What America and Its Leaders Should Learn From Brexit (But Probably Won’t)

Days after Brits voted to leave the EU, what will actually happen is far from certain. Millions have signed a petition for a second referendum, which Prime Minister David Cameron claims won’t happen.

Leading Brexit proponent Sean Grady argues that Britain won’t actually leave anyway, as too many Brits fear they’ll be unable to weather the short-term pain that will precede any anticipated long-term gain.

Either way, the referendum was not legally binding so there are a number of options. Presumably the British government will be attempting to find a solution that gives them the best of both worlds.

Donald Trump was quick to praise the decision, saying “people want to take their country back and have independence,” while Hillary Clinton has long stated her support for the EU. With sentiment breaking down largely on conservative/liberal lines, that’s not much of a surprise. Their respective camps seem to feel differently about the effects.

For voters as well, both sides see more upside than downside for the candidate they support. A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll reported Clinton backers believe 26 to 13% the Brexit outcome will hurt Trump, while Trump supporters think it will help him by 37 to 5%.

Timothy B. Lee summarized via Vox the arguments for leaving the EU, which weren’t entirely the same for intellectuals and Brexit leaders as the population. British conservatives take issue with decades of EU treaties that have shifted power from individual member states to Brussels and “where the EU has been granted authority — like competition policy, agriculture, and copyright and patent law — EU rules override national laws” as well as imposing regulations where individual nations have little recourse. The emotional appeal was largely about the massive and underestimated numbers of immigrants coming into the country and the effect on broken local economies whose decline was blamed on the pressures of immigration and on the EU.

And of course, many Brits objected to billions of pounds in membership fees going to the EU every year for what they perceived as little in return. Even Prime Minister David Cameron, who favored remaining in the EU and will now be resigning later this year, was pursuing an agreement with other European leaders to create modifications in Britain’s membership.

The British government will be attempting to find a solution that gives them the best of both worlds.
Craig Berlin, IVN Independent Author

The plan moving forward will likely fall in-between extreme positions. Grady believes the European leaders get the message and will likely offer the British and others something that recognizes concerns over immigration, for starters. The vote recognizes a wave of sentiment that UK law should be more important than EU law. Depending on what relationship is concocted going forward, there will be a varying degree of influence for Brussels over Britain’s affairs if the exit happens. The UK could set policies based on World Trade Organization rules. There are many options between various extremes but whatever the British government decides has to be agreed by 27 other countries, each of which has veto power.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Brexit, and how it’s sentiment has broken down both abroad and in the U.S. lies in how ideologically opposed factions also perceived the EU as serving interests other than those of people. While many British conservatives see the EU as imposing “left-wing, big-government policies” on Britain, some on the British left argued EU’s “antidemocratic structure” benefits corporate elites and undermines labor and progressive policies.

Over here, Forward Progressives’ Allen Clifton blasted the Green Party’s Jill Stein for “siding with Donald Trump” when she praised the Brexit vote as “a victory for those who believe in the right of self-determination and who reject the pro-corporate, austerity policies of the political elites in EU” and “a rejection of the European political elite and their contempt for ordinary people.” Clifton, who has made salient points in the past highlighting how harsh critics of Christian conservatives in this country somehow cry foul when anyone makes similar observations about fundamentalist Muslims, somehow asserts that the Brexit vote “was about racism and bigotry — period,” which is clearly not a position based on any kind of remotely objective analysis.

Stein’s statement indicates there can be agreement from different camps and if we understand the issues, it doesn’t have to be about agreeing with Trump or Hillary Clinton. Beyond how the decision and its eventual implementation might affect the economy, what should Americans and their presumptive leaders learn from the situation?

The movement represented by the candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is characterized by a populism decidedly not happy with the Clinton and Bush years and sorely disappointed with the lack of hope and change during Obama’s term.  For a large swath of regular people who believe they have been sold down the river by elites more concerned with everyone from corporations to immigrants, a wind of change blew through that resulted in the most unconventional presumptive Republican candidate in recent history and an apparent near-miss from an independent-turned-Democrat challenger.

