The outcome of last week’s vote concerning Britain’s membership in the European Union has set off anguished cries and handwaving across much of the internet and the mass media. The unexpected defeat of the pro-EU camp, though, has important lessons to offer, and not just for those of my readers who live in Britain; the core issues underlying the Brexit referendum are also massive realities in many other countries right now, and will likely play a very large role—quite probably a decisive one—in this year’s presidential race here in the United States.
Now of course part of the outcome has to be put down to the really quite impressive incompetence of the Remain campaign. The first rule of political campaigning is that if something isn’t working, it’s time to try something else, but apparently that never occurred to anybody on the pro-EU side. From the beginning of the campaign to its end, very nearly the only coherent arguments that came out the mouths of Remain supporters were threats about this or that awful thing that was going to happen if Britain left the EU. Weeks before the election, as a result, faux headlines yelling BREXIT WILL GIVE YOU CANCER, EXPERTS WARN and the like had already become a common topic of internet humor.
That was bad enough—when the central theme of your campaign becomes a punch line, you’re doing something wrong—but there was another point that everyone in the pro-EU camp seems to have missed. Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron spent much of the campaign insisting that if Britain left the EU, there would be harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons. The difficulty here was of course that Cameron’s government had already inflicted harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons, and showed every sign of doing more of the same—and “Brexit Will Do What We’re Doing Anyway” somehow didn’t have the clout that Cameron apparently expected it to have.
More generally, Remain supporters never got around to offering positive reasons for Britain’s EU membership that would convince those who weren’t already on their side. Instead, they simply insisted that “any thinking person” would vote Remain, and anyone who disagreed had to be a xenophobic Nazi moron. Their behavior in the wake of defeat has by and large been the same, alternating between furious statements that the 52% of Britons who voted to leave the EU must all be drooling fascist bigots, and the plaintive insistence that people couldn’t possibly have intended to vote the way they did, and can we please have the vote all over again?
Absent from the entire Remain repertory, before as well as after the vote, was any sense that the question of continued EU membership for Britain involved substantive issues about which it was possible to have reasoned disagreement. It should have been obvious that telling people that their concerns don’t matter, and berating them with schoolyard insults when they demur, was not going to convince them to change their vote. That this was not obvious to the pro-EU camp, and shows little evidence of becoming any more obvious even in the wake of defeat, hints that the issues in question are things that the pro-EU camp is utterly unwilling to see discussed at all.
I suggest that this is exactly what’s going on, and a glance back across the last century or so of British political history may help point out the unspoken realities behind the shouting.
A hundred years ago, two parties dominated the British political landscape: the Conservatives (aka Tories) and the Liberals. Both parties were run by and for the affluent. While a series of electoral reform bills over the course of the nineteenth century brought more and more British men into the electorate—British women got the vote in two stages, with wealthy women over 30 admitted to the electorate in 1918 and all adult women in 1929—both parties readily learned the trick of dangling meaningless favors in front of the poor to get them to vote in the interest of their soi-disant betters.
The rise of the Independent Labour Movement, the forerunner of the Labour Party, was a masterly counterstroke to this kind of political gamesmanship. Instead of letting themselves be led about by the nose for the benefit of the affluent minority, the ILM and then the Labour Party put the interests of working people and the poor at the forefront of their agenda, and refused to be bought off with scraps from the tables of the rich. By 1945, as a direct result, the Liberal party had been reduced to irrelevance and the Labour Party became one of the two major parties in British politics.
In Britain as well as America, the pendulum started swinging the other way in the last quarter of the century. The triumph of Margaret Thatcher in the 1978 general election had the same role there as Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 did over here: a new, more aggressive conservatism took up the Left’s rhetoric of class warfare with a vengeance and inverted it, ushering in an era in which the rich rebelled against the poor. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, in turn, responded to that shift the same way that the Democrats did under Bill Clinton: both parties quietly dropped their previous commitments to the working class and the poor, and focused instead on issues that appealed to affluent liberals. They gambled that the working class and the poor would keep voting for them out of habit and misplaced loyalty—and over the short term, that gamble paid off.
The result in both countries was a political climate in which the only policies up for discussion were those that favored the interests of the affluent at the expense of the working classes and the poor. That point has been muddied so often, and in so many highly imaginative ways, that it’s probably necessary to detail it here. Rising real estate prices, for example, benefit those who own real estate, since their properties end up worth more, but it penalizes those who must rent their homes, since they have to pay more of their income for rent. Similarly, cutting social-welfare benefits for the disabled favors those who pay taxes at the expense of those who need those benefits to survive.
In the same way, encouraging unrestricted immigration into a country that already has millions of people permanently out of work, and encouraging the offshoring of industrial jobs so that the jobless are left to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of jobs, benefit the affluent at the expense of everyone else. The law of supply and demand applies to labor just as it does to everything else: increase the supply of workers and decrease the demand for their services, and wages will be driven down. The affluent benefit from this, since they pay less for the services they want, but the working poor and the jobless are harmed by it, since they receive less income if they can find jobs at all. It’s standard for this straightforward logic to be obfuscated by claims that immigration benefits the economy as a whole—but who receives the bulk of the benefits, and who carries most of the costs? That’s not something anybody in British or American public life has been willing to discuss for the last thirty years.
