Brexit, Trump and globalisation’s have-nots
Two political events that are attracting global attention these days – the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States – have much in common. Just over half of UK voters chose “Brexit,” a result that has cast a long shadow over their country’s political system and economic prospects. Perhaps understanding the parallels between the two campaigns will help US voters avoid taking a similar path in November.
One parallel is that both campaigns were thoroughly underestimated, especially by experts and establishment figures. Just as the possibility of Brexit was initially dismissed, few political elites, Republican and Democratic alike, took seriously Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination.
Another similarity is that both campaigns have been based largely on implausible, even absurd, promises. In the UK, “Leave” campaigners assured voters that the UK could maintain access to the single market after withdrawing from the EU, while limiting the entry of European workers to the UK. They also declared that the GBP 350 million supposedly sent to the EU each week would be reallocated to the cashstrapped National Health Service.
Within hours of the referendum result, the “Leave” campaign’s leaders began to backtrack, spurring anger among many voters, particularly those whose support for Brexit had been driven by the desire to cut immigration. Yet Trump’s own implausible promises – including his pledges to construct a wall between the US and Mexico and bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas – still seem credible to many voters.
These parallels point to one conclusion: many workingand middle-class voters, who feel left behind by globalisation, are far angrier than establishment leaders realised. They can no longer be dismissed; instead, leaders must figure out how to address their concerns.
There are winners and losers in globalization. But a fundamental proposition in economics holds that when individuals are free to engage in trade, the size of the economic pie increases enough that the winners could, in proposals were consistent with Republican ideas. None of this bodes well for the losers of globalisation; they need leaders – of both parties, in Congress and the executive branch – who can come together to protect their interests.
Until recently, the British electoral system seemed to represent an admirably balanced approach. The two largest parties largely operated under competent and consistent leadership and represented relatively well-defined policy stances – centre-right for the Conservatives, and centre-left for Labour. In this environment, voters could base their choices on the issues at hand. And, under the parliamentary system, victorious prime ministers could work to carry out the policies on which they had campaigned.
Yet even Britain’s “competent” leaders sometimes made fatefully ill-advised decisions. From Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of a poll tax to Tony Blair’s support for the USled invasion of Iraq, to David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum, such decisions have undermined the British system.
What is left now, after Cameron, is a mess. The new crop of politicians shows little clarity or consistency. When the next election is held, voters could well be asked to choose between parties that do not correspond in any clear way to the relevant policy decisions that Britain must make – mainly, whether to seek to negotiate a relatively close association with the EU or to separate completely.
In this sense, American voters might still be better off than their British counterparts. Though Trump’s appearance indicates that the US political system has also deteriorated markedly, the Democrats still favour policies like wage insurance and universal health insurance, and the Republicans still oppose them. So, in November, American voters are still making a choice about one of the leading issues on their minds: whether to address the reality of globalisation by helping those who have been left behind, or to tilt at windmills, like the Brexiting British.