Wayne O'Leary

Is There a Brexit in America’s Future?

The short, obvious answer to the question posed is no, because the US is not a member of any formal politico-economic organization it can leave the way the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. But there is a longer answer that considers this country’s position in the global economy and its internal similarities to the troubled UK. We may not exactly be in line for a Brexit; nevertheless, the makings exist for something strikingly similar — a bottom-up political revolt and a fundamental party realignment.

Here, as in the UK and Europe generally, both sides of the political spectrum have developed identity crises due to globalization. The condition is especially acute on the left. Since Bill Clinton hooked his party on the drug of big-money contributions in the 1990s, Democrats have increasingly adopted the Republican view that what’s good for big business is good for America. In the modern era, this has meant assisting multinationals in their quest for accelerated economic globalization, and Democrats have been happy to oblige.

It’s considered bad taste to mention it in polite left-wing company, but Democrats are responsible (along with Republicans, to be sure) for harmful trade deals like NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, as well as for deregulating the financial sector and increasing immigration quotas — all key items of the corporate global-economy agenda. Little has changed in recent years; Barack Obama has been as eager as the GOP Congress to cut corporate taxes and enact further free-trade legislation, notably the South Korean Free Trade Act in 2010 and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).

Similar things transpired in Great Britain under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as the Conservative government of David Cameron. Trade liberalization flourished, taxes were cut, immigration expanded, and the economy (especially finance) was deregulated. In the process, the stage was set for Brexit; all it took was the post-2008 economic crisis and accompanying austerity to cause a loss of faith in European integration and precipitate the June “Leave” referendum.

The accepted theory of international democratic politics, pre-globalization, was that the political right adored capitalism and advocated for business interests, while the political left distrusted capitalism and supported labor interests. Further (to oversimplify), the right disliked government and favored economic deregulation, while the left viewed government positively and favored economic oversight.

The theoretical basis for the foregoing dichotomy was that the right represented the rich minority, or the haves, and the left represented the poor majority, or the have-nots. This view of the world has long been the basis for the political-party systems of most democracies. However, what’s happened in recent times, especially in the last few years, is that the familiar left-right bifurcation has totally broken down under the pressures of globalization.

In the UK Brexit campaign, Labour’s traditionally leftist working-class base defied the party’s official “Remain” position and peeled off to vote “Leave” with the far-right UK Independence party, while its leadership and elected officials rallied to the support of the Conservative government. In the US, a parallel development is the apparent loss of many working-class Democrats to Donald Trump’s anti-globalism campaign. Meanwhile, white-collar Republicans are drifting toward the pro-globalization Democrats and allying themselves with Hillary Clinton.

Some telling poll data illustrates how the stresses and strains imposed by globalization have contributed to the unraveling of the American party system. For years, free-trade agreements have been enthusiastically backed by business-oriented Republicans; Democrats, sensitive to labor concerns, have been ambivalent at best. Now comes a new Brookings Institution study indicating that 60% of Republicans polled believe trade deals are mostly harmful, compared to 50% of Independents, and only 49% of Democrats. Remarkably, Republicans, led by Trump, have become the anti-free-trade party; Democrats, led by Obama and (kinda sorta) by Clinton, are now the pro-free-trade party.

Trade policy is one major factor in the potential reorientation of the American party system; immigration is another. Because of race and multiculturalism, immigration is the most sensitive aspect of the globalization debate and the one that’s hardest to address. Yet, it’s the part of the corporatist global agenda that most roils native populations and disrupts voting patterns, both here and in Europe — and with good reason. Free, unchecked population flows washing across national borders force down wages by increasing the number of people chasing a finite level of jobs, and they burden public budgets with the costs of assimilating those having different cultural backgrounds, languages, and (occasionally) value systems.

Open-ended immigration, aimed at creating “flexible” labor forces, is what global capitalism wants, in order to enhance bottom lines. The problem is not immigration per se, but the sheer numbers. In 2015, just before the Brexit vote, immigration to the UK had reached a reported all-time annual high of 330,000, having risen steadily since 1998. Half of the new arrivals were EU citizens, which meant they couldn’t legally be denied entry, and most came for employment opportunities.

The US, for its part, was maintaining an undocumented immigrant population in 2014 estimated by the New York Times at 11.5 million, about half of them from Mexico. They were residing in a country where, according to a recent survey by the Federal Reserve Board, one-third of all adults (75 million people) were “struggling to get by” economically — creating a guaranteed social powder keg.

Still, corporate America wants more. Big Tech, which rules the roost in Silicon Valley, prefers Democrat Clinton, not Republican Trump, for president; it likes her internationalist bona fides and hates his economic nationalism. Valley CEOs further expect she will follow through on expanding the H-1B visas that permit replacing Americans with cheaper foreign labor, the latest twist in the ongoing outsourcing saga.

America’s labor leaders are sticking with the Democrats, but who knows if their memberships, denied the Sanders option, will follow. The political world, as the British learned, has turned upside down, and all bets are off. Under globalization, the bosses are now the “liberals,” while the workers are turning “conservative.” Democrats are becoming the party of the upscale elites, and Republicans are suddenly representing those left behind.

We could very well be witnessing the start of America’s Brexit. Either that, or we’ve followed Alice through the looking glass.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016


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