The Lessons of Brexit and Trump: Exclusion Breeds Bad Politics

Donald Trump with presidential supporters, and Boris Johnson with Brexit supporters.

Donald Trump with presidential supporters, and Boris Johnson with Brexit supporters.

     The rise of the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and the victory of the leave vote in Great Britain have given rise to growing concern about the rise of xenophobia among apparently large swaths of the public in both countries. There has also been considerable fear that such uncharitable attitudes may usher in a new age of inward protectionist policies that will hurt trade and general social welfare. While there is no doubt that anti-immigrant/anti-foreign sentiment is a reality in both cases, it is important to understand the conditions under which opposition politicians have been able to cultivate such sentiments.

Exclusion from the Benefits of Economic Globalization

     A close look at who supports Donald Trump and who voted to leave the EU in Britain is very instructive: it reveals exclusion from the benefits of growth and prosperity and feelings of political exclusion. In England, the leave vote occurred predominately outside of London, among the older generation, among those who identified as working class, in regions that had undergone de-industrialization and where unemployment was high. In the U.S, Trump supporters are disproportionately older white males without college degrees—people who have seen their employment prospects and wages drop significantly. They tend to live in the MidWest, a region that has experienced a decline in manufacturing. All of this suggests that there is a real material basis to the anger of voters—even though that anger may well be misdirected. Economic globalization has not benefitted everyone equally (the rise in inequality is ample evidence of this), and some have in fact lost out significantly. Market forces do not provide social justice. Only governments can do that and it is becoming clear that very little (or at best, not enough) has been done to compensate the people and regions that have not been the beneficiaries of the magic of the marketplace. This sort of situation creates fertile ground for anger, political mobilization, and scapegoating.

Political Exclusion

     A closely related dimension of the problem is the significant disillusionment with the political classes. Feelings of political exclusion— that political systems are not open to, and do not operate in the interests of ordinary people (and have not done so for some time) have been instrumental in fostering anger among voters. In the case of Britain, political elites have been complicit in the growing power of the EU techno-bureaucracy—a process that has entailed a significant diminishment in local democracy that looks to local needs. As one Brexit supporter explained, “Why should people in Brussels, who maybe have never been to Britain, have a say in writing our laws?”. In the U.S, Trump supporters view the politicians of both parties as having pursed policies that cost the country jobs while helping the 1 percent line their pockets. A survey carried out by the Rand Corporation found that 86 percent of Trump supporters agreed with the statement: “people like me don’t have any say over what the government does”

Populist Politics and the Failure of the Political Class

     Much has been said in the press about the irrationality of Trump and Brexit supporters—about the economic dislocation and hardship that will occur with Britain’s exist from the EU, or, as a result of the various inward-looking policies proposed by Donald Trump. This observation misses one of the most important dynamics of populist politics and its ultimate, usually unhappy, outcome: angry excluded voters are easily mobilized around irrational policies that can harm even their own interests because these voters have been rendered desperate by a political establishment that has turned a deaf ear to their concerns. Hence, the ultimate responsibility for these developments rests with the political class. The position of these political elites has been that those who are opposed to their agenda are unmodern malcontents without sufficient knowledge to understand what is good and necessary—a foolhardy attitude, especially for politicians, who lose touch with their political base only at very great risk. Doing so produces the rise of new political leaders ready to capitalize on growing discontent in ways that will increase political conflict and polarization—bad politics.

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