With Donald Trump’s upset win foreshadowed by the U.K. referendum to leave the European Union known as Brexit, who better to console shell-shocked Washington than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair?
“Your election was close,” he told a ballroom of people who expected a different outcome. “Brexit was 52-48, it wasn’t 75-25; there are a lot of people out there capable of being persuaded.”
How to persuade them? “The alternative to a strongman can’t be a weak center,” he said. “People feel the center has not been providing that dynamism.” To counter the rise of the political strongman, epitomized by Trump and a raft of European politicians on the right, “we need something strong and muscular.”
Asked to explain these extraordinary political upsets, Blair said there was “no doubt in my mind something different is going on,” but he urged people to have some perspective. Populism is not new, concern about immigration is not new, and the impact of globalization is not new. Coal mining plants and steel plants were shutting down in the ’80s, he said.
What is new is social media. “Social media changes totally the way politics works,” he said.
“Do you tweet?” moderator Gillian Tette with the Financial Times interjected. “Not voluntarily,” Blair replied with a droll laugh.
He said the rise of social media interrelates with the decline in the viewing audience of the BBC nightly news show, which drew 12 million people when he was in office. In today’s fractured media environment, it’s just 2 million.
“That’s a big, big change in how politics is conducted,” he said. A single conversation with 12 million people is no longer readily available. Instead there are multiple tweets and opinions, some based on fake news stories. “People know or think they know about the world, and they become very angry. They see politics as an instantaneous like or dislike.”
Tette pointed out that Blair, when he was prime minister in the ’90s, tried very hard to get beyond the right and the left, bonding with then-President Clinton in their mutual pursuit of “third way” politics. “We had a sense of forward momentum, we were change agents, we were not guardians of the status quo,” he said, acknowledging that today’s center lacks that energy and drive.
Blair was speaking at an event organized by No Labels, a group dedicated to getting people to work with each other across party lines, and to identify a new political center that can make politics great again as a vehicle for solving problems.
Asked to give advice to the people in the room, Blair declined, saying that he doesn’t really do that, but then he offered several challenges along with economics for politicians and policymakers to consider. First, cultural identity: “It’s not irrational to worry about immigration,” he said. When people see their communities changing, they’re going to get angry. Second, politicians should be honest about globalization, and people hurt by technology or trade must know “we are not indifferent to their plight.” Third, the effect of partisanship is paralysis. The center needs strong solutions that make real change to break through.
Blair sounded the alarm for democracy, citing a poll in France where 30 percent of those surveyed doubted that democracy is the right system. They think government has failed them. “People are insecure, and there’s an immense amount of anger that we don’t seem to provide for them.” It’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin is so admired on the right, he said, and people will say that openly. “Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have spoken like that.”
Right-wing populism is playing out across Europe, where Italian voters on Sunday rejected the reforms offered by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who then kept his promise to resign. Right-wing parties are gaining ground in upcoming elections in France and Germany and the Netherlands.
One positive note emerged from Austria, where over the weekend the right-wing Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis and surging on a wave of anti-immigrant nationalism, was defeated by a former Green Party candidate. It was the first break in the right wing’s populist sweep of Europe, and at the No Labels gathering, it was received as welcome evidence nothing is inevitable, and now is the time to be heard.