Something strange and unexpected is happening in US politics.
“Under the guise of Medicare For All and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same economic theories that have stifled the liberties of millions over the past century,” GOP Vice President Mike Pence told a major gathering of the American right—the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—outside Washington D.C. last week. “That system,” he continued, “is socialism.”
The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,” he said. “Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
I remember watching a live stream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen – as I do – with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, somehow, to foreshadow the result.
On a cold February morning two years ago, Gordon Brown held a press conference on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Edinburgh. Framed by a bright, clear view of the capital’s skyline, with the castle fixed immutably in the distance, the former prime minister launched – once more – into the constitutional debate. Independence, he said, would mean breaking all ties to Britain. Scotland should lead the United Kingdom, not leave it. Only the Labour Party understands this country’s unique commitment to social justice.
And yet, as Brown paced the stage, wagging his finger at reporters and thunderously regurgitating another stock defence of the devolutionary project, somewhere, on some primitive, subliminal level, he must have known that Scotland was no longer listening, and that in the very near future, regardless of what he said today or how vigorously he said it, Labour would slip screaming into a broad, black Caledonian abyss.
I was born in 1986, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang deregulation of the British banking system, and I was 22 when the global financial crash hit in 2008. For most of my adult life, the UK economy has been in crisis. First recession, then austerity, and now stagnation, with the prospect of another serious, Brexit-induced downturn on the horizon. Economists anticipate a decade or more of lost growth; a semi-permanent, Japanese-style slump. Prepare yourself, they say, for disappointment. That job you wanted? Gone. That house you’ve been saving for? No chance. That mountain of debt you’re carrying? You can keep it. Forever. It’s yours – along with flatlining wages, part-time employment, and income-eviscerating rents.
I belong, in other words, to the so-called ‘millennial’ generation, a category that includes people between the ages of 18 and 34 – or, more broadly, people who reached adulthood after the turn of the millennium. Millennials are significant for two reasons: they are the first age group in recent history to experience a standard of living lower than that of their parents, and they are really, really leftwing.
No post-war US president, including John F. Kennedy, holds a tighter grip of America’s political imagination than Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Democrats agree that Reagan’s presidency was ‘transformative’. For Republicans, Reagan rescued the country from decline after the disaster of Vietnam and at a time of flagging economic growth. For Democrats, he stacked the deck against ordinary Americans by cutting taxes for the richest, deregulating the labour market and liberating Wall Street.
Driving this summer from the home of a friend in Madison, Wisconsin to Brooklyn, New York, I encountered first hand the diverse effects of Reaganism. Pittsburgh, for instance, is thriving. Built by and formerly dependent on the Pennsylvania steel industry, the city is now a regional hub for advanced medical research and investment banking. Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, on the other hand, all bear the scars of Reagan’s supply-side reforms. Indeed, some neighbourhoods in south Philadelphia are semi-derelict, their streets lined with gutted factory buildings and abandoned housing blocks.