Major political events in recent times, from Brexit to the U.S. presidential elections, have been framed in the context of a debate between “open” and “closed” rather than “left” or “right.”
In a changing political landscape where President Donald Trump is a nominal Republican but runs on an anti-establishment “drain the swamp” platform; tears up trade agreements; institutes new tariffs on aluminum and steel; and famously advocates the construction of a wall on the border to Mexico, voter categories of “open” and “closed” can in fact better explain his election success.
In the U.K., a growing divide between open and closed voters was equally used to interpret the result in the British referendum to leave the European Union.
A new study by U.K. think tank Global Future claims that the “political axis is rotating” and that the elections of the future will be decided in the battle over a growing group of voters that favor “openness.”
Open voters, the report argued, consider multiculturalism, diversity and immigration favorably and would like their country to take an internationalist outward-looking approach to the world. Closed voters, in contrast, see these issues more skeptically.
A survey that measured voter attitudes found a significant generational divide between 18- to 44-year olds who tend to favor “openness” and those aged over 45, who were more inclined to support the “closed” argument.
The survey showed that under-45s strongly believe that immigration and multiculturalism have changed Britain for the better. The majority of over-45s say they have made Britain worse. Younger people regard overseas aid and the European Union as “forces for good,” while older voters on balance consider them “forces for ill.”
Younger survey participants expressed that increased diversity had a positive effect on the U.K., whereas the older group believe the effect is negative. The same applies to the views on the right of free movement for EU citizens. Again, younger people overwhelmingly consider it favorably, whereas those over 45 regard it negatively.
Three in five people under 45 describe themselves as internationalist/globalist rather than nationalist, while the majority of the older group say they are nationalists.
The same stark generational divide appears in social values such as attitudes toward gay marriage, feminism, measures to promote equality and human rights laws.
In short, the two age groups have considerably different world views.
In the past, simple economic characteristics like profession, home ownership and income were sufficient to determine whether someone was more likely to vote Tory or Labour, right or left, in the U.K. Age only became a factor because property assets, higher income and senior positions are typically attained later in life.
For Conservative Party strategist Lord Andrew Cooper, these political certainties started to change a few years ago and the political axis has turned to such an extent that the way people vote is now increasingly determined by cultural rather than economic characteristics.
“These days, a far better way of predicting how someone will vote is to discover whether they live in an ethnically and religiously diverse area, the density of the local population around them, how they define their national identity, or what their feelings are toward minority communities,” he writes in the report.
Cooper states that the referendum on EU membership was, for most voters, not just about whether they and their families would be better off with Brexit but a “binary choice between two fundamentally different reactions to the realities of globalization: nationalism or internationalism?”
A year later, the U.K. general elections were more influenced by voter feelings toward Brexit than by the political platforms of the parties.
“The political axis is rotating not just because of the referendum vote for Brexit, but because that vote connects directly to a spectrum of deep values that add up, for many people, to their whole worldview. This explains why the gulf between Remainers and Leavers has tended to widen, not narrow since the referendum,” Cooper notes.
Analyzing voting behavior according to “value tribes,” groups of people who share similar values and outlook on life is not new.
British political commentator David Goodhart has a distinct take on the notion of open and closed by separating the Anywheres from the Somewheres. In his book “The Road to Somewhere,” Goodhart described the main political faultline in the U.K. and other places as between those who are rooted in a specific community and socially conservative and the urban, socially liberal and typically university educated.
For Goodhart, Anywheres have “progressive individualist politics, which prioritize openness, autonomy and cognitive ability, have dominated policy for more than a generation and promoted, among other things, the two ‘masses’ – mass immigration and mass higher education.” The Somewheres in turn are “people who value stability, familiarity and more parochial group and national attachments and have experienced the declining status of so many non-graduate jobs.”
Goodhart’s analysis explains the Brexit vote outcome equally well but in his view Anywheres only make up a fifth to a quarter of the U.K. population.
