Brexit Hurts: Reflections Of An American Expat

Ever since moving to the Netherlands twenty-two years ago from New York to marry my Dutch partner, I've been living as a "European". That cosmopolitan tag has meant a lot to me, especially when I think of my Jewish grandparents who fled Europe a century ago to find safety in America. They left Europe to escape the same xenophobic prejudices that many Brexit voters now seem to embody.

The Europe I moved to in 1994 was a continent of foreigners, moving freely from one country to another without the hassle of visas, work permits, or conflicting health insurance requirements. The "European Project" certainly wasn't perfect, but it opened a brave new world and dampened the ethnic divides that once pervaded this continent and led to repeated and brutal wars. Trade brought peace.

But after Britain's "Leave" vote last month, I was shocked to discover that the world I lived in was diminished and soon might cease to exist.

Brexit is like watching a dear friend commit suicide in slow motion. You can't help him in any way, and you're waiting to see if he's really going to die. It's a painful process.

Nobody expected this. So there was no advance planning. But at 5:00 a.m. the day after the vote, I sensed there was a problem. I woke up suddenly and reached for the radio. The BBC announcer was hesitating and clearing his throat, and I knew that something was wrong. Then he said, with a tremor, "The BBC now projects that the Leave campaign has won the referendum. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, by a margin or 51.9% to 48.1%." Then he was silent. The enormity of the thing sank in on us all, weighed down as though we were being crushed.

Since then I've watched both of Britain's major political parties go into self-destruct, and the leaders who created the referendum rush to quit their jobs and leave the stage. And we're seeing mounting racism: banners in the UK that say "Leave Now/Repatriation Now" and black people cursed on London busses. Anybody with dark skin, British or otherwise, feels threatened. In fact, any foreigner, no matter what his or her color, faces an uncertain future.

What does this mean for me as an American in the Netherlands? As a Jew? As a gay man? Suddenly all bets are off. Will the entire European project come crashing down? I fear it will.

The day after the referendum, I went to get a haircut. The nice Dutch lady who has cut my hair for years noticed I was sad. When I told her I was concerned about Brexit, she brightened up immediately. "Shouldn't WE have a referendum like that in Holland?" I know how she and many other working class Dutch people would vote, to "Leave". I let the subject drop.

Britain's momentous decision to withdraw from Europe was, in my view, the greatest European disaster since World War II. It gives strength to the extreme right wing (racist) "Euro-skeptics" throughout Europe, it threatens to tear down the entire European project, and worst of all - I can hardly imagine this - it creates the very real possibility that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States, Marine LePen will win in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Alternative for Germany will gain power.

I say this because everyone underestimated the powerful of the angry, anti-establishment vote that led to Brexit. And I fear we are underestimating the power of that vote in other countries, as well.

A record 72% of eligible British voters braved storm and rain to vote. Some "Leave" voters were people who voted for the first time in decades. Older, poorer and less educated people were particularly eager to vote "Leave". A revolution occurred that nobody was ready for.

Just as unprecedented numbers of voters swarmed to the polls to support Brexit, we could imagine the same phenomenon in America. Donald Trump is mining the same vein of frustration and dissatisfaction that fueled the Brexit vote.

We have an opportunity to counter that wave if we understand what is powering it. But the mainstream political establishment has been off point until now. Just as Donald Trump caught the Republicans off guard, I fear that Hillary Clinton, a wonderful woman whom I support fully, is conducting a campaign for traditional liberal values that misunderstands the strengths of the opponent she is fighting.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's central argument for "Remain" also missed the point. He argued "Brexit will make the UK poorer." That had little affect, it seems, because many Brexiteers already felt poor. While London glitters with the riches of the financial sector and a booming real estate market, towns in the north of England are struggling. People who have two jobs and still can't pay the rent are watching the millionaires dance at the party in London, and they are livid about it. Nigel Farage's UKIP understood this and used it deftly. So does Donald Trump.

The U.S. and other countries have similar conditions. Both America's and Europe's economies have hardly grown since the global financial crisis of 2008. Most people feel poorer and powerless to doing anything about it. Worse still, the increasing income disparity means that new wealth is rushing to the already wealthy, leaving most people behind. A decade like this has important political consequences. Hitler came to power in 1933 for similar reasons.

So voters are angry and are latching on to "populist", anti-establishment candidates who take their anger seriously. Mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle are missing the boat, having signed up for unorganized labor, ever freer trade and expanded immigration, without focusing on the role of national governments to protect their citizens from the downsides of these forces with structures to protect employment and share wealth. Their responses are individual rather than structural. They focus on "social issues" like women's rights and same-sex marriage (Obamacare was the exception). But these do not address the core of the problem. People are angry.

"Never waste a crisis" is one of our wisest aphorisms. Brexit's bloodless coup gives us a chance to avoid the worse one that would eventually have exploded. But only if we act wisely and see what really happened.

The failure of both the left and the right to restrain unbridled globalism is what led to this disaster. Investors became the only stakeholders in the nation's economy who mattered and, in the UK and the US, government's role as a mediator disappeared. Unprotected workers saw their incomes decline and the middle class erode. Soon after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, Ross Perot's "sucking sound" of jobs whisking out of America started immediately. Manufacturing jobs have declined in America by over 30% since then (only the UK did worse), and nobody protected workers except to tell them to "retrain" for a service economy where they would not be welcome. De-unionized Western manufacturing workers now must compete with Asian wages and employment conditions.

This of course goes back to the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution. But it accelerated in the 1990s, when privatization became the flavor of the day, the force that would save us from government inefficiencies. The fall of the Berlin Wall proved the rightness of this, and we never turned back.

Well, maybe we should look at turning back now. Because the frustrated workers and voters will not stay silent. They will elect demagogues who are happy to grab their votes.

Feeling abandoned by the left, they will turn to the loony right. Hence Trump, Le Pen and Wilders.

I just hope my cosmopolitan life as a foreigner in Amsterdam will continue. I love living here and I want to stay. And I want to be optimistic. But I am fearful for my future here in Europe, if things continue. It feels like the sand is shifting beneath my feet. The world I know could end like it did for my Jewish grandparents who fled European xenophobia a century ago. But in a globalized world, where can you go?