Brexit — the stunning British vote to leave the European Union — is a clear and dramatic rebuke of the country’s political and economic elites. A majority voted to leave even though the heads of the United Kingdom’s two major parties, more than a thousand corporate and bank CEOs, legions of economists, the leaders of Europe and the United States, and the heads of the international financial organizations all warned of dire consequences if they did not vote to remain.
For Americans, one question is whether this result has implications for the 2016 presidential campaign. Political sea changes tend to cross national boundaries. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 tracked the rise of Margaret Thatcher to power in Great Britain. Bill Clinton’s New Democrats were mirrored by Tony Blair’s New Labour Party. So does Brexit presage the rise of Donald Trump in the United States?
The Leave campaign slogan — “Take back control” — is mirrored by Trump’s “Make America great again.” The same economic insecurities, the sense of the system being rigged, the racial fears and the anger at immigrants that fueled the Leave campaign have elevated Trump’s candidacy. Like Trump, the Leave campaign expressed its scorn for experts and politicians. Like Trump, the campaign told a clear story to voters about how they got in the fix they are in, and who is to blame.
In Britain, the vote divided along the lines of education, class and age. The better educated, more affluent and younger voted to stay. The less educated, less affluent and older voted to get out. Those campaigning to leave made appeals based on sovereignty, race and nativism. They campaigned against unaccountable bureaucrats and disdainful elites who rigged the system against working people. What surprised pollsters was the strong turnout by non-college educated, older working people, who lined up to register their discontent.
There is a clear warning here for Hillary Clinton. She is the quintessential establishment candidate, having been in Washington for the last 25 years. She has presented herself as a continuation of the Obama years. Her experience and expertise are universally acknowledged. But she is the candidate of the status quo at a time when people are looking for change.
Our political and economic elites tend to be in denial. They profit from globalization, take pride in the exercise of American power abroad, live in affluent communities, and often are closer to their international peers than to their poorer neighbors. They don’t see the America that has been ravaged by our ruinous trade policies. They avoid the killing streets of our impoverished urban neighborhoods. They were shaken by the Great Recession but largely have recovered. They don’t see that most Americans have lost ground over the course of this century. They simply don’t understand the scope of their failure to make this system work for working people — for the majority of Americans.
The Brexit vote showed that it is not enough to scorn the lies, exaggerations and divisive racial appeals of a demagogue. The Remain vote in Britain was explicitly a status quo vote — the EU isn’t great, it seemed to say, but it is what we’ve got and our elites and experts say change would be catastrophic. But when people feel that the elites have failed them, that the system has been rigged to favor the few, that things are getting worse, not better, the invocation of authority in defense of the status quo loses force. People want to know what you will do to make things better. You’ve got to be able to tell a more convincing story that explains how we got where we are, who is to blame and what can be done about it. This is a lesson that Clinton surely understands.
The Brexit vote also reveals the comparative strength of the Democratic coalition here in the United States. Young people in Britain voted overwhelmingly against leaving; young people here will not vote for Trump. Minorities and immigrants — a much smaller portion of the population in Britain — voted against leaving; minorities here will not vote for Trump’s racist politics. The question is only whether the young and minorities will turn out in large numbers or whether, uninspired, they will stay home in large numbers. Turning them out also requires a campaign that gives them hope for a change, not simply a promise of more of the same.
Brexit is a warning. There will be a reckoning. A divisive demagogue like Trump can profit in such times, but the politics of inclusion can beat the politics of division — but only by offering people a new deal that gives them hope.