Maybe since I never thought it would happen, I never followed Brexit closely and never expected to write much about it. So much for those plans! Therefore, some of those great items I thought I’d be posting this weekend and early next week will head for the shelf. Here, instead, are some musings, focusing on the political effects in the United States – and that follow on from yesterday’s post.
>Although I remain confident that the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union will have scant impact on American politics this election year, some effects may rise above the trivial level. One has to do with an opportunity lost – by opponents of presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Had Britain opted for “Remain,” it’s certain that Trump critics throughout the political establishment would have rushed to proclaim that his brand of economic and political nationalism was dead politically as well as disastrous policy-wise. And it’s possible that these innumerable published and broadcast victory laps could have discouraged some Trump backers and reduced their turnout in November (all else equal). The torrent of scorn also could have convinced some independents and leaners to opt for a status quo champion like his presumptive November Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Converse effects, moreover, might have rippled through the Clinton and Clinton leaners camps. So in that sense, Brexit could represent a major dodged bullet for Trump-ism.
>Nonetheless, I remain just as strongly convinced that the Brexit victory won’t create any noteworthy positive momentum for Trump. Think of it this way: Can you imagine any Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) supporters concluding anything on the order of “The British decided to leave the European Union. They were motivated largely by security-related immigration concerns, resentment to economic globalization, and a desire to preserve and reclaim their political sovereignty. Therefore, I should vote for Trump because his positions are similar”?
How about this version? “The British decided to leave the European Union…CONTINUE AS ABOVE through “political sovereignty,” and then conclude, “Therefore, I should vote for Trump because those similar positions of his are actually right.” Equally preposterous.
Or this version, “The British….political sovereignty” and then conclude, “Therefore, I should vote for Trump because I don’t want to be out of step with what might be a global wave.” Come on.
One slightly more plausible possibility: “The British…political sovereignty” and then conclude, “Therefore, I should vote for Trump because it would be best if the United States and the U.K. had leaders on the same wavelength.” Slightly – but not much more – conceivable.
Clearly visible here in all the commentary hailing or fearing a domino effect is the tendency – especially on the part of shortsighted, superficial pundits and politicians – to substitute catchy metaphors and facile talking points for thought. Sure, it sounds at first hearing plausible that elections overseas – especially in a country with close cultural and historical ties and resemblances to America – would produce “momentum” that influences U.S. voters for any of the reasons implied above. But when has that actually ever happened?
Just as important: Why in concrete, substantive terms would it? Here it’s especially important to remember both the economic and geopolitical gulf dividing the United States and the U.K. that I explained in my first Brexit post. Precisely because – despite all the tripe manufactured by the chattering classes about an interdependent world – the United States is so amply insulated against so many international developments, American voters, as I noted, generally aren’t even paying attention to the British decision, and rightly so.
Yes, the stock market turmoil, which could linger briefly, is focusing Americans’ attention. But for anyone who professes to be genuinely optimistic about America’s future economic prospects, there’s no reason to believe that Brexit per se will produce a lengthy stock slump. The most credible argument in this vein – and for Brexit shaping American election results – entails the British vote meaningfully reducing economic confidence around the world and increasing uncertainty, producing a big drop-off in business investment and therefore even slower growth. And Trump would figure to be the prime beneficiary of a U.S. economy that gets even worse.
But here we run into a real irony: Who can doubt that, rightly or wrongly, one of the biggest threats to (already weak) business confidence and investment these days is the prospect of a Trump victory? Trying to net out all the effects here – whether political or economic – has my head spinning. That’s always a good sign that it’s time to stop speculating.
Another decisive reality the refutes both the momentum hopes and fears: However many sovereignty-related concerns are justified by U.S. membership in international organizations (especially like the World Trade Organization, which is legally authorized to nullify American law), significant actual threats to the nation’s independence simply have not emerged. As a result, sovereignty-grounded political appeals can’t reasonably be expected to resonate very widely or deeply in the U.S. electorate.
By contrast, the European Union’s decisions had already been realities that the British have to live with every day. So it was always likely that the Brexit campaign would at least attract large-scale support.
>Finally, the American media and political classes do have one Brexit-related point right. It’s centered on policy, but could also affect the election. Although some pundits and politicians are attributing the “Leave” vote mainly to various combinations of nativism, xenophobia, racism, and the like, more appear to understand that the EU and its backers have made serious policy mistakes that, if not enough to justify the Union’s breakup, do require major reforms.
Throughout the current presidential campaign, Clinton has clearly voiced similar thoughts about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong Democratic primary challenge, and has already pushed moved Left-ward on issues such as trade and Wall Street regulation, at least rhetorically. Clinton’s early responses to Brexit as such have been pretty muted. But it’s entirely possible that even if I’m right about Brexit’s impact on the domestic political fundamentals, Clinton might interpret the referendum and its implications as another sign that populism is the wave of the future in America, and that she has no choice but to ride it. Even in this astonishing political year, success along these lines would rank high on its list of political shocks.