I, as many Londoners, awoke this morning to the shocking news that the British people want out of the European Union. Needless to say there is a level of post-electoral trauma here that I have rarely seen expressed by the normally composed, stiff-upper lip British. What is clear to me is that the ramifications of this vote have scarcely been explored and the second and third order effects could be frightening. More importantly, there are critical lessons that we should all be learning from this experience.
To provide a brief moment of context, I should clarify my status as an American doctoral student researching international relations at the London School of Economics. In the British university system, students will study at a school but live in a college, and mine is called Goodenough College (yes, that's really the name).
I bring up Goodenough College because it beautifully encapsulates the experience of Great Britain over the past century. Begun as an Oxford-like college for male students of the Dominion (which is what the Commonwealth was called a century ago), Goodenough College now has members studying at over 40 institutions from over 80 countries. In its essence, Goodenough College is the internationalist ideal that Western democracy has been striving for since the end of World War II. An ideal that has been under assault over the past few years, the latest of which being the Brexit vote, which should serve as a warning to us all.
The aftermath of WWII produced a philosophy embraced by the political elite: rather than continuing with the Westphalian idea of totally separate nation states, a global order was in the interest of all. The concept was to create a closeness between all nations so there would be checks and balances on power, both military and economic, so that one nation could not so easily cause death and destruction, like Nazi Germany, to so many others. If nation states' interests and dependencies were more closely aligned, then the cost separation or military resistance would be too high, they reasoned, for any one nation state to venture too far from the group, from accepted global norms. These ideas became the institutions that we have become so familiar with: the United Nations, NATO, World Bank, IMF, and of course, the EU. While there are many smaller instances of this global order malfunctioning, it has by and large worked for the past 70 years and Western democracies have seen unparalleled prosperity and peace. Until now.
A number of years ago, I had a class from a topnotch professor on fascism. One of the most critical lessons in the rise of fascism is the sense that gets exploited by politicians, about how the populace feels it is a victim of external forces. As political elites and nation states have been rushing to shrink the world and make globalization the economic standard, there has been a continuous lack of appreciation of those who are left behind. These people have been told that it's too bad, they do not matter, and they must re-educate themselves in order to change. These are the people who work in factories and farms, small businesses, trades, and crafts. They are the people who built cars and made textiles, who dreamed of owning a home and sending their children to college. They are people who have been on the threshold of the middle class, and are seeing their futures eroding away. They are angry and they are afraid. They feel that their leaders have failed them and they have responded to those political elites with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
The Brexit vote will be parsed and examined but in the simplest construct, people feel that they are being left behind in a new economic order and that their concerns are unrecognized and unappreciated. This should give every internationalist a serious pause in order to rethink how best to engage and bring everyone along on this journey, because without a serious reconsideration, America could experience something very similar to the United Kingdom and wake up on November 9th to President-elect Trump.
And if you don't believe me, feel free to ask Will McAvoy...