Recently, a student asked me a simple question: “I’d love to know your thoughts about how you think Brexit is going to affect the United States.”
Here is my not-so-simple answer.
Brexit is the result of popular disaffection with neoliberal globalization. The disaffection has produced Donald Trump’s nationalism and any number of nationalist revivals throughout the world.
Unregulated capitalism generates increased volatility, especially in the financial realm (e.g., the 2008 Great Recession), and ever-greater income and wealth inequality.
Wealth has certainly been created over the past 30-40 years, but its benefits have been increasingly skewed to the top 1 to 5 percent — this is a fact-based empirical reality.
One would think that people would vent their dissatisfaction onto the top 1 to 5 percent, the beneficiaries of this process.
Some have; thus, the Bernie Sanders and AOC phenomena within the Democratic Party in the U.S., and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in England.
But the 1 to 5 percent have multiple means to deflect and redirect this dissatisfaction. Primarily, the ideology of liberal capitalism itself — “good capitalism” vs. “bad socialism” — has been black-and-white narratives since the early 20th century and doubled down on during the Cold War.
For those who swallow this Manichaean vision, the left will always be “socialist” if not “communist,” and the right will always be “Our Country ’tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty.”
A second means of deflection, and one of increasing importance, is xenophobia (nationalism) and racism: If unregulated global capitalism is demonstrably not working for a growing number of voters, make those voters upset about something even worse: brown people and other unwelcome foreigners.
In the U.S., we add the evangelical fear of feminist “baby killers,” “Godless” intellectuals, and Hollywood “elites” to the mix.
There are powerful purveyors of these ideologies from within our very system of governance (the Conservative Party in England and the Republican Party in the U.S.), and from within the so-called fourth branch of government, the free press (Fox “News” in the U.S., the tabloid press in the U.K.).
These agents of deflection have been working overtime since wealth inequality began to skyrocket under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (and, in England, since the 1970s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher).
Historically, what started out as a deflection (nationalism and racism) from an increasingly obvious inegalitarian economic program (neoliberalism) ended up as the foundation of economic policy itself, in a classic “tail wagging the dog” outcome.
Unregulated capitalism became the project of keeping brown people and foreigners out and reducing social benefits that could benefit them, even if that meant jeopardizing the health and well-being of the entire country.
Radical racist nationalists like Donald Trump captured the party of the 1 to 5 percent, who got their tax cuts — though some might feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes (e.g., Mitt Romney).
And that’s where England is with Brexit today: The country has quite literally cut off its nose to spite its face.
The U.K. economy will suffer, but fewer brown people will be in the country. By the time people realize how bad Brexit — and racist nationalism — have been, going back may be impossible.
The U.S. is on the same path. We’re fighting China with a tariff war, fighting brown people with walls and cages, racking up a massive unsustainable deficit, and giving tax cuts to the 1 to 5 percent.
The 2020 election will be our Brexit moment: Which direction will the U.S. take?
On the one side, we have radical racist nationalism and authoritarian populism — everything the Founders of our republic were most afraid of (thus all those checks and balances).
On the other side, we have social democracy — which, if you think about the history of the past hundred years or so, is simply a return to the form of capitalism that pulled the West out of the Great Depression, through the Second World War, and into the most sustained and most equitable global expansion in human history. Talk about making America great again!
— Nylen is professor of political science and director of the International Studies Program at Stetson University. He has degrees from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of California at Berkeley. Nylen has lived in DeLand since 1992.