The problem with this kind of government of the affluent, by the affluent, and for the affluent was outlined in uncompromising detail many years ago in the pages of Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History. Societies in decline, he pointed out, schism into two unequal parts: a dominant minority that monopolizes the political system and its payoffs, and an internal proletariat that carries most of the costs of the existing order of things and is denied access to most of its benefits. As the schism develops, the dominant minority loses track of the fundamental law of politics—the masses will only remain loyal to their leaders if the leaders remain loyal to them—and the internal proletariat responds by rejecting not only the dominant minority’s leadership but its values and ideals as well.
The enduring symbol of the resulting disconnect is the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the last three French kings before the Revolution secluded themselves from an increasingly troubled and impoverished nation in order to gaze admiringly at their own resplendent reflections. While Marie Antoinette apparently never said the famous sentence attributed to her—“Let them eat cake”—the cluelessness about the realities of life outside the Hall of Mirrors that utterance suggests was certainly present as France stumbled toward ruin, and a growing number of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen turned their backs on their supposed leaders and went looking for new options.
That’s what has happened in Britain in recent decades, and the last few elections show it. In the general election of 2010, voters blindsided pollsters and pundits alike by flocking to the Liberal Democratic party, until then a fringe party. That was an obvious demand for change, and if the Lib-Dems had stuck to their guns, it might have resulted in the eclipse of the Labour party within a few more years, but the Lib-Dems chose instead to cash in their ideals and form a coalition with the Tories. In the 2015 general election, as a direct result, the Lib-Dems were flung back out onto the fringes.
2015 had an even more significant result, though. In an attempt to head off the UK Independence Party (UKIP), another fringe party showing worrisome gains, Tory PM David Cameron pledged that if his party won, the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership. Polls claimed that Parliament would again be split three ways between Conservatives, Lib-Dems, and Labour. The pollsters and the pundits were blindsided again; apparently a good many people who claimed they were going to vote for Labour or the Lib-Dems got into the privacy of the voting booth and cast their vote for their local Tory instead. Why? Thursday’s vote suggests that it was precisely because they wanted a chance to say no to the EU.
Fast forward to the Brexit campaign. In polite society in today’s Britain, any attempt to point out the massive problems with allowing unrestricted immigration onto an already overcrowded island, which can’t provide adequate jobs, housing, or social services for the people it’s got already, is dismissed out of hand as racism. Thus it’s not surprising that quite a few Britons, many of them nominally Labour voters, mumbled the approved sound bites in public and voted for Brexit in private—and again, the pollsters and the pundits were blindsided. That’s one of the downsides of the schism between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat; once the dominant minority loses the loyalty of the masses by failing to deal with the needs of those outside the circles of affluence and privilege, sullen outward conformity and secret revolt replace the mutual trust that’s needed to make a society function.
The EU, in turn, made a perfect target for disaffected voters among the working class and the poor because it’s entirely a creature of the same consensus of the affluent as the Labour party after Tony Blair and the Democratic Party after Bill Clinton. Its economic policies are guided from top to bottom by the neoliberal economics that came into power with Thatcher and Reagan; its unwavering support of unrestricted immigration and capital movement is calculated to force down wages and move jobs away from countries such as Britain; its subsidies inevitably end up in the pockets of big corporations and the well-to-do, while its regulatory burdens land heaviest on small businesses and local economies.
This isn’t particularly hard find out—in fact, it takes an effort to avoid noticing it. Listen to people bemoaning the consequences of Brexit in the latest reports from the British media, and you’ll hear a long list of privileges mostly relevant to the affluent that the speakers worry will be taken from them. Aside from a few fringe figures, those who voted for it generally aren’t talking, since they’ve learned from bitter experience that they’ll simply be shouted down with the usual shopworn accusations of racism et al. If they were willing to talk, though, I suspect you’d hear a long list of burdens that have mostly landed on the ordinary working people so many of the affluent so obviously despise.
It’s probably necessary to note here that of course there are racists and xenophobes who voted for Brexit. Equally, there are people who have copulated with dead pigs who voted for Remain—I’m sure my British readers can name at least one—but that doesn’t mean that everyone who voted for Remain has copulated with a dead pig. Nor, crucially, does it prove that necrosuophiliac cravings are the only possible reason to vote for Remain. One common way to define hate speech is “the use of a demeaning and derogatory stereotype to describe every member of a group.” By that definition, the people who insist that everyone who voted for Brexit is a bigoted moron are engaged in hate speech—and it’s a source of bleak amusement to watch people who are normally quick to denounce hate speech indulging in it to their heart’s desire in this one case.
Let’s look deeper, though. There are, in fact, a significant number of poor and working-class Britons who hold deeply prejudiced attitudes toward foreign immigrants. Why? A large part of the reason is the fact that the affluent, for decades now, have equated racial tolerance with exactly those policies of unrestricted immigration that have plunged millions of the British working class into destitution and misery. In the same way, a great many poor and working class Britons couldn’t care less about the environment, and a large part of the reason is that the terms of debate about environmental issues have been defined so that the lifestyles of the affluent are never open to discussion, and the costs of environmental protection cascade down the social ladder while the benefits flow up. As Toynbee noted, when society splits into a dominant minority and an internal proletariat, the masses reject not only the leadership but also the ideals and values of their self-proclaimed betters. It happens tolerably often that some of those ideals and values really are important, but when they’ve been used over and over again to justify the policies of the privileged, the masses can’t afford to care.
Those Britons who are insisting that the majority doesn’t matter, and their country must stay in the EU no matter what the voters think, have clearly not thought through the implications of last Thursday’s election. Party loyalties have become very fluid just now, and the same 52% of British voters that passed the Brexit referendum could quite readily, with equal disdain for the tender sensibilities of the privileged minority, put a UKIP majority into the House of Commons and send Nigel Farage straight to 10 Downing Street. If the British establishment succeeds in convincing the working classes and the poor that voting for UKIP is the only way they can make their voices heard, that’s what will happen. It’s a very unwise move, after all, to antagonize people who have nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, a very similar revolt is under way in the United States, with Donald Trump as the beneficiary. As I noted in an earlier post here, Trump’s meteoric rise from long-shot fringe candidate to Republican nominee was fueled entirely by his willingness to put himself in opposition to the consensus of the affluent described earlier. Where all the acceptable candidates were on board with the neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics of the last thirty years—lavish handouts for the rich, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect of our infrastructure at home and a monomaniacal pursuit of military confrontation overseas—he broke with that, and the more stridently the pundits and politicians denounced him, the more states he won and the faster his poll numbers rose.
At this point he’s doing the sensible thing, biding his time, preparing for the general election, and floating the occasional trial balloon to see how various arguments against Hillary Clinton will be received. I expect the kind of all-out war that flattened his Republican rivals to begin around the first of September. Nor is Hillary Clinton particularly well positioned to face such an onslaught. It’s not merely that she’s dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a scale that would be considered unusually florid in a Third World kleptocracy, nor is it simply that her career as Secretary of State was notable mostly for a cascade of foreign policy disasters from which she seems to have learned nothing. It’s not even that on most economic, political, and military issues, Hillary Clinton is well to the right of Donald Trump, advocating positions indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—you know, the guy the Democrats claimed to hate not too many years back.
No, what makes a Trump victory in November considerably more likely than not is that Clinton has cast herself as the candidate of the status quo. All the positions she’s taken amount to the continued pursuit of policies that, in the United States as in Britain, have benefited the affluent at the expense of everyone else. That was a safe choice back when her husband was President, and both parties were competing mostly over which one could do a better job of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the already afflicted. It’s not a safe choice now, when Trump has thrown away the covert rulebook of modern American politics, and is offering, to people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for more than thirty years, a set of policy changes that could actually improve their lives.
Now of course that’s not what the politicians, the pundits, and the officially respectable thinkers of today’s consensus of the affluent are willing to talk about. The same dreary rhetoric applied to the pro-Brexit majority in Britain is thus being applied to Trump voters here in the United States. “Racist,” “fascist,” “moron”—all the shopworn, sneering tropes that the privileged use to dismiss the concerns of the rest of the population of today’s America are present and accounted for.
The passion with which these words are being flung about just now should not be underestimated. I had an old friend hang up on me in midsentence because I expressed a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton; we haven’t spoken since, and I have no idea if we ever will. Other people I know have had comparable experiences when they tried to discuss the upcoming election in terms more nuanced than today’s conventional wisdom is willing to permit. One of the most powerful and most unmentionable forces in American public life—class prejudice—pervades the shouting matches that result. To side with Clinton is to identify yourself with the privileged, the “good people,” the affluent circles gazing admiringly at themselves in the Hall of Mirrors. To speak of Trump in any terms other than cheap schoolboy insults, or even to hint that Trump’s supporters might be motivated by concerns other than racism and sheer stupidity, is to be flung unceremoniously outside the gates where the canaille are beginning to gather.
It has apparently not occurred to those who parade up and down the Hall of Mirrors that there are many more people outside those gates than there are within. It has seemingly not entered their darkest dreams that shouting down an inconvenient point of view, and flinging insults at anyone who pauses to consider it, is not an effective way of convincing anyone not already on their side. Maybe the outcome of the Brexit vote will be enough to jar America’s chattering classes out of their stupor, and force them to notice that the people who’ve been hurt by the policies they prefer have finally lost patience with the endless droning insistence that no other policies are thinkable. Maybe—but I doubt it.
Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the sky is black with birds coming home to roost. Some of them have already settled on the rooftops of London. More of them are hovering above an assortment of European capitals, and many more are wheeling above the marble domes and pediments of Washington DC. When they land, their impact will shake the world.