The United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union might not immediately seem to have much to do with American politics. Yet the impulse that lead a majority of British citizens to vote for such a massive change, one with uncertain economic implications but that guarantees turmoil, also underpins America’s current political moment.
Where I live in Berlin, the elites in government and the media are deeply disappointed by the Brexit vote, seeing it as a triumph of xenophobia and nationalism. But while frustration with the migrant crisis – and with Germany unilaterally deciding to change the face and future of the European Union by announcing Berlin had opened the doors to all comers – likely played a role in the success of Brexit, that was just a symptom of a more fundamental frustration.
Voters in the UK feel that the current system is largely broken. Or worse, it’s working as intended, but only a select few benefit from its rigged game. Moreover, when people in the UK and EU express concern about public policies, such as tax and budget issues or how immigration is impacting their communities, they are often dismissed as nothing but racist xenophobes.
Events that conflict with the elites support for their preferred policies are downplayed and whitewashed. The United Kingdom ignored the horrific abuse of young women and girls in Rotherham; Europeans tiptoe around mass sexual assaults in places like Cologne and Sweden. It’s impolite to link these events to the influx of migrants, and any politician who does so risks being labelled a right-wing extremist, the kiss of death in Europe, where the memories of Nazism are fresh.
In the UK, this frustration with the system led a majority to vote to break away from the European Union in the hope of restoring some sense of control and connection to their government. British citizens were consistently warned that this move will make them poorer and more isolated. Yet a majority didn’t care. They are so frustrated with the status quo that change is worth the risk.
Americans wondering what in the world has happened to American politics should consider the similarities with what’s happened in Europe. Americans of both parties are frustrated with a government that seems built to benefit the politically connected. Americans are told the economy has recovered, but most see that recovery enjoyed only by bankers and stock brokers, while Main Street still struggles to get by. Hillary Clinton epitomizes a limousine liberal that may talk about income inequality but clearly excels at benefitting from the rigged system, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments personally to her family from the biggest fat cats on Wall Street. Bernie Sanders recognized this and won the hearts of his party faithful, even if he couldn’t overcome a primary system that was built to guarantee a Clinton victory.
Republicans have seen a similar revolt, and party leaders and movement conservatives ought to consider how their base came to feel so disconnected from the party and the process that Donald Trump came to be seen as the best option. Trump’s appeal may simply be that he promises to rock the boat, and vocally defend his positions without apology. Six years ago, during the 2010 elections, conservatives across the country began attending rallies calling for a restoration of limited government. People who had never taken part in political protests were getting involved and standing up against the massive expansion of government exemplified by Obamacare and enormous spending bills.
Yet party leaders seemed unenthusiastic about the Tea Party and such conservative activism, and stood by as the Left and the mainstream media tarred them as racists. This feeling that Washington Republicans were indifferent to, and perhaps even embarrassed by, the enthusiastic Tea Parties awash in red-white-and-blue who were drawing snickers from sophisticates on the coasts, fueled the sense of disconnect. Republicans weren’t loyal to the Tea Party, so it isn’t much surprise that much of the Tea Party now feels little remorse as the Republican Party faces upheaval.
People in America, just like this the UK, want change. They are done with the status quo even if they don’t know what exactly is the alternative. Those who want to win back the trust of the people have to first recognize how it was lost. People want to be heard and feel a part of a party — and ultimately a government — that respects them. And certainly that would be a big change.