The British vote to leave the EU is (and should be) seen as a wakeup call for political elites on both sides of the Atlantic. Under normal circumstances, the institutional support that crossed party lines for the Remain campaign should have ensured it a comfortable victory; instead, it lost by a not-insignificant 52−48 per cent margin. Similarly, Donald Trump has alienated the establishment of both American parties – while Democratic dislike is predictable, the extent of the Republican elite’s discomfort with Trump, clearly on display at the party’s convention in Cleveland this week, is extremely unusual at this point in an election campaign which is more typically a display of ‘rally around the candidate’. But as Brexit demonstrated, the conventional logic may not apply in 2016.
There are significant differences between the UK referendum and the US elections. Some of this is structural – a national referendum operates along very different lines than a US presidential election, after all, and the US electorate is much larger and more diverse than its British equivalent. Furthermore, American voters will be making a choice between individuals as well as ideas. This does not necessarily work to the advantage of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (both of whom have the highest unfavorability ratings for presidential candidates seen in decades), but highly individualized questions of personality and temperament will impact voter behavior in a way that they did not for British referendum voters. Finally, who wins the US election will depend in very large part on state politics and electoral college math – as the 2000 election showed, the candidate who wins the popular vote does not necessarily end up as president.
But there is a far more important message that politicians in the US, UK and, more broadly, Europe, should take away from the Brexit result. Regardless of what happens in the US elections, elites no longer necessarily hold the preponderance of power. The disenfranchised who have historically either not had the mass or the coherence to communicate it now do – at least on occasion.
This is not an ideological split – Brexit voters came together from all parts of the political spectrum. Equally, in the US, Sanders and Trump voters are bucking the system in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
There is a significant backlash under way in both countries towards aspects of globalization, going beyond the traditional right/left divide. Allowing for some differences in specifics, the American and British political establishments have, over the past few decades, broadly eased restrictions on the free movement of capital, goods and people across national borders. There have been notable benefits associated with this approach that have mostly been distributed inclusively, but the costs have typically hit those already less advantaged and without opportunities or skills to mitigate them. Those who have been left out or left behind from these changes are discovering their own political power.
Politicians are going to have to find ways not just to appeal to these voters who feel disenfranchised by existing structures, but also address their legitimate concerns. There will of course be partisan policy solutions put forward on both sides. But inevitably the political leadership is going to have to find ways to bridge party lines to realize solutions to those social and economic inequalities. Ignoring them, as many have in the past, is increasingly a quick path to losing power.
Unless the world wants to turn back to more isolationist and protectionist times, with the slower growth and inequalities that this includes, politicians are also going to have to do a better job of explaining the benefits of globalization. And, more importantly, they will have to ensure that these benefits reach their broader population more equitably and that the costs are better mitigated.
So the Brexit vote does not necessarily presage a Trump victory on 8 November, but it shows in stark terms that the world has fundamentally changed – the time when elites alone could call the shots is gone. Politicians, including Hillary Clinton, will need to respond proactively to the causes of the dissatisfaction rather than waiting until the next time they need the public vote.
Dr Jacob Parakilas
Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs