Is America's Political Class in Denial about the Lessons from Brexit?

I recently gave a short presentation on Brexit at the Japan Strategic Management Society in Tokyo. The main theme was the anticipated effects on Japan and Japanese business, but as we examined the reasons for the Leave vote in Britain, it was impossible to avoid making links with the rise of Donald Trump in the USA. I will come to these later, but first I would like to recap on some key take-aways from the Brexit result.

These are not a new insights: it is clear that the disaffection and feeling of alienation from the rest of the nation and from the political class expressed by a large section of the British public was a significant factor in the referendum result.  It seems that, for many, maintaining the current status offered no benefits whatsoever – only radical change could bring an improvement in their lives. Watching the progress of the referendum from Japan, I had the impression that whatever the question from the “Establishment” (from any of the established parties), the answer would have been negative. It just happened to be Leave or Remain in the EU on this occasion.

It is also clear that numerous obvious lies were ignored, enabling belief in vague promises of freedom from foreign control and from an invasion of foreign immigrants who were seen as stealing opportunity from British citizens.

The established political parties were insensitive to this major disconnect and continued to argue their cases with reference to the potential negative effects of leaving or remaining on the current economic and social status quo. They basically failed to address the core issues occupying the minds of the disaffected. This approach allowed UKIP and Leave supporters from the established parties to win the day. This, despite the fact that many in the Establishment saw them as lacking in credibility for reasons of character and consistency in their statements and pointed this out to the public.

What the Establishment failed to do was to create a vision of a genuinely changed society able to reconnect the disaffected with the rest of the country and redirect the proceeds of economic growth to enrich the lives of the whole populace. A positive alternative vision to counter the “Shining City on a Hill” promises of the Leave campaign.

By now, my friends in the USA are probably starting to feel (again) a certain resonance with events on the other side of “the pond”.

I say “again” because immediately after the Brexit result there was an outpouring of concern that this kind of popular nose-thumbing to the Establishment could happen in the US too. Notwithstanding this immediate recognition of the danger however, the campaigns seem to have slipped back into a pattern similar to those in the Brexit campaign.

The Establishment – both Democrat and Republican argue hard that Donald Trump is temperamentally unsuitable to be president and would be reckless with foreign relations and ultimately, perhaps, with the nuclear button. They argue that he does not have the necessary political experience to manage the country effectively. In taking this line, they have already forgotten the disaffected mass of people who made the Trump candidacy possible in the first place. Trump was nominated because the Republican party could not produce a better, positive alternative vision.

The Establishment focuses on things that they, in their own class bubble, think should be winning arguments and pat each other on the back for their rhetoric. In the meantime, the disaffected ignore these arguments and nod in agreement when Trump bashes minorities and bangs the “Make America Great Again” drum. Michelle Obama’s “America is Already Great” line does not resonate with them. They want change that they can understand and that they believe will make their lives better. They are not scared of radical change to the status quo and predictions of doom and disaster will not sway them. They have little to lose anyway.

This is the lesson that should have been learnt from Brexit.

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