The approaches of Trump and Sanders would certainly be decidedly different but in one way, they would be largely the same: both want to make drastic changes at the federal level. How much should come from Washington has long been the subject of intense debate between liberals and conservatives and the parallels with the EU situation are too big to ignore. The EU is not a country like the United States, a country somewhat unique in its confederation of 50 semi-autonomous states, formally joined by the Constitution with specific powers delineated to the federal government. The original colonies were never sovereign nations and limited both the federal and state governments were limited in scope and power by the logistics of the times.

The EU, on the other hand, is a political and economic union founded in November of 1993, which is separate and distinct from NATO, a military alliance founded in 1949. The EU created agreements—actually, rules—that member nations had to follow. Regardless of possible buyer’s remorse, the Brexit vote, much like the ascent of Trump and Sanders, reflects a dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Peter Eavis, writing in the New York Times, observed:

“A well-functioning system of government can usually deal with competing forces in such a way that they don’t lead to drastic outcomes. Even when voters are mad, they don’t go for extreme solutions if they think their representatives will one day deliver. If enough people believe that the system is sufficiently responsive, it will probably survive.”

The United States, like other countries, has people and leaders with lofty goals, or at least many who make promises, without any truly viable plan to make them work. For many of us, the government is the expected solution to many of society’s ills.

Eavis points out, “one of the European Union’s biggest flaws is that it sets grand plans in motion — like the euro and the free movement of people — and then fails to come up with adequate responses when those ambitions backfire in some way.”

By the same token, our leaders throw money at problems with little in the way of accountability while others talk about indiscriminate cuts rather than reform. They make unsustainable commitments to special interests and then point the finger when the balance sheet is in the red. And, when frustration reaches the boiling point, Americans have started to realize the election process is decidedly less than democratic, from the primaries to the debates and in fact, the Electoral Integrity Project ranked U.S. elections the worst among longstanding democracies.

Then there is the argument regarding centralized control. Lee pointed out:

“[O]ver the past few decades, a series of EU treaties have shifted a growing amount of power from individual member states to the central EU bureaucracy in Brussels. On subjects where the EU has been granted authority — like competition policy, agriculture, and copyright and patent law — EU rules override national laws.”

In the U.S., there has long been an argument about balancing the scope of federal government and states’ rights. Regardless of where someone stands on this issue, one thing is certain: we are not a homogenous society and while the role of government envisioned by the Founders could not have included modern communications and travel, it seems that other than in regard to civil rights, we should understand that it’s OK for different states and different communities to be…different…and appeal to different types of people.

We have the ability to move freely where we wish to go: if you don’t like the taxes in California you can move to Texas. If Kansas is too conservative for you, perhaps you’d be happier in Vermont. If you love Louisiana but don’t like the atmosphere in New Orleans, perhaps Baton Rouge is a better choice. In each of these instances, individual communities and states having greater control allows for them to allow their local electorate to decide how their locality will be governed.

One-size-fits-all solutions from leaders perceived as far removed are often divisive and the USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll also revealed that despite the right/left disagreement on Brexit, Americans across party lines concur by a 4-to-1 margin the Brexit vote indicates anger and dissatisfaction that can be seen in other countries, including ours.

The pollsters spoke to individuals who saw common sentiment with voters here and abroad who feel “helpless about controlling things in their own countries,” “left behind” and “unhappy with the status quo” having lost control of their own destiny.

Americans and their leaders would do well to learn to better prioritize what should be addressed at the federal level and what shouldn’t be. Some things, such as foreign policy and national security can’t be a function of anything else. Others, such as trying to implement a nationwide living wage regardless of the cost of living and job market in any given area, seem shortsighted. One of the best things a leader can do is empower people to elect leaders in their areas who listen to their constituents.

Beyond that, all elected officials need to understand that rhetoric and legislation are often accompanied by unintended consequences. Threatening gun control sells more guns. Prohibition of drugs and other things leads to the black market. Allowing large numbers of refugees and illegal immigrants without a plan for immigration reform breeds uncertainty and fear.

Legislating with a broad brush from far away tends to build resentment along with a feeling of helplessness, which is exactly what we and our neighbors across the pond are experiencing right now.

While Gary Johnson tends to promote individual freedom, the other candidates seem determined to continue the time-honored tradition of making much more grandiose promises, whether about making America great again or looking out for large groups of supposedly disenfranchised people: women and minorities, etc. When will we be given greater control over our own destiny?


Photo credit: Telegraph UK