We Need a New Progressive Era of Renewal

Stan Greenberg

Stan Greenberg is a leading Democratic political strategist who was the senior pollster for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela. Stan is CEO of polling and consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and Co-Founder of non-profit political strategy firm Democracy Corps. His new book, ‘America Ascendant’, likens the current period of change to the Industrial Revolution. He was talking to Edward Amory.

Q: What’s your view on the global changes we are facing, most notably  the shift towards human capital and creativity?

I think this rhetoric is very real, and will be at the heart of the changes we face over the next few generations. But what needs attention is how people will respond to these shifts, and in particular, the necessary use of democratic institutions to mitigate the effects of these changes. I explain in my book ‘America Ascendant’ how the Industrial Revolution generated vast growth and productivity, which was largely concentrated in the US, because the US experienced 100 years of unregulated immigration and urban expansion. But following this, it produced a two-decade long period of reform to mitigate the effects of these drastic changes. At the heart of this was breaking the bond between politicians and big businesses to regain the trust of the American people, which then led to a cascade of progressive policies, such as restraints on monopolies, reduced tariffs, the income tax, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour working week in interstate commerce and women’s working conditions, that Woodrow Wilson called ‘The Progressive Era of Renewal.’

In our era we are seeing a similar story play out, due to unprecedented immigration rates and vastly improved education systems, which have helped create a new period of innovation. But just as the US did after the Industrial Revolution, we now need the correct processes in place to mitigate these global changes.

Q: Given the rise of Donald Trump and similar characters across our political systems, is the democratic process actually exacerbating the problem, rather than mitigating it?

Trump did better than he deserved to do, because the way the American constitution functions means rural areas tend to be dramatically over-represented. This is at a time when the Indigo Era is driving more and more people into the cities. For example, two thirds of millennials with a regular college degree have moved to the largest 50 cities in the US. And while Obama won 26 of the 30 largest metropolitan areas and over three quarters in the urban core, the Democratic party’s electoral impact is dampened by the way the US Constitution works. Eventually, the political system will have to catch up with the demographic changes we’re seeing.

Q: Would you say that at the heart of the mitigation process must be the breaking of ties between politicians and businesses?

Yes, and I think millennials play a big part in that. Recent figures showed that nearly 60 per cent of millennials believe we need radical change, not just incremental change. With so much distrust of corporations, banking and Wall Street, young people react against a political process they have come to view as corrupt. Their demand to clean up money and politics reminds us of the demand for reforms that changed America a century earlier. Millennials are engaged and they are the most optimistic about what the future brings. That is why I’m so optimistic about America.

Q: How does this all play out in Europe?

Take immigration as an example. Globalisation makes itself heard in growing migration, and one in five migrants in the world are in the United States. There, Trump gained support among the anti-immigrant Republicans because he was the only candidate willing to make immigration his highest political priority. While all the other candidates were shying away from this issue, Trump had nothing to lose and so used inflammatory rhetoric about the threat, and thus he owned ‘the immigration issue.’

The US is the only country I know that has a framework for dealing with its growing immigration and diversity. In Europe, I don’t think there is any country where a politician can say, “We are a multicultural country and our goal is to build our future around that identity.”

I believe immigration was the main reason that the Brexit vote won the EU referendum. I battled over a long number of years working for Labour, working with Tony Blair through three General Elections, trying to get them to deal first with asylum seekers and then immigration. I also tried with Gordon Brown, and with Ed Miliband who struggled to get support delivering a major speech on immigration through his entire five years.  I have seen no European leader able to address the immigration issue in a way that wins public trust or wins electoral support. There are also two very different demographic dynamics in the US and Europe underpinning this difference. In the US electorate, the millennials are the fastest growing group and are also driving the overall culture, while in Europe the vote is still dominated by older generations.

So because Europe has failed to develop a formula for migration that works, it is unable come to terms with globalisation, and that is a problem for its future, but not necessarily for the world as a whole.

Q: In a time when the globe could enter a new golden age or alternatively take a darker course, what is the role of leaders in navigating that choice?

Well I’ve spent my life trying to help with transformative leaders, including the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela. Mandela is the leader who has taught me the most about leadership. I think Clinton and Blair would say the same. I spent a sustained amount of time with ‘Madiba’ in different periods of his struggle to bring change. He was always learning, humble when he needed, respectful of opponents, balancing many goals, so I came to appreciate the complexity of him as a person, and that contributed to his success. He could adapt when others couldn’t, he had flexibility in tactics, but never in values. As he made the transition from freedom fighter to party leader to president, his national project changed dramatically, but his values never wavered. Above all, he was able to persuade citizens who didn’t share his history or background, or approve of his policies, to trust him enough to make a new national compact. Many ANC leaders were sceptical, but the electorate trusted him completely.

Q: So what can we learn from him?

I learned about how a leader builds a trusted relationship with citizens. Mandela lectured his constituents on their responsibilities as citizens, but he also lectured other leaders on their obligation to “make a better life for all.”  He was a complicated, educative leader who did not pander but who always worried out loud, “How does it impact the poorest?”

Right now, there is a huge elite distrust problem around the world.

Economic and political elites are now seen to be allied, without a real understanding of what is happening in the lives of ordinary citizens.

In Britain when Labour was in power, the political class was seen to be living in its own world and lost touch.  And part of the reason for Brexit was a reaction against the elites that were out of touch. It is the same story in the US. Bernie Sanders and Trump did relatively well in their party primaries because they attacked the elites who were losing track of the average voter. In the US, millennials believe the system to be corrupt due to the tight bond between money and politics. Immigration affects ordinary people and is riling politics everywhere.

Above all, it’s because the elites are comfortable with globalisation and migration, and aren’t thinking about what this means for the average person.  So when we think about leadership, and how it will navigate us through the Indigo Era, understanding and combating this disconnect between elite and average people will be absolutely key to re-establishing trust.