The stunning United Kingdom referendum vote to exit the European Union was in many ways a long time coming. Tories for years bemoaned the heavy hand of EU regulators and diminished British sovereignty. On one level, it was part of a long history of British antipathy toward the continent. But in this case, Brexit also tells us something about our own politics. It surely debunks the notion that our current turmoil is unique to the United States or can be attributed to one political charlatan.
The waves of alienation, dissatisfaction and anger lapping over American politics also hit Britain and other industrialized societies. The hangover from the 2008 worldwide recession continues, shaking confidence in institutions (public and private), elites and markets. The economic collapse was the most traumatic — but not the only — shock to large segments of industrialized societies — especially to older, less-educated, less-skilled workers displaced by technology and globalism. (Young people in the United Kingdom voted overwhelming to remain in the EU, older people to leave.)
Coupled with a sense that their country — much like themselves — has been disrespected and buffeted by ominous forces, the temptation is to indulge in conspiracy theories, blame outsiders and resort to political nihilism. Soon leaders don’t lead, hucksters emerge to play on fear and instantaneous social media intensifies public mood swings and propagates all sorts of myths. (Foreigners are stealing our jobs! Free trade is bad!)
A crisis in confidence, a sense of betrayal and real economic suffering are not therefore unique to the United States. Donald Trump is the result, not the cause, of the current political turmoil. He cannot be blamed on U.S. political elites — at least not those who resisted the rush toward nativism, xenophobia and protectionism. Brexit and Trump in a sense are both byproducts of the same economic trauma we have yet to address adequately.
Unfortunately, a lot of elites on the right and left (anti-immigrant right-wingers, anti-Wall Street left-wingers) fan the populist flames rather than work on difficult social and economic problems. Political and business leaders can acknowledge the instinct to batten down the hatches. They can see how economic uncertainty can devolve into the irrational politics of fear. They can see how easily resentment overwhelms sound policy. However, they should not encourage it.
Anti-free trade, anti-immigration and anti-interventionism sentiments may be part of an understandable backlash, but they are not constructive public policy. To the extent they fan bigotry, ignorance and anger, they are morally objectionable. Those in positions of responsibility in both the private and public sectors and ordinary citizens therefore have an obligation to keep their heads, deploy their common sense and retain their decency as they navigate choppy waters.
Britain, Europe and the world economy are going to take a hit from Brexit. The United Kingdom’s GDP decline due to exit from the EU is estimated to be 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent. The exit may be long and messy, with negative economic and political consequences for the West. The question, however, for Brits as well as Americans is how to respond to the underlying insecurities that give rise to populist spasms, counterproductive policies and dangerous demagogues.
Policymakers and opinion-shapers need to empathize with the plight of their fellow citizens, but their obligation is to first do no harm. Inciting polarization and perpetuating economic illiteracy are unacceptable and risk setting off destructive forces. We should praise constructive efforts, even those with which we may not entirely agree (e.g. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s policy proposals, Sen. Susan Collins’s gun legislation compromise) and try to cultivate a spirit of cooperative problem-solving.
It’s time for those hated elites to buck up and for citizens of good will to resist self-destructive policies and authoritarian hucksters. We have to be bigger, kinder and more sensible than we’ve been in recent years.