27 June 2016

By : Wimar Witoelar

The people of Britain have spoken. With exceptions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Brexit referendum shows that the people have chosen to Leave Europe, leaving the government and big business in shock and speculating. What can we learn from this, just days after the shock result?

We live in an age of globalization and global opportunities exist as local employment faces problems. Economic opportunities have never been so high globally but not everybody has access to these. With the exceptions of London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, all UK voted to exit the EU. The Leave vote was strong in the West Midlands and the Northeast, industrial lands that have lost significant employment.

 Anywhere in the world, lack of access to opportunities invite anxieties. Feelings of injustice cast blame is cast on the outside world. It feeds suspicion of foreign nationalities, world religions and international markets. Even when these enrich society, they are demonized by outsiders to the new global society.

Nigel Farage is like Donald Trump. Both prey on people who feel left out when their jobs are phased out because of outsourcing, technology, and innovation, key elements in the new economy. Older people are the majority in the Brexit Leave camp because they feel threatened by immigration and by foreign nationalities. Fear mongering obscures complex issues in the EU context. Farage leads the Independent Party in selling Brexit to people who think they are losing jobs to globalization and their security to immigrants. Trump takes the Republican Party to paths never traveled before.

Both Nigel Farage as well as Donald Trump portray their wealth as being the result of hard work in a native environment. When facts challenge these stories,  loyalists prefer not to listen. Basically the Brexit Leave votes, like the Republican Primary votes, are protest votes by disenfranchised constituencies. In the Brexit case, the protest movement has become mainstream except in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the Trump case, Donald Trump still has to pivot to a General Electrical campaign expanding from the protest minority. Trump faces stiff resistance from Republican Party leaders and elected officials who fear loss of their seats in the House and Senate elections this November. Instead of modifying his message, Trump has strongly endorsed Brexit as a victory of the common people in taking their country back, echoing his call to ‘Make America Great Again.’This is a big gamble, but Trump is not Trump if he does not gamble. His strength comes from being underestimated and winning gambles. While rational educated people scoff at his chances, desperate people support him because he is their role model.

The UK were a driving force behind the EU and both gained success because of mutual interests. But the fruits are not as widely distributed as the British political elite thought; many feel they are  underrepresented. David Cameron was so convinced that his group are in tune with the people that he called for a referendum to show his strength. The defeat was not anticipated by the damage huge. Outside of Britain, Europe feels the shock waves, Elections are coming up in France, Spain and elsewhere. Ultranationalists like Marie Le Pen in France are ready to exploit the same racist, nativist and underdog sentiments in the Farage-Trump mold.

In a doomsday scenario, negativity translates into political success for leaders like Adolf Hitler. When charismatic salesmen do not morph into responsible leaders then the intelligentsia is weakened politically and the populism divides the country. We are not sure if that’s what we are seeing in Brexit, but that’s what we are seeing in the Trump campaign. Fortunately the Trump campaign may have jumped the shark, it has gone too far. His sound bites are losing so much sense that many are tuning out.

On the other hand, that may be wishful thinking. After the Orlando killing, Trump lost support because of his ill thought-out ranting. After Brexit, his support of Brexit was expressed in the same casual nativist xenophobia but we have yet to see the feedback.

Emily Peck and Alexander C. Kaufman wrote in the Huffington Post that “The vote across the pond could serve us a perfect case study for [Trump] the reality-TV star’s ideas, which include deporting millions of people and banning an entire religious group from coming to the United States. These nakedly racist and nativist policies, plus the call to “make America great again,” are the American equivalent of the anti-immigration mood that drove English voters to turn against Europe.”

The weakness of democracy is that it can implode under the burden of rapidly empowered people who never chose to speak up or take part in any  political movements, then suddenly are inspired by half-truths used as battle calls by charismatic people. People will follow him into the deepest holes.When people vote in a referendum or national elections, it is not really about issues or even personalities but it’s about emotions and symbols.

The integrity and coherence of the European system has been damaged by the campaigning around Brexit. Similarly American liberal values have been damaged by the noise around the Trump campaign. It will take a long time to have these systems restored. Democracies that were founded hundreds of years come with rigid constitutional limitations, in a totally context of national borders and international employment. Isolation was the only option for nation building. Now globalization provides a choice for the world, but the political and economic elite must be sensitive to people who are losing their employment due to international competition.

The Brexit results is a hard lesson for anyone complacent about the US Presidential elections in November. Brexit didn’t happen because the Leave option is compelling; it is an emotional response based on lack of education, age and gender. Now the educated young people of all genders must make their voices heard through the noise.

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