becoming less unequal—thanks in part to the rise of India and China. And in Britain the rising inequality story is largely a myth—inequality rose sharply in the late 1980s under Margaret Thatcher but has remained pretty steady since. The new inequalities are much more about status and education. To repeat: the dominance of the idea of the achievement society means that cognitive ability has become the overwhelming measure of social worth and many of the roles that gave recognition and status to people of middling ability and income have disappeared.

Is populist resentment the other side of globalisation?

Yes, up to a point. But it is as much, or ever more, about culture and values as it is about income. The single strongest correlation with voting for Brexit was whether someone supported the death penalty or not.

You make a distinction between Anywheres and Somewheres. Broadly speaking, is it a distinction between liberal cosmopolitans with a global outlook and more rooted, culturally insular nationalists? Say between Macron and Le Pen?

I talk about ‘double liberalism’ in my book—the combination of the market liberalism we associate with the 1980s and the Reagan/Thatcher reforms and the social and cultural liberalism emerging out of the 1960s with its hostility to tradition and hierarchy. This is Macron. From the 1990s onwards you have seen the two marching together and dominating the political spectrum. It was a compromise: the Right won on economics but the Left seemed to win on culture. And yes, they did fit together well around Anywhere assumptions about openness—whether in economics or immigration and embracing of the ‘other’. Exclusivity and protection and borders was the enemy to the double liberalism but it is what populism offers—and Le Pen offers—as a reaction against too much openness.

The bigger challenge for the next generation is how to create a new political settlement between the Anywheres and Somewheres; a settlement that takes a fairer account of Somewhere values while not squashing Anywhere liberalism

Though I would add that the liberal idea that open versus closed has now replaced Left versus Right as the main dividing line in our political argument is very self-serving—most populist voters do not want to live in a closed society they just want a form of openness that does not disadvantage them. Take freedom of movement as an example. It works for the London lawyers and accountants who can go and work in Berlin or Paris without any hassle and do not face much competition in their own jobs but if you work in the food manufacturing industry in the north of England it is very different. The sector employs 400,000 people and 120,000 now come from eastern and central Europe so you face a huge amount of competition and at the same time you are unlikely to have the aptitude or skills to go and work in continental Europe yourself.

Are Somewheres winning the argument today, Brexit and Trump being two obvious examples? Is it because traditional parties, from the Right or Left, have let their original constituencies down? Are they still steeped in dead certainties?

Yes, the pendulum has swung back a little in a Somewhere direction after more than a generation of Anywhere hegemony. The question is why now? Why does populism seem to be so attractive to more people than in the past? Why has the Centre Left collapsed as a political force in France and the Netherlands and possibly in Britain next?

My Anywhere/Somewhere prism allows one to see it as the consequence of over-domination by the Anywhere worldview and values. The differences I described earlier have always been there but have become more significant for two reasons. First, the greater importance of socio-cultural politics. Second, the rapid growth in the number of Anywheres, partly thanks to the expansion of higher education, which has unbalanced the system and made our politics more volatile. The task is to give more space to Somewhere priorities in day-to-day politics without obliterating Anywhere liberalism.

Is the middle shrinking in the political arena?

Not permanently. We have experienced a Somewhere backlash in recent years but if the Anywheres react sensibly, the centre can hold. In Britain, there is an argument within the Anywhere political class between those—the militant Anywheres—who say that not an inch must be conceded to Somewhere priorities, that they are barbarians and we are the civilised ones. Then there are those I call the Admonished Anywheres— Theresa May is perhaps the most significant figure among them—who admit after Brexit and Trump that they have got it wrong, that they have not been listening to people and they must start to do so.

You have written about your own journey from Anywhere to Somewhere. Is it the case of a liberal realising the futility of his idealism?

No, it is the case of a liberal realising how narrow and self-interested his liberalism had been.

The more Somewhere you become, do you think the more culturally—and maybe even racially—intolerant you become?

No, again, quite the opposite. Most Anywheres have social circles that are as narrow, if not narrower, than Somewheres. Most graduates of good universities have no close friends who are non-graduates. This helps to create an intolerant liberalism and the sort of political snobbery and bewilderment that was widely on display after Brexit and Trump. I now have many more non-White friends than I did when I was a mainstream liberal.

Do you think Somewheres will have a problem in identifying with the Conservatives or the Labour? Are the populists/nativists an extreme expression of Somewheres?

It is important to stress that both the Anywhere and Somewhere worldviews are legitimate. There are more extreme Somewheres who are xenophobic and reactionary but the majority have gone along with what I call the ‘great liberalisation’ especially on race, gender and sexuality—go back to the early 1980s and majorities of people objected to a close relative marrying a non-White and thought that homosexuality should be illegal and so on. That has completely changed, we have come a long way in a short time. But Somewheres have moved more slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, and have not moved at all on things like immigration.

Somewheres vote for all parties but less so than in the past for Labour because the party has become so dominated by Anywhere liberal graduates. While it is probably true to say that all populist voters are Somewheres not all Somewheres are populist voters.

Who will win the future—the Somewheres or the Anywheres?

Fifty years ago British common sense was Somewhere common sense. Today, it is Anywhere common sense even though Anywheres are a clear minority. I hope that in the next 25 years neither form of common sense will be so dominant.

There are two big questions that should dominate politics for the next generation. First, how do we draw the line between legitimate populism and illegitimate populism? Racism is one obvious line though there are so many different definitions of it. In the past few days I have heard two very prominent French intellectuals— Bernard-Henri Lévy and Dominique Moïsi—describing the Front National as fascist. But are we really saying that maybe 35 or 40 per cent of the French people are going to vote for a fascist party? It just seems lazy thinking. Of course the FN has grown out of some ugly political traditions—Catholic anti-semitism, Vichy, the Algerian war etc—but people can change, can’t they? We allow that on the Left, several of Tony Blair’s cabinet had been Trotskyists when they were young, why not allow it on the Right too?

The bigger challenge for the next generation is how to create a new political settlement between the Anywheres and Somewheres— a settlement that takes a fairer account of Somewhere interests and values while not squashing Anywhere liberalism.

As a disillusioned liberal, what’s your advice to your former fellow travellers?

I am not disillusioned, I am reborn! They should come and join me. I have a clearer eye for the limits and contradictions of modern liberalism and its arrogance. We need a more pluralistic politics in which both liberals and social conservatives acknowledge the legitimacy of the others views.