I have never felt so sad about the state of my country. As a British expat living in California, I have followed the Brexit campaign and the result with dismay. The decision to leave the EU is bad enough, but what it says about British politics is even worse. I have spent the last several days looking for some consolation. Here’s one: until Britain formally opens talks to leave there is hope that it might see some of the consequences more clearly and opt to stay–the referendum itself is not binding under British law. It may take years before people in the UK know whether they’re in or out.
My main hope, however, is that the crisis will force mainstream politicians in Europe and elsewhere to take the threat of populism more seriously. There are more and more politicians willing to stoke fear of other nationalities and religions, and when they also promise easy answers for economic frustration it’s a powerful mix. We have become used to the occasional report that these leaders almost won in France or Austria, perhaps assuming that they never would. After Brexit, such complacency has to go.
There are obvious parallels between Donald Trump and some of the Brexiteers. They appeal to the economically frustrated, to people whose parents had better job satisfaction and security than they do. It is easy for well-educated, well-off people like me to lament their opposition to globalization and their willingness to blame newcomers. But it’s not hard to see how strong these temptations might be if your life isn’t what you thought you had a right to expect as a citizen of a great country like Britain, America, or France.
If Britain is in crisis by November’s elections, that could be good news for the U.S. Voters might be more risk averse. But the immediate silver lining for anyone who does not want a Trump presidency is a blueprint for how not to persuade the discontented. Those who campaigned to keep Britain in the EU, including the Prime Minister, David Cameron, told disgruntled voters that leaving would make their situation worse. They urged people be sensible and vote for stability.
But a majority of the public were more willing to believe those who told them what they wanted to hear, that they could keep all the benefits of EU membership and gain more besides. It was clear to anyone who paid attention that the Leave campaign was deceptive, as when they said that Britain would recoup the £350 million it sent to Brussels each week–no matter that the actual figure was lower, and that much of the money came back to Britain in subsidies. But many voters thought Nigel Farage, who also expressed hostility to immigration, was more trustworthy than Cameron and co. His utter lack of experience in government seemed a plus. He also told people that their country had gone awry and that leaving the EU would help make Britain great again.
Hillary Clinton’s first response to Brexit was to criticize Trump’s “snarky tweets” on the subject and stress how the crisis underlines the need for experienced leadership. But if the anger simmering in the American electorate is anything like Britain’s, it’s likely that for some Trump’s tweets were more appealing than Clinton’s gravitas. As Labour in Britain and the Democrats in America joined their political opponents in embracing free markets, they alienated working-class constituents who don’t think those markets work so well for them. People are willing to leap into the dark with Farage or Trump because they don’t believe the existing political establishment cares.
What Clinton can do is less clear. It’s hard to imagine her recasting herself as a populist. She could try to inspire the electorate with a vision of change and hope, but that’s tricky after Obama promised just that yet rarely delivered. If she can find some way of disassociating herself from the status quo, that might help. At the very least, she needs to stop rolling her eyes at Trump. Insulting him insults his supporters. If Republicans want to ditch Trump at the convention, they have to figure out how to do so without alienating those who voted for him. That is probably impossible.
The best scenario is that politicians of every stripe in the UK, the US, and elsewhere wrestle more with the challenges of depressed communities, whether black or white, Christian or secular, post-industrial or agricultural, immigrant or not. Globalization is not evil: it has helped lift hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty over the past thirty years. Yet even the famously free-trade Economist is now acknowledging the steep costs of globalization for people who worked in the manufacturing sector in the West. No one seems to know what to do about it. But voter anger is focusing minds and that is a cause for hope.
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