Column: ‘Brexit’ is just a symptom of a larger crisis

Gordon Brown tells British voters to ‘Remain In’
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivers a speech at a “Remain In” event in Leicester, Britain on June 13. Britons will vote on whether or not leave the EU in a referendum this week.
(Will Oliver / EPA)

It’s anyone’s guess how things will go in Thursday’s referendum on British membership in the European Union, also known as “Brexit.” Right now the polls are essentially tied at around 47% for and 47% against (not that British polling has a particularly good track record). But win or lose, the fight over Brexit is symptomatic of a much larger crisis facing out-of-touch elites on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The European Union was the ultimate triumph of technocracy. The smart set not only insisted that a common European currency would work fantastically well, they insisted that doubters were knaves and nuts. Then the waves of Euro-crises hit the continent, most notoriously in Greece. 

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The smart set insisted that a common immigration policy would be an unalloyed economic boon while dismissing any concerns about possible social or economic upheavals. To disagree was to declare yourself not only a crank, but a bit of a racist. This species of political correctness led government officials to turn a blind eye to countless problems, including the notorious Rotherham sexual abuse epidemic in which about 1,400 minors, mostly white girls, were raped and trafficked by men of South Asian descent.


The European Union’s bureaucracy and paper-parliament were set up to be as insulated as possible from the concerns of actual voters. Representatives to the European Parliament are selected by party elites as a kind of highbrow patronage. They invariably defer to the permanent bureaucracy, which acts like a transnational cartel, one that happens to be composed of governments. As Daniel Hanan, the rare Euroskeptic skunk to infiltrate the garden party that is the EU parliament put it, “faced with a choice between democracy and supra-nationalism, the EU will always choose supra-nationalism.”

The rules flowing out of Brussels are in no way the source of all of Britain’s economic or social challenges, but when diktats come down about everything from the proper curvature of bananas to age requirements for the usage of balloons, you can understand why some Brits might be tempted to have their own version of a Boston Tea Party.

No matter how Brexit turns out, and no matter who wins the presidential campaign, this populist discontent isn’t going away any time soon.

There are parallels aplenty here in the United States. For generations, American elites, particularly on the left side of the aisle, have insisted that democracy gets in the way of optimal decision-making. Stuart Chase, an economic adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted an “industrial general staff with dictatorial powers” to run the economy. In 1962 John F. Kennedy declared: “Most of the problems ... that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” These problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.” The columnist Thomas Friedman openly yearns for the American government to be “China for a day” so it could overrule democracy and the rule of law in pursuit of “what works.”


This attitude virtually defines the Obama administration’s approach to everything from climate change (the Environmental Protection Agency, not Congress, destroyed the coal industry) to immigration (even President Obama admitted his executive orders would be unconstitutional, then went through with them anyway). Hillary Clinton’s disdain for the rules regarding her server and email, whether criminal or not, have the distinct stench of aloof aristocratic arrogance.

The thing about the rule of unaccountable rulers is that people will defer to them so long as they feel things are moving in the right direction, economically and otherwise. This is where the populism of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump overlap. Both ran on very similar claims that the elite are in it for themselves. Both insisted that their respective parties were “rigged.” Neither wants to get rid of strong interventionist government. Rather, they want government to be more activist for their chosen constituencies. Trump’s success in the primaries was a direct result of the widespread sentiment – right or wrong – that the “establishment” had different priorities on trade, immigration, etc., than the rank and file.

No matter how Brexit turns out, and no matter who wins the presidential campaign, this populist discontent isn’t going away any time soon.


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