‘The forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again.’ – Tweet from Donald Trump on the day of his election victory.
Over the last few hours, people have been quick to draw parallels between Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election and the Leave vote in the UK’s Brexit referendum earlier this year. At one point this morning, ‘Brexit and Trump’ was trending on Twitter as a phrase in its own right. There are definite similarities, not least the failure of the majority of polling data and experts to predict either result. On both sides of the Atlantic too, there are many people who voted as a reaction to years of not being listened to by political institutions and elites and of feeling powerless against policy interventions that made no positive impact on their day to day lives.
We do an injustice to people across the UK and USA if we assume that mere lack of education or misplaced fears about migration and the economy alone gave rise to the results we’ve seen in 2016. We miss out if we look only at the bigger picture, helpful as it is, and fail to see the dynamics which exist in urban and rural communities at a more local level. We need to concentrate on seeing the micro-level details and life experiences that shape political opinions beyond the bigger brushstrokes of race, ethnicity, class, income bracket or gender.
Now is the moment to begin taking the perspectives and opinions of local communities much more seriously. We cannot hope to learn from things we don’t try to understand and understanding begins with listening. Listening to the stories of individual people, whether they voted Trump or Clinton, Remain or Leave, or none of the above, however challenging we may find them Equally we have to find creative ways to engage with those on the margins of the political systems; while 17 million people voted to leave the EU, almost the same number didn’t vote at all. Policy must be built from the ground up not just the top down; to start from a position of genuinely recognising the needs and experiences of our communities, and the role they can play in taking decisions and shaping solutions. We need to take time to find out what those needs are and work with people, rather assuming what their problems might be and creating disconnected solutions. As some of our recent work at Young Foundation has found, places and communities often written off by institutions and elites, are valued positively by the people who belong to them an often in ways the national debate doesn’t always capture.
We use peer research and ethnographic research methods as vehicles for listening and understanding without any assumptions. Our co-creation process works by bringing all parts of a community together and giving legitimacy and voice to all their views and experiences. Our work supports and realizes the ideas people want to see and creates a new role for institutions to facilitate and enable rather than decide and implement from outside. Perhaps in one way we can take our cue from Donald Trump; he is right to point out that the forgotten men and women in disengaged communities should once again be remembered and heard. Now it is up to policy-makers, politicians and local institutions to work with those individuals and the communities they live in to ensure that their voices are meaningfully taken into consideration and that their options for participation do not stop at the ballot box. .We have to start letting people see that their voices matter and they can make a difference – backing the ideas people want, supporting them to lead these ideas from within their communities, and creating a new role for institutions to facilitate and enable rather than decide and implement.