June 25, 2016

What Lessons Should the U.S. Take Away From Brexit?

I am not going to do you the disservice of pretending that I understand all - or even most - of the relevant factors leading up to Britain's recent decision to leave the European Union (EU). My understanding of British politics and how the EU operates is quite limited. From the mainstream news media coverage I have seen, heavily filtered through the lens of U.S. interests like all international news we get through our media, it sounds like there were several cogent arguments on both sides of the debate.

It seems like some of the big ones on the side pushing Britain to leave the EU had to do with many of the same issues currently animating U.S. politics ahead of our presidential election. They include the growing disconnect and sense of alienation many are feeling between themselves and those elected to represent their interests (e.g., resentment toward those perceived as "elites"), concerns over the balance between globalization vs. national sovereignty, and fears related to immigration (i.e., refugees and migrants from predominately Muslim countries) and border security. Or maybe the whole thing was just Obama's fault. I suspect there are additional factors specific to Britain that might not translate well for a U.S. audience, but the ones mentioned above certainly do.

I think it is far too early to know what the long-term effects of Brexit are going to be for Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world, so I suppose it makes sense that the U.S. news media would focus on what it might mean for us. And this just might be an opportunity for those of us in the U.S. to begin wrestling with questions we really haven't had to address (or haven't been willing to address). Here's one example from David Frum's recent article in The Atlantic:
Is it possible that leaders and elites had it all wrong? If they’re to save the open global economy, maybe they need to protect their populations better against globalization’s most unwelcome consequences—of which mass migration is the very least welcome of them all?
I think he may have a point here. Despite the benefits of globalization, it seems clear that there are some downsides and that these downsides are probably more concentrated in some segments of the population than others. Maybe we have not been paying enough attention to some of the costs of our increasingly global economy.

On a related note, if concerns about immigration, refugees, migrants, and borders are at least part of what is contributing to Donald Trump's popularity, might this be an area about which we should be a bit more proactive? It sounds like these concerns played an important part in the Brexit vote. Granted, the situation is very different in Britain with regard to migrants and refugees. But I wonder whether we might want to do more to understand the nature of similar concerns here. Might we benefit from trying to understand the alienation instead of just mocking the alienated?

Here is what Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) had to say about Brexit:
Too many politicians and pundits here in America have been woefully oblivious to, or in some cases complicit in, what is going on around us. The failed European Union experiment, and Great Britain’s rejection of it, must serve as a wake-up call for all of us in America.
Oblivious? Yes! He's right that this could serve as a wake-up call. The question is whether we will wake up and what lessons we will draw from Brexit.

Here's Trump's take on what we should learn:
Come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first. They will have the chance to reject today’s rule by the global elite, and to embrace real change that delivers a government of, by and for the people. I hope America is watching, it will soon be time to believe in America again.
It remains to be seen whether Trump really has enough support to land the presidency. The inaccuracy of the polls prior to the British vote and the overlap between at least some of the sentiments driving the results with Trump's support just might be reason for concern among those who would prefer not to see the U.S. elect Trump.