Of Brexit, Trump, and demographics: a reaction against modernity and an urgent need for a new politics

There’s much to be said about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the US’s decision to elect Donald Trump as president: above all, that we have in neither case seen a simple victory of ‘right’ over ‘left’. Leading conservatives in both countries had opposed the result that ultimately came to pass, and in both countries, the result was followed by a stock market fall, indicating that investors expected the supposedly ‘right wing’ option to be bad for business.

But for now I’d like to observe some important transatlantic similarities in the demographics of the winning and losing sides.

For this purpose, I shall compare the US election exit poll just published by the New York Times with the post-referendum polls carried out by YouGov and Lord Ashcroft, combined with the BBC’s analysis of the geographical distribution of actual referendum votes.

It would have been nice to compare figures directly, but the categories weren’t always the same (e.g. age bands were different, and the above sources provide US data on the voting of Catholics and Jews but not Muslims, and UK data on the voting of Muslims but not Catholics or Jews), so I’ve put summaries of comparable results into the table below. I’ve made no comparison of results where the picture was different in the two votes (e.g. in the US, men voted for Trump and women voted for Clinton, while gender appears to have played no role in the referendum result).

Point of comparison US Election UK Referendum
Younger voters According to the NYT, the young voted Clinton by 55% to 37% among under 30s and by 50% to 42% in the 30 to 45 bracket. According to YouGov, the young voted Remain by 71% to 29% among under 25s and by 54% to 46% in the 25-49 bracket. According to Lord Ashcroft, the young voted Remain by 73% to 27% among under 25s, 62% to 38% in the 25 to 34 bracket, and 52% to 48% in the 35-44 bracket.

Older voters According to the NYT, older voters went for Trump by 53% to 44% in the 45 to 64 age bracket and 53% to 45% among over 65s. According to Lord Ashcroft, older voters chose Brexit by 56% to 44% in the 45 to 54 bracket, 57% to 43% in the 55 to 64 age bracket, and 60% to 40% among over 65s. According to YouGov, older voters chose Brexit by 60% to 40% in the 50 to 64 age bracket and by 64% to 36% among over 65s.
Less educated voters According to the NYT, those without college degrees voted Trump, by 51% to 45% among those whose education went no further than high school and by 52% to 43% among those who had some college education or an ‘associate degree’.

According to YouGov, those without GCSEs or only with GCSEs (in American terms, people who didn’t finish senior high school) voted Leave by 70% to 30%, while those with A Levels but nothing higher (in American terms, people who finished senior high school but had no further academic education) were split evenly.

Lord Ashcroft writes that ‘[a]mong those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, a large majority voted to leave.’ (Secondary school finishes at the age of 16 and is where British pupils study for and take their GCSE exams.)

More educated voters According to the NYT, those with college degrees voted Clinton, by 49% to 45% among those without and by 58% to 37% among those with postgraduate education. According to YouGov, those with degrees of any kind voted Remain by 68% to 32%.

According to Lord Ashcroft, those with university degrees voted Remain by 57% for those with undergraduate degrees only and by 64% for those with postgraduate degrees.

Ethnicity According to the NYT, white voters went for Trump by 58% to 37%. Other ethnic groups voted Clinton, including 65% to 29% among those identified as Hispanic or Asian, and 88% to 8% among those identified as Black. According to Lord Ashcroft, white people voted Leave by 53% to 47%. Other ethnic groups voted Remain, by 67% among those identified as Asian and by 73% among those identified as Black.
Location According to the NYT, People living in urban areas of over 50 000 inhabitants voted Clinton by 59% to 35% while people living in smaller towns or in rural areas voted Trump by 62% to 34%. As the BBC observes, ‘for the most part, the metropolitan centres [in the UK] voted to remain. But the further from the big city centres one travels, the more emphatically people voted to leave.’
Religion According to the NYT, Christians voted Trump, by 58% to 39% among Protestants and other non-Catholics and by 52% to 45% among Catholics (despite the overall Latin vote having gone to Clinton). All other religious groups voted Clinton, especially Jews, who voted Clinton by 71% to 24%. According to Lord Ashcroft, Christians voted Leave by 58%, while Muslims voted Remain by 70%.

So there we have it. It appears that, in the United Kingdom as in the United States, the opinion that prevailed nationally was that which was held most strongly amongst old, uneducated, white Christians living in rural areas. Whatever the external image of the two countries, those are the people whose priorities have determined the future of both.

This is not about conservatism having overcome liberalism, nor about capitalism having overcome socialism. It’s about a reaction against modernity carried out in the name of a nostalgic and ethnically exclusive vision of lost ‘greatness’. For there to be any alternative to that destructive folly, those of us who recognise its dangers must find new ways of overcoming old divisions.

I don’t know what that new politics is going to look like, but the last few months have clearly shown what it will be up against: a nationalism that hates immigrants so much that it’s willing to crash the economy if that’s what it takes to get rid of them; a piety that hates women’s reproductive rights so much that it’s willing to vote for a philandering sexual predator provided that he’ll take them away.

Oh, and racism. An awful lot of racism. David Duke’s over the moon.