The fallout from Brexit: Lessons for America

The fallout from Brexit: Lessons for America
7 min read
Comment: Well-planned, comprehensive economic policies to help the working and middle classes must be adopted if the US is to avoid Brexit-style hypocrisy, write Andrew Leber and Nicholas Morley
Trump's rhetoric parallels the likes of Farage and ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson [Getty]

The shock waves of the United Kingdom's European Union referendum will echo far and wide. Against the warnings of much of the British and global establishment - from Prime Minister David Cameron, hundreds of economists, health care professionals, and an alphabet soup of international organisations - a 52 percent majority opted to sever the UK's 40-plus-year membership with the EU.

Despite a rallying cry of "take back control" from the Leave campaign, it will be a challenging years-long process before the country has fully disentangled from EU affairs. In the meantime, the UK will struggle to enact coherent policies within its own borders, let alone renegotiate its economic relationship with the continent.

News of the Leave vote sent the British Pound falling off a cliff and wiped nearly $2 trillion off international markets. Cameron has announced his resignation while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces renewed challenges to his lackluster leadership. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has raised the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum while whispers of a breakaway are afoot even in Northern Ireland.  

Populism, nationalism and de-industrialisation

How could this have happened? The referendum tapped into unspecific concerns over regulation, trade, and money being sent to an opaque bureaucracy in Brussels, certainly, though the legitimacy of the Leave campaign's arguments on these points is less than credible. Both major parties struggled to sell the argument for Remain to their own rank and file, let alone the broader public.

The Democrats cannot make the mistake of the Remain campaign, waiting too long to rebuke the preposterous claims and simmering racism of their opponents

Above all, though, Leave voters, commentators, and politicians alike focused on immigration, which they spun as a looming threat to British employment and way of life. Infamously, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage posed in front of a line of dark-skinned migrants, implicitly warning voters that EU membership would leave Britain on the hook for the migrant crisis.

This xenophobia ignited a tinderbox of brewing resentment among the working and middle-classes of the developed world left behind by current global economics. "Immigration" provides a simple explanation - however deeply felt - for the lost benefits, the stagnant wages, and the elimination of so many jobs and industries deemed outmoded by technological advance or cheaper labour available abroad.

The EU referendum gave this resentment a clear opening by freeing voters burned by the neoliberal consensus to take aim at a governing elite seen as abandoning the working class, from the deep cuts and de-industrialisation in the Thatcher years on down to the neoliberal turn of the Labour Party from the 1990s on through to the Great Recession.

Trump's brand of xenophobia cannot stand if the world is to avoid an even more disastrous economic and social future

Not for nothing was the Leave vote strongest in England's depleted industrial heartlands such as Yorkshire and the Midlands. A clear target and a clear narrative further appealed to the voting bloc with consistently high turnout in elections: The elderly.

Such an outcome is not without precedent. In France, Austria, Greece and elsewhere across Europe, similar neonationalist, anti-immigration movements have seen their electoral fortunes rise as economic stagnation swells the ranks of disaffected working classes. At the same time, the arrival of migrants fleeing war and oppression is all too easily framed as a looming threat to economic livelihoods and national identity.

Brexit marks a breakthrough for these parties and their views. Nostalgic paranoia has finally prevailed, and threatens to spread elsewhere.

Trumpism in America

The United States faces a similar choice in the coming months as the presidential election nears. Donald Trump has made anti-immigration stances the core of his campaign. His plans include forcefully deporting 11 million illegal immigrants from the country, building a wall across the US-Mexican border, and instituting discriminatory immigration policies to limit the number of Muslims entering the US, for the sake of national security.

His rhetoric parallels the likes of Farage and ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, harkening back to fantastical golden ages while decrying the dangers of immigration and overwrought bureaucracy. His rallies walk a tenuous line between collective vitriol and endorsing violence. His claims of economic prowess are extremely suspect. Above all, he is no friend to a United States of America that derives strength from diversity and inclusion.

Trump's brand of xenophobia cannot stand if the world is to avoid an even more disastrous economic and social future. The Democrats cannot make the mistake of the Remain campaign, waiting too long to rebuke the preposterous claims and simmering racism of their opponents and assuming their case will be self-evident to voters.

Education could serve as a key policy area to challenge the "neoliberal consensus" in both state and national elections

The Republican party has all but folded to Trump's populist wave, jettisoning any "lessons learned" from Mitt Romney's failed 2012 bid for the presidency. The Democratic Party should respond not by timidly assembling a minimum winning coalition for the Presidency and banking on Trump's unelectability, but by leveraging divisions within the GOP's ranks to lay waste to Republican-held seats nation-wide. Defeating Trump by a slim majority is not enough - the true challenge is to undermine the appeal of xenophobia by blasting the Republican Party for what it has come to represent.

What is to be done?

Fear easily garners attention - shouting fire in a theater turns more heads than a thoughtful comment to a nearby friend. Democrats, and other movements opposing similar xenophobic populism across the world, now find themselves in the unenviable position of arguing against those claiming to see smoke.

While the evolution of the Democratic platform over the course of the primaries has been promising, there are further steps the party must take - and hold to. Well-planned, comprehensive economic policies to help the working and middle classes must be adopted and campaigned on to combat the easy answers Trump offers for economic woes. The IMF's recommendations  for the US economy might be a good place to start.

Education could serve as a key policy area to challenge the "neoliberal consensus" in both state and national elections. The sector has been hounded by privatisation and austerity policies across the EU and in the US. Thanks to Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation - maintained and supported throughout the Obama administration - public funding for schools has flatlined relative to costs, while administrative budgets in universities climb ever skyward.

If rural regions and the Rust Belt are simply expected to adjust to the knowledge economy of the future, then the very least a Democratic platform could do is provide them with the educational tools to do so. Policies clearly promoting a fairer, stronger, more comprehensive education system would help the Democratic candidates both against candidates benefiting from for-profit schools and officials bent on gutting their states' education.

A fine line separates political pragmatism from the kind of short-term, lowest-common-denominator politics that drove the neoliberal turn of the American left in the 1990s and now has driven the UK to leave the EU

On a tactical level, an ambitious scorched-earth strategy against the Republican Party could serve as a way to incorporate scores of enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporters and activists into an overall Democratic strategy. Given lukewarm support for presumed candidate Hillary Clinton across much of the party, smashing the power of the GOP nation-wide might motivate key activists to join the fray this fall rather than sitting on the sidelines. This engagement will prove crucial to Democrats in reaching out to constituencies that may not strictly matter in their electoral calculus, but in the long run will help shore up a more inclusive party base - and send a clear signal to the GOP should their Party suffer key losses in previously "safe" districts.

As a final point, the Democrats, and any modern society, cannot fall prey to the easy-out of fighting overt discrimination with more subtle, "acceptable" discrimination. Recent Democratic efforts such as utilising the once-maligned terror suspect no-fly list to restrict gun purchases represents such a danger. One cannot claim to be defending Muslims from Trump's angry rhetoric while upholding an opaque and discriminatory program as a means to further restrict (predominantly Muslim) citizens' rights.

A fine line separates political pragmatism from the kind of short-term, lowest-common-denominator politics that drove the neoliberal turn of the American left in the 1990s and now has driven the UK to leave the EU. Hypocrisy can come back to haunt the guilty. While the Brexit's hypocrisy is already being felt, the United States still has time to steer clear of its own. Doing so would save itself and its global partners plenty of grief.


Andrew Leber and Nicholas Morley are researchers, with Andrew a PhD student at Harvard's School of Government, and Nicholas a graduate of Brown University.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.