As divisive as the presidential candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been in the United States, Brexit – the referendum for Britain to leave the European Union – has been in Europe. By about 52% to 48%, Brits voted to leave, which stunned world financial markets, and led to the resignations of British political leaders in both the Remain and Leave camps.
It also led to widespread characterisation of Leave supporters as anything from stodgy, old nativists to racist troglodytes, and Remain supporters as anything from naive liberals to exploitative elites. By and large, the establishment media has lined up to demonize the Leave vote. Over at non-establishment The Young Turks, Cenk Uygur admitted he was sympathetic to Remain, though he understood the frustration that led to Leave prevailing.
This casting of opponents as fools mirrors the Trump phenomenon closely enough that Brown University economics professor Mark Blyth has quickly become an internet celebrity by calling the Brexit vote a version of, “Trumpism,” and explaining what it all means in his native Scots brogue. There are currently several youtubes of his Athens Interview , where he eventually moves on to the problems in Greece, and of his various anti-Austerity lectures.
In, The strange death of liberal politics, for The New Statesman, philosopher and lead book reviewer John Gray also tackles Brexit. I am not familiar with Gray, but he seems to have traveled the ideological path from Left to Right, thence to some sort of anti-neoliberal Green:
As it is being used today, “populism” is a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand. A revolt of the masses is under way, but it is one in which those who have shaped policies over the past twenty years are more remote from reality than the ordinary men and women at whom they like to sneer. The interaction of a dysfunctional single currency and destructive austerity policies with the financial crisis has left most of Europe economically stagnant and parts of it blighted with unemployment on a scale unknown since the Thirties. At the same time European institutions have been paralysed by the migrant crisis. Floundering under the weight of problems it cannot solve or that it has even created, the EU has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it lacks the capacity for effective action and is incapable of reform. … Europe’s image as a safe option has given way to the realisation that it is a failed experiment. A majority of British voters grasped this fact, which none of our establishments has yet understood.
If that doesn’t remind you enough of the Trump movement, consider the following:
… Telling voters who were considering voting Leave that they were stupid, illiterate, xenophobic and racist was never going to be an effective way of persuading them to change their views. The litany of insults voiced by some leaders of the Remain campaign expressed their sentiments towards millions of ordinary people. It did not occur to these advanced minds that their contempt would be reciprocated. …
And on to the EU criticism, which sounds a lot like Blyth’s:
Free movement of labour between countries with vastly different wage levels, working conditions and welfare benefits is a systemic threat to the job opportunities and living standards of Labour’s core supporters. Labour cannot admit this, because that would mean the EU is structured to make social democracy impossible. …This used to be understood … . Today the fact goes almost unnoticed, except by those who have to suffer the consequences.
And there’s the rub. Like the US under the Obama presidency, the EU has seen some very welcome social reforms. If you happen to be in the upper middle, comfortable classes, you may be loath to challenge the status quo. If you are closer to the edge, or already in desperate circumstances, you probably agree with Tyler Cowen, who saw the Brexit vote and the Trump/Sanders votes as, “the only lever,” available to register discontent.
Of course there are other levers, but they are harder to apply amidst all minutia of life. The elites and comfortable folk are playing a dangerous game by relying on more circus and less bread to keep it all going.