Lessons of Britquake 2016: A history-shaping crisis, and a moment of danger and opportunity

With elites in retreat and the postwar economic consensus collapsing, the post-Brexit world is up for grabs

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 25, 2016 4:00PM (EDT)

Nigel Farage, David Cameron   (AP/Frank Augstein/Reuters/Gareth Fuller)
Nigel Farage, David Cameron (AP/Frank Augstein/Reuters/Gareth Fuller)

In the early hours of Friday morning, as we watched those images of ashen-faced young Londoners absorbing what had just happened to their country, one question leaped to mind: Was the (supposedly) shocking result of the Brexit referendum, in which the British public voted to withdraw from the European Union, a preview of things to come? Will people be standing around at election-night parties in Brooklyn and Austin and Minneapolis on a cool evening in November, wearing those same hollow-eyed, holy-crap expressions as President-elect Donald Trump celebrates victory and wondering whether the “Canada option” was more than just a gag?

I don’t know, and don’t claim to know. But conventional wisdom and complacency seem misplaced at this historical moment, don’t you think? Everything we think we know about political science and public opinion and Electoral College voodoo suggests that it will be almost impossible for Trump to win the 2016 election. But can we please take a moment to laugh about all the stuff we thought we knew? And can we underline that “almost” in Day-Glo orange, and print it across the landscape in huge letters of “Game of Thrones” dragon-fire?

What we are seeing right now across the Western world goes beyond political aberration, beyond WTF Brexit and WTF Trump. It cannot and must not be boiled down to analyses like “those people are stupid and racist.” I’ve heard way too much of that in the first 48 hours since the Brexit vote. It’s insulting and simplistic and just plain wrong. Some people are stupid and racist on both sides of the Atlantic, for sure. Anti-immigration sentiment and anxiety over Islam played a major role in the Brexit campaign, and form the centerpiece of Trump’s appeal. But if there is a moment for the educated trans-Atlantic elite to refrain from condescension and stereotyping, this would goddamn well be it.

British election returns suggest that numerous working-class regions of England dominated by the Labor Party, at least outside the major cities, voted to leave the E.U. by significant margins. I would guesstimate that 20 percent or more of the “Leave” vote came from the left, approximately speaking. Although both Labor and the governing Conservative Party officially supported the “Remain” cause, below the surface both parties were deeply split. That was more obvious on the Tory side, but Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn is a former Euroskeptic who was decidedly lukewarm on Brexit, and declined to campaign alongside Prime Minister David Cameron. (Given that the Brexit result has apparently forced Cameron out of office, that looks like a shrewd choice.)

To the extent that Donald Trump has an electoral strategy, it relies on carving up the electorate across ideological lines, Brexit-style. His only conceivable path to victory in November requires swaying large numbers of working-class or middle-class white Democrats and independents in purple states that Barack Obama carried, from Ohio and Wisconsin to Colorado and Nevada. It shouldn’t work and probably won’t, but Trump’s entire presidential campaign has been about surfing an unexpected wave of populist outcomes to improbable destinations.

To gain any perspective on what just happened in Britain and how it will affect America, we need to move beyond politics, and especially beyond the myopic politics of right now. Of course I don’t want to see Trump elected president, but in the very near future bigger questions will be at stake. Britquake 2016 offers further evidence that we are experiencing a widespread and unexpected cultural shift that transcends canned political analysis, and whose long-term ramifications are unknowable. We are witnessing the implosion of the postwar cultural and economic order that has dominated the Euro-American zone for more than six decades. Closing our eyes and hoping that it will go away is not likely to prove successful.

Elite arrogance and overconfidence may not lie at the root of this cultural shift, but they haven’t helped. Virtually everything that we expected to happen in 2016 — and by “we” I mean the supposedly educated and supposedly intelligent people like me, and quite likely like you, who pride ourselves on understanding the world — has gone crazy-town sideways. Virtually everything we said was impossible has, well, happened. It’s been fun, in a way, to watch the media caste donning sackcloth and ashes and recanting the dozens of articles we all wrote about how Trump could never possibly be the Republican nominee, let alone the president. Now the fun’s over and we’ve entered the anti-fun zone.

Hillary Clinton and her supporters can take absolutely nothing for granted. This election won’t be fun and won’t be easy. A historic tide of anti-elite, anti-Establishment rebellion is sweeping across the Western cultural and political sphere, and no one has any idea how high it will get. Clinton may well win this election, but the unavoidable fact that she stands on the wrong side of that cultural gulf nearly cost her the Democratic nomination (against a hilariously unlikely opponent) and is a major liability in the fall campaign as well. Next time you see Trump on TV and tell yourself, “Oh no, that couldn’t possibly happen,” remember that’s what the girl in the horror movie says right before the guy with a chainsaw appears over her left shoulder as the audience screams.

Furthermore, and more important, the politics of fear and negativity and retreat and compromise that has driven the Democratic Party for 30-odd years, and the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016 in particular, has to stop. As in right now, if not yesterday. That approach is not merely whistling past the graveyard or inviting disaster. It’s more like strapping yourself into a suicide vest as you jump out the window. If Clinton cannot come up with a more inspiring campaign message than “You may not like me, but least I’m not that idiot!” she will conclude her political career by once again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That might be an unpalatable result in terms of life on Planet Earth, but it would possess a certain poetic justice.

