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"Brexit" lesson for American politics: smart people can be wrong

Jul 2, 2016

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Don’t believe the smart folks who say Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the wild show that passes for American presidential politics today, are just evidence of one big, transatlantic hissy fit. They’re wrong.

Republican and Democratic leaders here, political classes on both sides of the pond and financial markets around the globe are demonstrating, once again, a remarkable disconnect from the concerns of everyday people from Liverpool to Lansing.

Imagine that. Nearly 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU, a move the smart set did not fully anticipate. That’s because they figured a majority wouldn’t summon the gumption to make it. The so-called “Brexit” vote promises to shake the post-war global order, to reshape financial markets and to shift security alliances amid an unnerving geopolitical vacuum.

The Brits are not alone. Their decision presages the fraught choice implicit in the cage match between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: how populism and false promises, offered by equally flawed candidates, can be packaged into a political balm both sides can sell to folks suspicious of elites.

Delivering the promises is another thing entirely. Britons are learning that bitter lesson quickly as asset values swoon, markets gyrate and politicians on the left and the right show they really don’t have a plan to deliver Great Britain 2.0. We could be next.

Elections have consequences. Multinational corporations like Detroit’s Big Two automakers and Wall Street investment houses are rethinking their presence in the United Kingdom. Standard & Poor’s stripped the U.K. of its triple-A credit rating. Political parties there are in chaos. And what passes for British government is mulling methods to leave the EU, if any.


All of it promises uncertainty for business and for economic growth. It means reappraisal for global companies deeply planted in an EU that for too long denied the possibility that a Britain divided over immigration and badgering from Brussels actually would bolt.

A majority of Britons proved the smart people wrong. The vote is non-binding, legally speaking. But the message to the political class is undeniable: what about us? 

That’s the same question Trump supporters are asking. It’s the same question Bernie Sanders asked again and again during the Democratic primaries—and clearly intends to take to the party’s convention in Philadelphia.

What about the people who heard the rationales for trade deals, but paid for them with lost jobs and communities? What about the people who lost retirement savings and property values to a global financial meltdown they did not cause? 

The vote is non-binding, legally speaking. But the message to the political class is undeniable: what about us?

What about the people increasingly fearful the disorder in Syria and Iraq will visit their shores in the form of terrorism—chiefly because of the maddeningly mixed signals their leaders send on immigration and security?

It’s too soon to answer those questions, or know how they’ll play before American voters. But it’s not too soon to acknowledge that history and a reassertion of sovereignty can trump transnationalism and confound elites—because in Britain they just did.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.