From The President / July 5, 2016

Brexit Vote Has Echoes in the U.S., but Progressives Can Write a Different Ending

Gara LaMarche
Democracy Alliance President


Last month’s Brexit vote in the United Kingdom sent shock waves through Europe and the world. The “leave” campaign had several things in common with the United States in this election season, making many anxious about whether the U.S. is in for a similar shock this November. As I see it, we need to look closely at three aspects that have echoes here: anti-immigrant movements that are roiling nearly every Western democracy; economic dislocation that is one of the main engines of disgust with national and global elites; and generational divides in voting.

The Brexit vote took place on the day that the United States Supreme Court split down the middle, affirming a terrible lower court decision blocking President Obama’s plan granting relief from deportation for family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

How did that case get to the Supreme Court? Because a number of Republican Governors and Attorney Generals, pandering to the Tea Party and other nativist movements, sued to stop the President’s action. Just as conservative politicians in Britain played with matches, cozying up to racist and nativist movements and getting engulfed in the flames, so too have Republican politicians stoked forces who want to “take our country back” — a phrase Donald Trump used about the Brexit vote when his plane touched down in Scotland to promote one of his golf courses on the morning the Brexit tally was announced.

“Three aspects [of the Brexit movement] have echoes here: anti-immigrant movements that are roiling nearly every Western democracy; economic dislocation that is one of the main engines of disgust with national and global elites; and generational divides in voting.”

Let’s be clear that such language, along with “America First” with its echoes of mid-20th century American fascist sympathizers, is little more than a rallying cry for white people who say they “don’t recognize our own country” because the ancestry of their neighbors and co-workers (and, increasingly, political leaders) is African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern or, in the British case, from eastern or Southern Europe. It must be condemned for the bigotry that it is, but progressives must also do more. We must offer an alternative vision of democracies that are stronger because of the racial, ethnic and religious diversity that immigration brings. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out here that while the Obama Administration has done much to advance immigrant rights, its continuing drumbeat of deportations both causes needless misery to families and undermines its moral and political authority.)

Beyond upholding a vision of strength through diversity, we also have to recognize that mixed in with the racist and xenophobic sentiments that fueled the Brexit vote and much of the support for Donald Trump here, there is economic pain and deep anger at economic and political elites who seem blind to it – who, in fact, have done better as most working people have done worse. There’s nothing in Donald Trump’s dismal business record or in his policy pronouncements (to the extent we can follow them) that remotely suggests he will address this pain, but he is riding the anger in a bogus “outsider” candidacy that has taken some hurting people in.

In their campaigns for the Democratic nomination, both candidates captured the support of many economically disenfranchised voters without in any way manipulating racial and ethnic tensions, addressing low-wage workers, financial reform, and college debt. The Democratic platform on which Hillary Clinton will run is shaping up to be the most progressive in the party’s history. If progressives stay on course offering real solutions for a truly inclusive economy, we will earn power and be in a position to use it. If we don’t, demagogues like Donald Trump – or, more likely, a smoother, more disciplined version of him in a future election cycle – will appeal more and more to those who see politics as unresponsive to their lives and needs.

A final theme of the Brexit vote was the sharp divide between the way older and younger voters saw Britain’s participation in the European Union. Nearly 60% of what the British call “pensioners” favored “Leave,” but only 19% of millennials did. Since the overall margin was fairly close, and young voters did not turn out in numbers reflecting their sentiments, a generation soon to pass from the scene marred the future for the young.

“The Democratic platform on which Hillary Clinton will run is shaping up to be the most progressive in the party’s history. If progressives stay on course offering real solutions for a truly inclusive economy, we will earn power and be in a position to use it.”

It could happen here, of course, if the younger voters inspired by Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders in the last three elections are not moved to vote. As with other key constituencies in the Obama coalition – something I’ll return to in a future column – we can’t count on the spectre of Trump alone as sufficient motivation. We have to support organizing, research, mobilization and all the investments necessary to building key infrastructure and the political benefits it yields.

The United States both sparks and reflects global trends. Resistance to migrants and refugees, unaccountable elites prospering while ordinary people scrape by, gulfs between the generations – each of these is a global phenomenon. We can buck those trends by supporting cohesive and inclusive social movements of immigrants and their allies, young people, and working people left out of the economy, and helping them build political power that brings necessary change.

That starts with the most urgent task – to make sure that the outcome of November’s election makes the UK Brexit vote an aberration, not a harbinger of politics to come.


DA-recommended organizations working on immigrant rights, income inequality and civic engagement of young people: