I’m going to throw my hat into the ring with all the pundits who see an analog in the UK’s impending “Brexit” from the European Union and America’s soul-wrenching flirtation with demagogues like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. My quibble is this: everyone else is taking the wrong lessons.
Through a wide lens, here are the lessons I see in Brexit.
If you’re looking down your nose at the other side, it’s not helping.
The biggest advantage you can give your political opponent is to believe that his or her difference of opinion is motivated by ignorance or malice. Sometimes it is, but it almost always is not. If you want to win the long game in politics, you must meet conflicting opinions head-on, with full respect for where they come from.
In Britain and the USA, the so-called elites have slandered their political opposition, which is generally composed of working and middle class voters, for being out of touch, racist, or ignorant. That’s a dangerously dismissive posture to take towards the people who have been most affected by the negative consequences of global free trade, cheap immigrant labor, and the ongoing global economic downturn.
In the past, liberals held the monopoly on smug condescension. They ceded countless elections to conservatives because they believed that their case for government was self-evident and that anyone who disagreed had to be evil or idiotic. But in recent years, mainline conservatives have made the same mistake. Instead of meeting the arguments of the Tea Party and Know Nothing populists like Donald Trump head-on, they’ve dismissed these outsiders and slandered them in a compliant media. Their reward has been a nearly destroyed political party with an embarrassing presidential nominee at its helm.
Here’s a lesson that winning politicians follow: Learn to understand how your opponent thinks. Assume that his differences of opinion are well-reasoned and not a fault of character. Then, make your case to voters with full respect for your opponent as a cunning, savvy, and well-reasoned operator who argues on the basis of a life experience different from your own. Just don’t resort to intellectually lazy stuff like the condescension that has failed so spectacularly in 2016.
Live closer to reality. Start separating intentions from results.
Let’s look at the European Union for a second. The idea of the EU is incredibly compelling: that a continent of different peoples, united by a few core principles, can put aside their differences and live, work and trade together freely one generation after the World Wars. But that’s just the idea.
The results of that idea are much harder to gauge, as is the question: Is the institution (the EU) actually servicing the purpose for which it was made?
It’s hard to say. Europe is a peaceful and prosperous place. It’s not exactly “morning” on the Continent, but the Eurozone has done well enough during a volatile period of history. You can credit the EU for some of that, but you can also dock it points for this fact that no one is disputing: The EU is a profoundly un-democratic institution. It’s an imperious bureaucracy over which member states have limited recourse for accountability. It takes power away from voters and deposits it in frustrating bureaucrats. It limits the ability of free peoples to choose their own future and in places like Greece, Spain, and Portugal, it might actually be a driving force behind decline.
That’s why I’m shocked that pundits now think of Brexit as an act of hostility towards liberal values. Though the idea of the European Union presumes the advancement of freedom and equality, I’m not convinced that its practice has measured up. That doesn’t mean that Europeans should march on Brussels with pitchforks and torches, but it does mean that the causal relationship between ignorance and “Leave” voters that many are trying to draw doesn’t really hold water, at least in my opinion.
We’ve got the same problem on this side of the pond. There’s evidence that our good intentions produce bade results. For example, if you study the data, you could conclude that the conservative-backed War on Terror is actually creating more enemies than it eliminates; and that liberal-sponsored social welfare programs are responsible for perpetuating – or even exacerbating – the problems they are designed to address.
The truth is somewhere in the middle; but for where we are today, on the subject of Brexit, I think it’s important to understand that both sides of this argument have solid ground to stand on.
Play the long game. At least it gets results.
Every politician’s first priority is to be re-elected. In the United States, almost all offices require re-election every two, four, or six years. In parliamentary democracies like the UK’s, it’s a bit more complicated, but the incentives stays the same: A Member of Congress or Member of Parliament’s legislative agenda always prioritizes surviving the next election over fixing long-term problems. And the bigger the mess or the more distant its consequences, the further it gets kicked down the road.
So most democracies just don’t deal with big problems. For example: The West’s unwillingness to deal with issues brought on by our graying populations, such as broken health care systems (Obamacare only took a bite out of this), bankrupt pensions, and crippled public finances is one of the major drivers of our continued economic malaise. Everyone knows that these problems exist and yet no one seems to be doing anything about it.
And that’s why I want to at least commend the British people for doing something.
I really don’t know if leaving the European Union will prove to be the right thing to do, but I also don’t know that it’s wrong. Here is what I do know: It’s a bold and decisive act to fight back against long-term, structural issues that have become a burden.
Now we’ll just have to see if the “Leave” crew has the grit to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Nothing is ever as good or bad as promised.
My uncle, John Heyburn, was a federal judge in our home state of Kentucky. Though he’d been a part of the core group of politicos who built the state Republican Party from the ground-up when the “Solid South” was still blue, he’s probably best remembered for being the judge who struck down Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage. For him, Judicial Temperament came as easily as a jump shot did to Steph Curry, and though I am so sad to say that he is no longer with us, I often think of a lesson he taught me when I was a young staffer on Capitol Hill.
It was Christmas Eve in 2009 and Harry Reid had just gaveled the Senate into session during a blizzard. They’d put chains on Capitol Police SUVs and were driving door-to-door on the Hill, grabbing Senators by the collar and dragging them into the Senate chamber to vote.
The purpose of all this was to ram through what would become the final version of Obamacare, one that everyone in Washington, from the bus drivers to Cabinet members, knew had hardly even been spell checked. There were holes in the bill a mile wide but it had to pass before Senator-elect Scott Brown (replacing recently deceased Ten Kennedy) was sworn-in, an event that would give Republicans the votes they needed to stop health care reform for good.
So I unloaded a predictably melodramatic opinion to my Uncle John. I told him about the grave consequences of using questionable tactics to pass an unfinished bill – nothing thoughtful or original at all – and he shrugged off my complaints, reassuring me that “Nothing in politics is ever as good or as bad as it’s promised.”
And that’s how I feel about Brexit. Yes, Brexit will drive short-term instability. There will be consequences of all kinds and things will get harder before they get easier. But a nation with Britain’s unique cultural and economic power will certainly get back in the long run whatever it loses in the short term.
The gamble then becomes this: Does emancipation from the EU’s bureaucracy represent an opportunity for net-gain? Does it give the United Kingdom the freedom and agility it needs to exploit its unique position in planetary affairs? To dance in the gaps left by its bulky competitors across the Channel, in China, or the USA? Or will the British people miss the increased heft and corresponding punching power that the EU’s heavy burden once gave it?
With no choice but to look onwards, towards the future that voters have chosen for their nation, I’m going to declare myself an optimist. I’m going to choose to believe that free people left to free action, will find a way to make the best of it. And if you disagree with me, that’s fine, but before you lose another hour’s sleep thinking Brexit is proof that evil is on the march, I’d caution you to please just wait and see.
Brexit is a shakeup in world affairs but it’s far from a disaster. It’s hardly an event as unthinkable – and unallowable – as what is now possible here, in the United States: a President Donald Trump.
So the lessons learned in one populist rebellion must, therefore, be applied to the other: meet the opponent head-on, challenge your assumptions by living closer to reality, and play the long game. If we do this together, we won’t be stuck hoping Judge Heyburn was right – that it can’t really be that bad, can it?