The UK’s shock decision to exit the European Union has left a foreboding shadow over the American political landscape, sending the U.S.—and the world—a stark warning about the dangers of a disaffected working class and the power of negative politics.
Conservatives worldwide have been heralding Thursday’s vote as a victory for “the people” over the “political elite.”
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for U.S. president, was quick to heap praise on the result, comparing it with his own campaign, which has similarly preyed on the frustrations of an economically-insecure population, sowing fears about outsiders to garner support.
“Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing,” the New York billionaire declared from Scotland, where he arrived Friday for the reopening of a golf resort.
“People are angry all over the world. They’re angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over and nobody even knows who they are,” he continued. “They’re angry about many, many things in the UK, the U.S. and many other places. This will not be the last.”
“The EU has not listened to its constituents. Like other self-absorbed ruling classes, including those in the United States, it is now paying for its arrogance.” —columnist Stephen Kinzer
While many are pointing to the overt xenophobic rhetoric that enabled the “Leave” campaign to win a narrow majority of votes, observers are highlighting how it was the policies of the European Union’s political establishment—austerity, deregulation, globalization—that drove those voters into the arms of the conservative campaigners.
As Padraig Reidy, editor of the London-based magazine Little Atoms wrote Friday, “The vote was a reflection a growing divide between a metropolitan elite that has flourished in a globalized economy and a populist anger on the part of those who feel left behind.”
As former international correspondent Stephen Kinzer explained in the Boston Globe:
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“The EU has not listened to its constituents,” he added. “Like other self-absorbed ruling classes, including those in the United States, it is now paying for its arrogance.”
Indeed, the parallels with the United States are clear. In the lead up to the November elections, rampant inequality continues to grip the nation while campaign finance laws push lawmakers to unabashedly peddle policies that solely benefit the corporate elite.
Distrust of the American political establishment enabled at least one outsider candidate, Trump, to dominate a major party while, Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee, has been plagued by consistently high “unfavorability” ratings—largely because of her entrenchment in the political class.
Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders—whose outsider bid drew a massive swell of support during the Democratic primary—said Friday that the vote to leave the EU was a testament to the failure of the global economy.
“What this vote is about is an indication that the global economy is not working for everybody,” he told MSNBC. “It’s not working in the United States for everybody and it’s not working in the U.K for everybody. When you see investors going to China and shutting down factories and laying off […] millions of people, people are saying, ‘You know what, the global economy may be great for some people but not for me.'”
“So what we need to do,” Sanders continued, “is create a situation where there is more international cooperation—put an end to these horrific wars that we have seen over the years—but at the same time we must make sure we do not forget about the people left behind, and make sure we have jobs, and income, and healthcare for all of our people.”
Like the rise of Sanders and Trump in the United States, the vote was “a stunning rejection of Great Britain’s political establishment,” wrote Richard Eskow of Campaign for America’s Future.
The Leave campaign, Eskow explained, “prevailed despite opposition from all three major political parties” in the UK, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama, who “crossed the Atlantic to stand beside Cameron and offer his support.”
“Voters rejected all of them,” Eskow added. “The uprising has begun. The question now is, who will lead it going forward?”
“From Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, from the Austrian far-right to the rise of the Scottish independence movement, this is an era of seething resentment against elites,” said Guardian columnist Owen Jones. “That frustration is spilling out in all sorts of directions: new left movements, civic nationalism, anti-immigrant populism.”
As for how this dynamic will play out in the United States, only time will tell.
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