The stunning United Kingdom referendum vote to exit the European Union was in many ways a long time coming. Tories for years bemoaned the heavy hand of EU regulators and diminished British sovereignty. On one level, it was part of a long history of British antipathy toward the continent.
But Brexit also tells us something about our own politics. It surely debunks the notion that our current turmoil is unique to the United States or can be attributed to one political charlatan.
The waves of alienation, dissatisfaction, and anger lapping over American politics also hit Britain and other industrialized societies. The hangover from the 2008 worldwide recession continues, shaking confidence in institutions (public and private), elites, and markets. The economic collapse was the most traumatic – but not the only – shock to large segments of industrialized societies – especially to older, less-educated, less-skilled workers displaced by technology and globalism. (Young people in the United Kingdom voted overwhelming to remain in the EU, older people to leave.)
Coupled with a sense that their country – much like themselves – has been disrespected and buffeted by ominous forces, the temptation is to indulge in conspiracy theories, blame outsiders, and resort to political nihilism. Soon leaders don’t lead, hucksters emerge to play on fear, and instantaneous social media intensifies public mood swings and propagates all sorts of myths. (Foreigners are stealing our jobs! Free trade is bad!)