The Provenance Of Brexit, And Other Populist Uprisings

Whenever political power is exercised in a way that results in sustained, widespread economic suffering for large numbers of people, demagogues will arise, like flies around turd, to exploit that suffering, in order to gain political power, often outsized political power, for themselves.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Turnberry Golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at Turnberry Golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Whenever political power is exercised in a way that results in sustained, widespread economic suffering for large numbers of people, demagogues will arise, like flies around turd, to exploit that suffering, in order to gain political power, often outsized political power, for themselves.

Moreover, such demagogues rarely offer, or even have the competence or understanding to offer, political remedies to the economic malaise that is fueling their rise, nor are they much interested in such remedies: what interests them is their own, often megalomaniacal ambition.

What they offer, therefore, is never remedies, but rather scapegoats. And this offering finds ready soil among the economically damaged, as their legitimate injuries are converted to illegitimate blood lust aimed at the targeted scapegoats. Hitler had the Jews, and Trump has his Muslims, his Mexicans, his immigrants, whatever.

And so did the leaders of the Brexit campaign, who fed the fears of hordes of immigrants and asylum-seekers flooding England and disrupting the lives of struggling workers and their families.

The demagogic leaders of Brexit did not have, and still do not have, economic remedies for the voters to whom they appealed. What they had, and what they exploited, was those voters anger and resentments. And the leaders of the Remain movement underestimated both.

This is an old story.

Respectable citizens, and not just conservatives, in Germany and elsewhere underestimated Hitler's appeal and his ruthlessness, and thought him to be a passing, if exceedingly unpleasant, storm, and did not take him seriously enough to stop him when it was still possible.

Nor did they understand the depth of the economic despair that fueled his rise to power. He had no policy remedies for that despair, or its causes; what he had was a believable and visible scapegoat, and a way of stirring, fanning and organizing resentment, and riding it to personal power.

Here in the United States, Trump follows the same playbook, and people like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan still don't seem to know what has hit them.

Just as Hillary Clinton seemed stunned and surprised by the extent and durability of Bernie Sanders' appeal.

Sanders attempted to appeal to the same economic dislocations as Trump, but with rational, targeted policy remedies instead of bigotry. But Sanders' proposed remedies had two flaws:

The first is that they were widely dismissed, even by people like Paul Krugman, much less established Democratic Party leaders, as unrealistic, unachievable pipe dreams not well thought through. The critics may have been right in the short term, but that was never the point: the point was to create and organize a constituency for structural economic reforms. The criticisms of Sanders' proposals, especially from establishment liberals, only delegitimized Sanders' electoral appeal and his organizing efforts.

The second flaw was that although Sanders did attract some of the working class victims that used to be part of the New Deal core constituency, it was only a sliver. This constituency had been siphoned off to the right-wing Republican Party since Reagan, again not with remedies for their economic distress, but with demagogic appeals--racial, sexual, gender and religious--that identified scapegoats -- welfare "queens," young black men, drug users, gays, women seeking abortions, flag-burners, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, which had from about 1954 to 1973, established long-dormant constitutional rights as enforceable, which threatened those constituencies that had long enjoyed relatively hegemonic dominance..

The Republicans, as a party, rode these scapegoats to political power with the votes of formerly New Deal white working class men and women (more dominantly men), even as they enacted policies that substantially worsened their economic distress.

And as their economic distress worsened, they grew even more susceptible to the politics of resentment and scapegoating. It was a perfect electoral program: Republicans fueled the flames of resentment against scapegoats as they worsened the economic distress of those to whom they appealed.

Trump is not an outlier of Republican politics; he is the explicit, uncivil, unvarnished expression of mainstream Republican politics of the last 35 years. People like Ryan and Romney and Rove and, yes, Jeb Bush, who claim to be appalled by Trump are in fact the ones who created him, whose politics were a precondition of his, who in order to win elections cultivated precisely the constituencies that today are his strongest supporters. Against the powerful magnets of the politics of scapegoating and resentment, Bernie Sanders' remedial policy proposals hardly gained traction, they were rational but not emotional, except for the young and a small fragment of the white, wounded working class.

And we can't forget that in America, Bill Clinton's "centrism" basically abandoned the white working class, thus leaving them even more hospitable to the demagogic appeals from the right. The same dynamic appears to have been at work in England, where de-industrialization, the global economy, international trade agreements and fear of open borders created fertile ground for demagogic appeals.

And electorally, English voters had no levers of democratic accountability over European Union decision-makers in Brussels. Many felt not only abused but also disenfranchised. They were ripe for this vote, and relatively impervious to rational elite arguments.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, being stunned by the result was reminiscent of Jeb Bush being stunned by the Republican primary results: neither seemed to understand what was going on; both seemed sealed in a cocoon of their own construction.

After WWI, in a prescient book, John Maynard Keynes warned that the punitive economic conditions imposed by the victors on Germany would create a poisonous, dangerous politics. And so it did. The economic disaster in Germany that followed the Versailles Treaty provided fertile ground for the rise of Hitler; policy-driven economic suffering is what drove the rise of right-wing, fascistic parties then and for similar reasons is driving it now in countries crippled by imposed austerity policies and trapped by the euro, by not having their own currency to devalue and use to reduce debt and promote employment. The EU has become like a new feudalism for many who suffer in its constituent nations. It may not be remedial or constructive to get out. But if Greece were not trapped by the euro, it would have gotten out. And maybe Spain, too. And while Brexit may not remedy what ails those who voted for it, it gave voice to their anger, their economic injuries and their electoral inability to heal them.

Feeling better, even if inauthentic, even if merely compensatory, is often what determines political/electoral outcomes. As in Germany in the 1930s; as in the Republican primaries here this season; and as in the Brexit vote.

The European Union may now stagger toward disintegration, unless it can restructure itself politically to strengthen its union-wide banking and fiscal management and, especially and critically, its democratic accountability. But that would require member nations to relinquish some of their sovereignty and would require Germany to relinquish its considerable economic advantages. I don't see either happening.

Here in the United States, the question is: Whither November? I find it scary.

I can make a lot of rational, logical arguments to show why Trump can't win. But aside from the bigotry and xenophobia, there are real economic grievances out there. Trump has no remedies for such grievances, but he is not the first demagogue who knows how to exploit them to advance his personal ambitions.

And I am not confident that Hillary Clinton can pivot to address those grievances effectively and passionately.

That is why I find our political situation scary.

If leading politicians do not address underlying economic grievances, demagogues will arise and scapegoats will be found. And it will not do, decades later, for respectable people to say "How did this happen?" or "We did not know." We have been here before.

And once again, there are immense, unaddressed instabilities, both in Europe and America. So whither November? And whither post-November?

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