There are a number of important lessons to be drawn from Britquake 2016, in my undoubtedly flawed overnight judgment. But that’s the first of them: Yesterday’s politics don’t work anymore. They didn’t work all that well yesterday, come to think of it. But it’s time to stop pretending. Since roughly the end of the Cold War, center-right and center-left elites on both sides of the Atlantic have insisted that economic stagnation, worsening inequality and political paralysis were a temporary management problem, which the next government, the next tech bubble or the next stock-market boom were sure to correct.

Such arguments came to sound increasingly hollow and cynical, especially in the poisonous political atmosphere of the Bush and Obama years. Large segments of the public, perhaps a majority, simply don’t buy them anymore. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is predicated on the idea that nothing’s wrong with American politics or the American economy that can’t be fixed with a steady hand on the tiller. Setting aside the partisan drama of the moment, do you actually think that’s true?

Another urgent Brexit lesson is that it’s a fatal error to build so-called progressive politics, or indeed any vision of the future, around a message of fear and negativity. That might sound like a strange thing to say in the year of Trump — but in fact his stump speeches are overwhelmingly sunny free-associated paeans to the greatness of America, larded with delicious nuggets of hate about the Wall and the Muslims. (In fact, Trump never brings that stuff up without explaining how much he is loved by Latinos or women or gays or blacks or whomever he happens to be bashing.) The Brexit “Leave” campaign was also largely positive in tone, fueled by a hazy nostalgia for the imaginary Britain of yesteryear, even if anti-immigrant sentiment and racism were not far below the surface.

Britain’s “Remain” campaign, on the other hand, was a hapless combination of talking-head doomcasting and celebrity hectoring, which seems to have backfired in spectacular fashion. Economists on TV with plummy accents promised a stock-market crash and an immediate economic downturn, which now seems to be well underway. J.K. Rowling and Eddie Izzard and Bob Geldof and other prominent leftish citizens deigned to instruct their fellow Britons that they were better off in Europe. But they couldn’t quite say why, largely because for most people the E.U. is identified less with its purported human-rights and social-justice priorities than with neoliberal economics, crippling austerity budgets and disastrous “free trade” deals.

Widespread elite arrogance has helped poison the E.U.’s reputation, and elite arrogance helped torpedo the Brexit “Remain” campaign as well. It’s understandable for American progressives and leftists to find the Brexit vote unfortunate. European unity, in the abstract, is a lovely idea. But as we have seen with the parallels and contrasts between the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns in America, not all resistance to elite establishment opinion is retrograde or reactionary. It’s deeply insulting to look at this complicated situation from across the pond and announce that the E.U. is an inclusive and progressive institution, and therefore everybody in Britain who wanted out must be a small-minded bigot. That’s almost as ignorant and blinkered as the worldview of the stereotypical Trump voter.

No doubt it’s true that Brexit was an assault on the cosmopolitan, borderless pan-European ideal represented by the E.U. It was also an assault on what has been called the “Washington consensus,” meaning the post-Cold War world order of economic globalization and “free trade” agreements, coupled with permanent undeclared war and worldwide intelligence-gathering on an unprecedented scale. That was never a genuine social consensus, but one imposed from above by governmental and corporate elites. It was justified to the public in various ways over the years (and usually piece by piece), but it was hardly ever debated and never subjected to real democratic oversight. That consensus has been badly undermined in recent years, and is now in imminent danger of collapse. Whether you think such a collapse would be good or bad depends, I suppose, on how much you stand to lose by it — and what you think is likely to replace it.

The possible or probable demise of the postwar world order marks the biggest global crisis since 9/11, and quite likely the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Comparisons with the political and cultural crisis that transformed Europe in the 1930s are not absurd, but that doesn’t mean the results have to be the same. This is a moment that offers unprecedented openings for the left and the right, a moment of immense danger and immense opportunity. It cannot be wished away, and those who retreat from it or pretend it’s not happening will be swept away by history.

A few months ago amid the proverbial snows of New Hampshire, I heard Jeb Bush tell a middle-school auditorium full of sympathetic mainstream Republicans that America had to get back to “regular-order democracy” or risk political chaos. Those middle-class, small-town, golf-playing conservatives, who still thought they were the heart of the GOP, ate it up. Hello, chaos. What Jeb and friends discovered shortly thereafter was that the barn door of democracy had been left open and the regular order was long gone. Britain’s political establishment just got the same telegram, and Cameron, a Bush-style aristocrat prepared for rulership from birth, finds himself politically beheaded barely a year after winning re-election.

Hillary Clinton now stands facing the incoming tide, like King Canute in a teal pantsuit, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she’s a remarkably bad fit for this moment in history. I suppose she is likely to win (and I hope she’ll win, I suppose) but in dramatic and philosophical terms, she definitely deserves to lose. She came startlingly close to losing the Democratic nomination to a grouchy septuagenarian socialist who was not a Democrat. She is a creature of the Washington consensus and a warrior for regular-order democracy, who has spent her entire political career fighting the next election as if it were the last one. Does she have any idea what just happened, or what will happen next?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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