Some Lessons From Brexit: How Bernie Sanders Can Help Save America

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., addresses supporters in New York Thursday, June 23, 2016. (AP P
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., addresses supporters in New York Thursday, June 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The British vote to exit the European Union which by every account goes against the voters' own economic interests, is said to be a vote of hearts (and fears) over heads. The older voters who chose to leave the EU, reflected a general dissatisfaction with their lot in life, which they blame on immigration, on the increasing inequality between the wealthy and the others in society and which also led them to support a nationalistic movement aimed at separating from "the other." They also indulged in a kind of nostalgia, thinking to recapture a Britain that existed in their memories. By contrast, the younger voters who generally voted to stay in the EU, looked to the future and not the past.

We are seeing these same attitudes influencing the American election. Donald Trump has tapped into the disaffected Republican voters and to the surprise of everyone defeated 16 other candidates, some very well financed, to become the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Among many other commitments, he promised to "make America great again;" to construct a "beautiful" wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, and to restrict immigration, generally; to limit the Muslims allowed into the country; and to end American participation in trade agreements and security relationships with other nations unless they are highly favorable to the U.S. He also promised tax cuts for the middle class and large-scale infrastructure buildings that would create "the biggest economic boom in this country since the New Deal" and lots of jobs.

Secretary Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has stated her recognition of the problems of inequality in our society and laid out a number of programs aimed at creating jobs, calling for higher minimum wages, and improving working conditions for women. She is committed to large-scale infrastructure development both to rebuild a decaying America and to create many needed new jobs. And she would give tax benefits to the middle class and small business while raising some taxes on the wealthy. She has recently stated her disapproval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in its present form. While her positions have been sound enough to secure the nomination, they haven't yet created the level of excitement sufficient to attract many of the younger voters.

Bernie Sanders attracted large numbers of younger voters and other Democrats to his campaign by railing against the increasing inequality in wealth and incomes between the rich and others; advocating for a universal healthcare system; tuition free public universities and reduced debt load for college education; lower taxes for the middle and lower classes; higher minimum wages and other employee benefits, particularly for women. He has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And he, too, has strenuously advocated for infrastructure investments that would create many new jobs.

We should recognize at the outset that the anxieties and grievances of large numbers of our population are well founded in reality. Globalization has brought competitive products to our shores, produced by lower paid foreign employees, resulting in reduced manufacturing at home and heavy job losses, particularly of higher paid jobs. Structural unemployment caused by technological advances has put many out of work because the new technology had the net effect of reducing jobs and because the skills required for many of the new jobs were beyond the capabilities of those who lost their former jobs.

The question these people should be asking themselves, as we all should, is which candidate will actually be able to help improve their situation. If Mr. Trump is elected, and even if he could get a Republican Congress to allocate the large amount of funds to build the wall against Mexico or if he created a trade war with nations like China, South Korea and Japan -- likely to create business uncertainty and reduced employment -- or if he limited immigration and restricted access by Muslims, none of that would actually help create jobs and a better life for his supporters. His plan for major infrastructure development would indeed have such a beneficial effect, but that would require a huge allocation of funding, which, in turn would require either sharply increased taxes or greater budget deficit financing. Neither of these is acceptable to the Republican Congress that his election would bring with it so such a program is very unlikely to pass.

What is required is to elect Hillary Clinton, with a commitment by her to aggressively move forward on an infrastructure development program and other actions that can actually help improve the lives of those Americans who are being left behind by globalization and technology. A number of Senator Sanders' positions offer this benefit. But they also are not likely to happen with a Republican controlled Congress.

So, Senator Sanders has a highly important job in the upcoming election. First, he has to pressure the Democratic party and Secretary Clinton to accept those of his proposals for the party platform that can actually improve the lives of the left-behind Americans and that realistically can be paid for and enacted into law. Second, he has to rally his supporters, not just to support Mrs. Clinton for the presidency, but most importantly to replace the failed, do-nothing Republican Congress with a Democratic controlled Congress that is committed to its Party's programs. That combination of a Democratic president and Senate will also allow for new Supreme Court appointments. Only with a Congress and a Supreme Court that will enable the passage of the kind of legislation that Senator Sanders espouses, can his supporters realize any significant part of their agendas.

I will be frank to say that when I first heard Senator Sanders articulate his various positions I was surprised at what I considered his naivete in thinking that this country was ready for them. I was surprised, as well, that my adult grandchildren, whom I consider smart and politically astute, would support him and his ideas. I have now come to realize that while many of his ideas are too far to the left to be embraced by the country at this time, his vision in addressing the malaise that is being felt throughout the nation was timely and wise. And as in Britain I think his younger supporters were looking to the future and found no appeal in Mr. Trump's nostalgic claim to "make America great again."

In sum, I believe that Senator Sanders has a major role to play in helping our nation find its way, without us having to go through a painful experience like a Brexit -- spurred by the anxieties of part of our population and that in the end is inimical to all of our true interests.

Robert K. Lifton is a businessman and political activist, former president of the American Jewish Congress, former Co-Chair of the International Board of the Council on Foreign Relations Middle East Project, Founder, former Chair and current board member of the Israel Policy Forum. His memoir "An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life in Business and Personal Diplomacy" was published by AuthorHouse in 2012.