The Brexit Vote and the U.S. Election Have A lot in Common

Brexit, England, UK

In just a few days, we will know if the United Kingdom will remain a member of the 23 year institutional experiment called the European Union.

With polls tightening, the outcome may literally come down to the wire on June 23rd. Much of the focus on this vote has been on Europe—how will separatists in Scotland, Spain, and Germany react?  Will this precipitate the eventual unraveling of the EU, as so many British politicians have direly predicted?  While the British people will certainly decide on the future of their nation and, more broadly, Europe, they are also setting the tone for America and the West writ large.  Whether or not the United Kingdom remains part of the EU after next week’s vote, the larger question of the future of 21st century geopolitical power structures has now surfaced.  Policy experts must begin to contemplate and strategize what the world order will look like post-2016. To be successful, they should include policies that assuage the anxieties of British and American citizens who feel left behind by globalization and the ensuing waves of immigration.

The large “leave” votes in the UK and the votes for non-traditional candidates like Trump and Sanders in the US indicate a clear rejection of the status quo.  Scaring voters with apocalyptic predictions into voting for “stay” in the UK or for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. may narrowly work in the coming elections. However, the overwhelming rejection of these ideas and candidates will continue to haunt politicians and decision-makers long after votes are cast.  While we ultimately believe it is in the UK’s best interest to stay in the EU, British politicians should not ignore the cries of the voters for real policy change.

The parallels between these two elections are glaring.  The approval ratings of the EU parliament and the United States Congress are at all-time lows.  They are perceived to be out of touch with their nations’ citizens.  Voters in both countries are concerned about their economies, and more fundamentally about their own futures.  Justified or unjustified, immigrants in both countries are blamed for taking jobs, while national security concerns related to terrorism remain a persistent fear.  Americans were promised “hope and change” eight years ago.  Brits were promised that they would be a part of a European society that would allow them to prosper.  Disillusioned with both failed promises, British and American voters are close to not only rejecting the status quo, but actually fundamentally rejecting the world order as it currently exists. This anger is justifiable. Voters are expressing their dissatisfaction as a result of their own vulnerability.  The voters are neither petulant nor stupid, and politicians should give them more credit: they understand that voting to leave the EU or voting for Trump or Sanders would up-end the system and potentially lead to a disastrous outcome-- but they are doing so anyway, because we, the governing class, failed to listen.

So what will UK and US voters do?  Is the UK about to enter an era of independence from the EU that could possibly work? Is the US about to shake up an entire system so they might have real change?

In the wake of these unprecedented shifts, policy makers must take action now.  Scaring voters into upholding the status quo would be a short-lived success; instead the political class in both countries must accept the reality that no matter the outcomes of the votes, 2016 has forever changed how our systems works and what the world will look like in the coming decade.  In March, we wrote a Op-Ed calling for the Republican Party leadership to listen to why the electorate was voting for Trump, to wake us from our cushy, sleepy slumber.

We will admit 2016 took us by surprise, even though it shouldn’t have.  The Tea Party and the protests of the 99% for the past eight years should have stirred us. They didn’t, and we approached 2016 with the same playbook for winning elections as was used in 1992. 

One doesn’t need to endorse Sanders or Trump, nor the Brits leaving the EU, to implore the country’s leaders to not simply breathe a sigh of relief if the status quo wins, but instead to lead us to a reengineering of our thinking, our policies, and our communication strategy to always respect and put the voter first.