Thanks to American Airlines delaying my Thursday evening flight home by 6 hours, I pulled an all-nighter and was able to follow the Brexit returns and morning-after impacts from London in real-time. I immediately dashed off a piece for US News. It went live this weekend. Given the history-in-the-making nature of this vote – and its impact on all the issues on which I write and teach – I wanted to share it with you right away.
Below is an expurgated version for quicker reading; to read the complete version, The End of Democracy as We Know It, click here.
Many observers are interpreting Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in much the same terms as Donald Trump. “Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing,” Trump said. In a written statement, he went on that the British “have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy.”
The British vote indeed may be a good leading indicator of where elections are headed in the U.S. later this year and in Europe the next – but what it indicates for the longer term is probably exactly the opposite of what these commentaries, and insurgents like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, and the Brexiteers, represent.
Britain has taken the first step in tearing apart one of the world’s major transnational organizations. It’s clear that others will soon follow and that the “Leave” vote in Britain was driven by the same anti-globalization, anti-immigration anger that has swept over not only the whole of Europe but also our own country. So, at first blush, these would appear to be – as Trump and others have heralded it – the first waves of reasserting national sovereignty and the firmness of borders (not to mention border walls).
Think again. The waves are cracking and demolishing all walls, not building them up.
The immediate effects of the Brexit vote include not only calls for further nation-state exits from the EU, but also resurgent sub-national claims to exit from their nation-states. The Scots – who voted overwhelmingly to Remain – almost tore Britain apart two years ago and are now almost certain to do so by 2018. They are not alone.
In sum, the nationalist resurgence of 2016 is not the new normal. It is but a way station on the road to the larger crack-up.
The U.S. itself is not immune. That should be the clearest lesson of the U.K. vote. That vote was very segregated: London as well as Britain’s historically more European-oriented satellite states strongly supported the “Remain” position; other parts of the country – those not enjoying the benefits of global trade, finance and elite educations – overwhelmingly wanted to leave. The different tribes of Britain – defined now more by their opportunities and, thus, their, global connectedness than by historic ethnicities – are going their separate ways.
The same is true here. This country is deeply divided into two ideologically homogenous but wholly incompatible blocs. These blocs are also almost entirely geographically independent. Given the snarling animosities of this year’s campaign, it is highly likely that talk of actual separation will rise after November. Since Obama’s election, conservative enclaves and states have increasingly raised the specter of seceding; lefties – which increasingly means the globally-connected urban, coastal elite – increasingly will be willing to let them. As borders and territory everywhere come to matter less and less to the economic and political elite, but more and more to the Left Behind, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be spared this phenomenon.
That means not just the end of nations as we know them, but also of democracy as we know it. I don’t mean that I expect totalitarianism to wipe away democracies everywhere. Instead, the choices that matter will be those between such entities, not within them. People will “vote” with their feet, their markets or their clicks. The old science of politics will be a thing of the past.
The “End of History” is so over. This is the beginning of a whole new chapter.
As always, I welcome your comments below.
Very helpful. Questions :
1. Where do you place the billions of the world’s poor? Seems like a whole third group, whether they have a cell phone or not.
2. What do you think of the Tony Judt argument in Postwar that the future of the world could be loose federalism? Of course, he wrote it years ago. But was he prescient or has history just moved on?
3. Do you see the US going toward stronger government or weaker?
Thanks, Jeff Blum
Well no, but ballot initiatives and (even worse) snap-poll citizens referenda like Brexit are the end of a certain kind of Democracy, the checked-and-balanced Democracy laid out in the U.S. Constitution, for sure. They epitomize the failings of the Greek republic that the founding white guys took so much care to correct. Even if the Brits do wiggle out of Brexit (which seems unlikely) the damage is already done….