Britain's forgotten voters — and ours
Britain's forgotten voters — and ours
By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
America, too, is experiencing a populist upheaval, of which Donald Trump’s candidacy is more of a symptom than a cause.
So the post-Brexit number-crunching is over and it turns out that the decisive support for Britain’s leaving the EU came not from right-wing nationalists but from working-class Labour voters. This offers some lessons for British and European politicians — and for us in America, too.
Much of Britain’s prosperity in recent years has centered on London, which has done very well and become very pleased with itself. As Peter Mandler writes in Dissent, this turned out to be a problem. London occupies a huge place in British society — as if Washington, D.C., New York, Hollywood, and perhaps Silicon Valley were all in the same place. But that leaves the rest of the country feeling somewhat left out, and deeply suspicious of the people running things, especially as the people running things seem to hold the rest of the country in contempt, openly mocking the traditional, the middle-class, the non-Metropolitan.
Mandler writes, “London, a young, thriving, creative, cosmopolitan city, seems the model multicultural community, a great European capital. But it is also the home of all of Britain’s elites—the economic elites of “the City” (London’s Wall Street, international rather than European), a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”
The result, Mandler writes, is that “For the rest of the country has felt more and more excluded, not only from participation in the creativity and prosperity of London, but more crucially from power. . . . A majority of people around the United Kingdom are feeling like non-people, un-citizens, their lives jerked about like marionettes by wire-pullers far away. In those circumstances, very bad things indeed can be expected.”
Given a chance, these people seized an opportunity to give the wires a yank of their own. A lot of people felt powerless, and the political system not only didn’t address that, but seemed to glory in it.
But will leaders learn the lesson? It seems doubtful. As Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle observed about the post-Brexit reaction, they mostly seemed to double down. “The inability of those elites to grapple with the rich world’s populist moment has been on full display on social media. Journalists and academics seemed to feel that they had not made it sufficiently clear that people who oppose open borders are a bunch of racist rubes who couldn’t count to 20 with their shoes on, and hence will believe any daft thing they’re told. Given how badly this strategy had just failed, this seemed a strange time to be doubling down. . . . Or perhaps they were just unable to grasp what I noted in a column last week: that nationalism and place still matter, and that elites forget this at their peril. A lot people do not view their country the way some elites do: as though the nation were something like a rental apartment — a nice place to live, but if there are problems, or you just fancy a change, you’ll happily swap it for a new one. In many ways, members of the global professional class have started to identify more with each other than they have with the fellow residents of their own countries. Witness the emotional meltdown many American journalists have been having over Brexit.”
America, of course, faces the same kind of division, as Dana Loesch writes in her new book, Flyover Nation: You Can’t Run A Country You’ve Never Been To. Every once in a while, she notes, a publisher or a newspaper from a coastal city will send a reporter, like an intrepid African explorer of the 19th century, to report on the odd beliefs and doings of the inhabitants of the interior. But even the politicians who represent Flyover Country tend to spend most of their time — and, crucially, their post-elective careers — in Washington, DC.
Over the past few decades, Washington has gone from a sleepy town with restaurants and real estate priced to fit a civil servant’s salary to a glittering city with prices that match a K street lobbyist’s salary. The disconnect from regular Americans is much greater. And the public expressions of contempt toward ordinary Americans — Loesch’s book collects quite a few — make things much, much worse.
America, too, is experiencing a populist upheaval, of which Donald Trump’s candidacy is more of a symptom than a cause. It seems unlikely that the political elites of Britain and the EU will take the Brexit vote as encouragement to raise their game. Will America’s political class do better? I hope so, but I’m not optimistic.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.