Global Future, on the other hand, claims in its analysis that open attitudes are far more common and will grow over time.
The approach to analyzing voter behavior based on open and closed attitudes is not confined to the U.K.
The model used by Global Future combines economic factors such as income, occupation, home ownership, health and benefit claims in a dimension labeled security.
The security score is contrasted with a diversity dimension which aggregates factors such as ethnicity, immigration, age, and urban or rural location.
In the U.S., this model reveals that age is a key variable for a range of attitudes and values.
Authoritarian and socially or culturally conservative and nationalist attitudes correlate very strongly with the demographics of low security/low diversity scores, while socially and culturally liberal and globalist attitudes are more likely to be shared by those with high security/high diversity scores.
Naturally, the model does not predict the attitudes of everyone within these categories but indicates general trends.
When the model is applied to U.S. presidential elections since 1980, it shows that over time the average Republican voter has rotated from a high security/low diversity rating to a low security/low diversity score. The average Democrat voter meanwhile has shifted from a low security/high diversity score to a high security/high diversity rating.
In other words, open and closed factors are a much more stable indicator than economic factors for whether someone votes Republican or Democrat.
“Similar shifts, with traditional parties of the left increasingly appealing to more affluent, more diverse voters while traditional parties of the right increase their support from less affluent, less diverse voters, are apparent in other recent elections around the world,” the report concluded.
In the U.K., for instance, the average voter who switched to Labour in the last election was relatively better off, middle class, well educated and living in an area of high ethnic diversity. The Conservative Party in contrast increased its share of votes in many working class Labour heartlands.
In Europe, traditional parties of the left, such as the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Socialist Party of France, recently suffered their worst election results as right-wing parties made significant gains among low income voters with a preference for “closed” attitudes.
Not everybody is buying into the effectiveness of open and closed categorization.
Adrian Wooldridge, columnist in The Economist, says that many people who claim to have open attitudes are in fact very much closed when it comes to their own personal lives.
The typical argument is that the more educated people are, the more they are in favor of globalization, because they are much more able to adapt to its pressures.
Professional groups like lawyers or doctors, in addition, use licenses to restrict competition.
“Many of the supporters of openness thus occupy the best of both worlds: they live in fortified islands when it comes to their jobs and the value of their most important asset, with formal and informal barriers reinforcing each other,” Wooldridge writes. “But they can also benefit from competition when it comes to employing nannies and cleaners, getting their dry cleaning done or going out to dinner. Attitudes that look virtuous and open-minded from one perspective look opportunistic and self-interested from another.”
For Wooldridge, middle class people are more open about globalization because they tend to be in service industry jobs that are more insulated from international competition than manufacturing jobs.
He predicts “middle-class protectionism will be the wave of the future,” stating that “middle-class support for open economies will change radically in the future as middle-class people find themselves challenged by two forces – clever machines that reduce the supply of cerebral jobs, and clever people from the emerging world who compete for their jobs.”
Changing attitudes with age
One key issue in the open versus closed debate is whether younger “open” people will change their attitudes as they get older.
“As the generations of young people who have grown up comfortable with a diverse, multicultural Britain get older, we can expect to see Open voters becoming the majority in older and older age groups in future,” Global Future says in its report.
Wooldridge disagrees, stating that young people with few responsibilities are likely to be more tolerant to “drugs, loud music and general social mayhem than older people who are bringing up children” and people who have not bought their first house “are more hostile to the greenbelt.”
Conservative strategist Cooper in contrast says the “patronizing” line that younger people vote with their hearts and older people with their heads simply does not apply.
Cooper contends that open and closed attitudes are a function of the fundamentally different worlds in which the two groups have grown up.
The under 45s have spent “their entire adult lives in the post-Soviet rapidly globalizing internet era – the world of free movement of people, the age of Amazon, Google, Apple, a time of growing transparency and ever more openness.”
The people who remember the world before this “economic, political and cultural upheaval are much more likely to feel insecure about the breadth and pace of change,” he says.