Last week citizens of Great Britain voted whether or not to remain a part of the European Union. The EU began its formation after World War II as a way to prevent events that caused world wars that informed much of the 20th Century. It found its roots in 1950 but most people point to 1993 when the “Single Market” was completed with the free movement of goods, services, people and money. Most countries adopted a common currency (the “euro“) and you didn’t need a passport to travel between countries in the EU.
Implementing these reforms hasn’t always been easy, but like the blending of any family, its members attempted to reach for the common good and recognized that each of them did better when they all did better.
But an undercurrent of opposition has always found its place among conservatives who felt individual countries traded away some of its sovereignty. They also felt it opened them up to unfair burdens imposed by immigrants.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron supported membership in the EU. But facing opposition from his own party he promised, in January 2013, that he would call a referendum to leave the EU sometime before the end of 2017. This past February 22nd he announced June 23rd as the date of the referendum.
Smart money and bookies never thought the referendum would call for Britain to leave the EU. But it did, by a margin of 52% to 48%.
This led to great consternation and concern over the last few days. Virtually every economist believes that this will be economically devastating to Britain, and to a lesser extent Europe and the world (including the United States). There’s wisdom to this: limiting trade and immigration has historically devastated nations (history nerds like me point to the Smoot Hawley Act of 1930).
Panicked reaction to Brexit comes not only from those who voted against it, but also from those who voted for it thinking it wouldn’t pass. Simply put, they used their vote to send a message. Using an old, anonymous quote: If you want to send a message, use Western Union.
There is reason to believe that thousands of Britains voted to leave the EU not because they wanted to leave the EU but because they wanted to express their nostalgia for the 1800s when “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”
Now they recognize that their votes have backfired. As an American, what do I take from this?
Well, it’s worth noting that we’re in the middle of a Presidential election.
Hilary Clinton believes Britain should have voted to stay in the EU. She feels that Britain, and the rest of us, would have done better if they had remained. On the other hand Donald Trump claimed that the vote was good because it benefits him.
The same economists who fear Great Britain leaving the EU also fear Donald Trump. Nearly half of US voters tell us they will vote for Donald out of anger at “the establishment.” But many of them will vote for him not because they want him to lead our nation but because they want to send a message that they don’t feel their needs are being met.
OK, I get it. Many voters feel that the “American Dream” is gamed toward the wealthy and we need a revolution to even the playing field. But much like the vote to leave the EU, a vote for Donald Trump will make everyone’s lives worse, not better. Xenophobia and protectionism hurts everyone, but it mainly hurts those without a safety net. It hurts the waitress when her customers can no longer afford to go to breakfast after church. It hurts the local police officer, firefighter, or teacher whose salary depends on property taxes that fall of the cliff when property values plummet. And it hurts people who are depending on their 401(k)’s for a secure retirement.
This is my call to American voters: use your vote to decide who will best lead us for the next four years. If you want to express your displeasure over today and/or your nostalgia from a time when your life was better, send a telegram.