File photo of Donald Trump, who cheered Brexit.

File photo of Donald Trump, who cheered Brexit. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

America's 'Brexit' Is Coming

The U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union betrays a failure of empathy and imagination among its leaders. Will America’s political establishment fare any better?

If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.

So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.

No longer. In 2016, the consensus crumbled, torn apart by a failure of empathy, and a failure of imagination.

In Britain, Boris Johnson led the Brexit campaign to victory—and perhaps to 10 Downing Street. In the United States, Donald Trump will ride his message of “America First” to Cleveland—and perhaps to the White House. And they are not alone. In Austria, Norbert Hofer advanced to the threshold of the Hofburg Palace. In Hungary, polls show growing support for the far-right Jobbik party. Across the Western world, populist ethno-nationalism is rising, and unscrupulous politicians have spotted the opportunity, and are eagerly riding it to power.

To oppose it, political elites turned to fear. They compared Trump to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. They warned Brexit would plunge Britain into a black hole. They evoked the specter of Europe’s bloody past. These tactics barely worked in Austria. And they narrowly failed in Britain. It is an open question whether it will succeed in the United States.

This was the failure of empathy. The economic benefits of globalization are diffuse, it turns out, and its costs highly concentrated. For the worker whose factory has shuttered, cheaper T-shirts offer scant consolation. And the costs of cultural dislocation, although more difficult to quantify, are equally real. It is no coincidence that cultural discontent increases in the U.S. and the U.K. as a direct function of age—the further removed voters feel from the culture into which they were born, the more alien they feel in their own lands. Instead of addressing the pain many voters felt, politicians spent years telling their constituents they were wrong. Not just wrong, in fact, but dangerously ignorant.

Take the Republican U.S. presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, early in the primary season. When Trump suggested slapping tariffs on China, his rivals pounced on his obvious error. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz scolded Donald Trump about the dangers of protectionism, as if delivering an Econ 101 lecture to a recalcitrant child. “China doesn’t pay the tariff, the buyer pays the tariff,” Rubio said. Perhaps so—but factory workers also pay the costs of free trade, and that’s a much higher tab. That, somehow, went unmentioned.

Compounding this is a profound failure of imagination. Trump wants to make American great again; the Brexit campaigners promised to make Britain great again. They offer a false nostalgia, an illusory promise to restore a vision of national greatness that never truly existed in the first place. But it is a promise of change, a promise that things will be better once more.

David Frum has argued that the vote is a reaction against the arrival of 630,000 foreign nationals in 2015 alone, which he terms “the greatest mass migration since perhaps the Anglo-Saxon invasion.” And on this side of the Atlantic, 80 percent of Trump supporters in the Republican primary believed immigrants create more burden than benefit.

But the Western political establishment is inclined to dismiss such reactions as bigotry that should not be dignified with a response. Instead, they deploy slogans of the status quo: Remain, Stronger Together. These are intended as dark warnings of the costs of change, and intimations that those who vote for it are motivated solely by prejudice and ignorance.

And here is where the failure of imagination proved catastrophic for the established elites. They failed to paint a vision of a better, brighter future. They failed to offer a persuasive account of how much their people had gained. They failed to address the real concerns of their constituents, or to acknowledge that the interests of different constituencies sometimes diverge. They looked at those who pointed to the flaws in the global consensus—from Bernie Sanders to Nigel Farage—and saw only ideologues making outlandish promises.

They audaciously gambled that by presenting a stark choice, an all-or-nothing vision of globalization, they could persuade their voters to go all in. They seem not to have seriously considered that voters would embrace the alternative.

On Friday morning, Britons woke to a plunging pound, a rudderless state, and an unsettled future. Instead of making Britain great again, the vote threatens to make an end to Great Britain. Scotland and Northern Ireland may break away. The economic fallout is only beginning. Decades of laws must now be re-written. And it may be too late for regrets: Britons, Europe says, are stuck with the result for which they voted.    

Perhaps Britain’s parliamentary democracy played a crucial role. Its voters are accustomed to electing representatives who make stark promises, and then watching as they work out the painful compromises necessary for governance. This fueled the anger of recent decades, as voters looked on powerlessly as campaign pledges dissolved or picked up ballots devoid of representatives who would accurately reflect their opinions. Cameron gave them the chance to voice directly their own, unmediated views—without the filter of representative democracy to reconcile them with other constraints.

At least a few of those voters are stunned by the result. “I voted Leave but didn't think my vote would count,” one told the BBC. “I never thought it would actually happen.”

Well, it happened.

And now Americans are left to make sense of it. “I think it’s a great thing that happened,” said Donald Trump. “Good on you for ignoring all the fear mongering from special interest globalists who tend to aim for that apocalyptic One World Government that dissolves a nation's self-determination and sovereignty,” cheered Sarah Palin.

Whether Trump produces a similar success in November may depend less on what he does between now and then than the way the political elites he is challenging—in his own party, and on the other side of the aisle—choose to respond. Will they display enough empathy to convince angry, hurting voters they understand their pain is real? Will they exercise enough imagination to offer a positive vision of the future, one that promises them that America’s greatness lies ahead, and not behind?

If not, then “I never thought it would actually happen” will become their political epitaph, as well.