Elections teach us nothing. Instead, each tribe dredges succour from the minutiae, proving that they had been right all along. The moderate left — here and in the US — insists that tacking to the centre is the way to beat a populist right-winger, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by the skin of his teeth, through the votes of people who couldn’t be arsed to go to the polls on polling day and against a candidate of whom the most charitable description would be ‘fundamentally deranged’. The woke far left, meanwhile, argues the reverse, implying that the tightness of the vote was down to a lack of progressive zeal, much as was the Democrat failure to capture the Senate. Everything that happens in the world today is simply grist to the mill of whoever’s side you are on.
I have read several very good articles by the likes of Andrew Sullivan — and here, by Mark Gettleson and Freddy Gray — designed, I think, to apply balm to the bruised souls of the right. American progressivism is over, right-wing populism is here to stay and the Republicans will walk it in 2024, etc. Some very pertinent points were made in these pieces but, dangerously, I found myself clinging gratefully to each reassurance, much as a spider will cling to the side of a bath as the water rises inexorably beneath it.
The broader, coarser fact remains that while 56 per cent of US voters pronounced themselves better off after four years under Donald Trump — the highest figure I can remember — they were still disinclined to vote for him. The cities burned and looted by Antifa and BLM protestors did not tilt them towards the Republicans in sufficient number. Nor did the senility of the Democratic party candidate, who was unable to remember the name of the man he was challenging, nor indeed his own granddaughter. It is not sufficient to say that Biden won because Trump was mentally ill — and then point to the results in the rest of the slate for confirmation of this easy assertion. Trump was crazier than a shithouse rat, as the Americans sometimes say, in 2016 but he still managed to defeat a candidate who, while frozen-faced, smug and unappealing, at least had a vague notion of where she was and what she was doing. You look at that 56 per cent figure and at the madness of BLM and Antifa (whom Biden seemed reluctant to condemn) and wonder: how could the left have won? That is the question that should make us worried.
The phenomenon of ‘Shy Tories’ has been with us since the early 1990s and, more specifically, the opinion polls which suggested Neil Kinnock was about to enter 10 Downing Street in 1992. He did not do so, of course, and the pollsters immediately began to analyse why they had got it so badly wrong. Shy Tories was the answer they came up with — and they were probably right. Since then, however, this phenomenon has escalated to the point where the opinion polls are almost always wrong and thus almost always worthless, greatly underestimating the vote for right-wing parties. This was true of the Brexit referendum, our last general election, the American presidential election of 2016 and indeed this election, where the Trump vote was seriously underestimated by pollsters who were predicting a Biden landslide.
The concept of the Shy Tory (in this case the Shy Republican) was simply that, given the odium and loathing poured upon right-wing parties by the liberal establishment, the opposition and media, voters were reluctant to admit to pollsters that they supported candidates or parties which were ‘evil’ or ‘scum’. Right-wingers, meanwhile, would console themselves with the notion that at least when alone in the polling booth people felt able to abide by their convictions. My contention is that the Shy Tory phenomenon has now made its way into the ballot box — and we saw the results last week. I find it more than a little disturbing.
It is not entirely new. I know of a couple of people in London who in December voted for Jeremy Corbyn while praying to the dear God almighty that Boris got in with a whacking majority. But they could not bring themselves to vote Conservative: not for the party which kills toddlers and wishes to dismantle the NHS. What would they tell the neighbours?
The US election took this to a whole other level. There has never been an election in any truly democratic country in which the liberal establishment has been so viciously, relentlessly opposed to one of the candidates and vilified him at every possible moment. It is not simply that Donald Trump received the endorsement from not a single top-dollar US newspaper and only six newspaper endorsements overall (compared with 40 for Joe Biden, including all the well-known titles). Nor that the supposedly neutral CNN — just like the BBC — was wildly antipathetic to the Republican cause, to the extent that one of its pundit hosts, Van Jones, actually cried with relief when the results came in. Trump also had to put up with social media waging war against him, Twitter pulling his comments because it considered them unfactual (never happened before) and Facebook removing whole posts from Trump supporters because, of course, they went against their community standards. Given the undisguised and continual hostility from the liberal establishment in the media and on social media, the average US voter in Buttsack, Michigan, must have wondered: do I really have any choice? Every-body hates this man. It became in the end no choice at all.
I have no time for Trump. The man is a grotesque vulgarian. But it remains the case that this is the first election where the liberal left has won by pure bullying, by closing down debate, by vilifying and mocking, by ignoring stories hostile to his challenger and by tarnishing those who supported Trump as — guess what — racist. If they can do it once, they can do it again.