The recent Brexit vote confounds many who built their careers on understanding politics. How could so many choose an action that so obviously seems contrary to their economic interest? This has bearing on our presidential election because we have a similar choice. Clinton proposes to continue and improve on the current administration’s policies, working to control and exploit globalization to our benefit. Trump shouts “America First!” and proposes to reverse the trends of recent decades toward open borders and free trade between nations. Political elites here and abroad, the business establishment, and most mainline economists side with Clinton. Indeed, in this broad sense, so do many mainline Republicans. But Brexit sent a clear message to the contrary and treating it as an aberration is a mistake.
Our serious political leaders, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan, argue for policies that each believes will improve our lives and make us more prosperous. These policies differ widely but they reasonably cover the spectrum of historically plausible approaches. And neither of them will have a clue about why their sensible prescriptions are seemingly ignored. Meanwhile Donald Trump’s simplistic appeal will confound them with his success, conceivably even extending to his election.
When Hillary’s husband Bill Clinton was running for his first term in 1992, his campaign strategist James Carville coined a slogan that is widely perceived as the key to his success. “It’s the economy, stupid!” The idea is that economic interest trumps all others, and that fundamentally people vote their pocketbooks. It doesn’t imply that no other interests are relevant to an election, just that none will come close to overriding economic self-interest. I have always believed that this insight is sound and have even quoted it from time to time in my postings here. But, now I confess that I was wrong. Simply put, it is not just the economy, not by a long shot. Until the Clintons and Ryans of the world really understand this they will continue to face unpleasant surprises. And the same is true across the pond in the United Kingdom and in the remaining nations of the shaky European Union.
There has been an accelerating cultural change happening in the developed world that many find unsettling. I have lived in both England and the United States and I am old enough to have a personal perspective of this change. In both countries, young people don’t see it because this is how life has always been for them. But for the middle-aged and older, they are beginning not to recognize their countries. It is not simply nostalgia for an idealized past. Thinking people know that earlier there was a great deal wrong, and changes that right these wrongs are not unwelcome. Moreover this is mainly a white, mainstream phenomenon. People of color and first or second generation immigrants have not yet fully established themselves within the mainstream, so their attachment to it is immature and weak.
What is definitely unwelcome to this aging white majority is what appears to them to be a fundamental change in the character of our country. We no longer think alike about much at all and these differences rock our country like earthquakes. In particular, patriotism has become a somewhat scurrilous concept, as though love of country meant willful ignorance of our flaws and also hatred of others. It doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t have to be. In sum, we no longer know our neighbors and we don’t seem to have shared aspirations, although politicians like to pretend that we do.
In the United States, few look back fondly on the days of racial segregation, and certainly not those who were its target. But some changes since then strike at the heart of what it once meant to be an American. A factor in this is our changing demographics. While America has always been a country of immigrants, previous groups consciously and hopefully merged their cultures with the existing one. They were certainly proud of their heritage but they became equally proud Americans, notwithstanding the flaws in our way of life that were evident and exasperating. This seems no longer true. Also, the growing economic separation of the classes exaggerates the feeling that we are, in a sense, no longer in this together. There have always been the rich and the poor, but the increasing segmentation into the “haves” and the “never-will-haves” is disturbing to many. It has been a common expectation by each generation that its children will fare better than them, but for the first time in my lifetime that is coming into question.
Those who benefit economically from it have promoted immigration beyond our emotional capacity to accept and have glorified globalism with little real concern for its disruptive effects. All of this means that many older Americans look around and find themselves to be strangers in a strange land. They are alarmed by this and are drawn to the cartoonish simplicities of a Trump. “Make America great again” is heard as “Restore the country I once knew”.
Brexit was a harbinger of coming political events. England, and indeed all of the United Kingdom, used to have a recognizable character, not always lovable or admirable, but constant and familiar. The same kinds of changes driven by immigration and globalization have riven that country and, to a significant degree, Brexit exposes the consequences.
Those who analyze events based mainly on economics will never understand this, and thus they will continually be dumbfounded by election results that appear foolish and impractical. So, it is not just the economy, stupid! Prosperity is not equivalent to life satisfaction, all the more so when prosperity is unevenly distributed. Listen to the speeches of Clinton and Ryan. See if they are beginning to understand this or if they remain attached to their comfortable verities.