Are there lessons to be learned from the messages from across the pond?
Brexit carries the day and the word goes out: nationalism can win! Trump can win!
The Conservatives lose their majority and the often reviled Jeremy Corbyn is on the rise. The word goes out: the left can win! Sanders can win!
So which is it? Candy mint or breath mint?
Stop! Stop! You’re both right!
The British election results have been widely portrayed as a simple reversal of fortune–the revenge of Remain, the revenge of youth, etc. The forces of Brexit/reaction/populism/nationalism/borders/lowbrow/uneducated have been stopped and we are back on the road to EU/multiculturalism/globalism/borderless/highbrow/ educated.
But those are two long strings of words and the concepts they represent don’t always cohere perfectly. Big forces are made up of smaller, shaggier forces, and as the focus changes from the big picture to smaller and smaller pictures things that appear to inevitably run together appear more vulnerable to fracture. Even at the level of the individual it takes only one to make an argument, as the saying goes.
And since the big picture in Great Britain is better understood as a set of provisional alliances than as a unified front any wholesale application to other countries and cultures is tricky, as conditions, and in turn alliances, will be different.
Just take the issue of the Jewish vote in Britain and the Jewish vote here. Jews in America have historically tended to tilt left more than Jews in Britain. In turn, Corbynite leftism in Britain tends to by sympathetic to Palestine and critical of Israel. In a post-election poll 71% of British Jews said May was preferable at PM to Corbyn, at 23% (see page 154).
And whereas in the recent French election youth tilted right and the older voters left in Britain there seemed to be a veritable youthquake for Labor. What does this mean?
Is it about a wholesale embrace of a far-left, essentially anticapitalist, economic program? One would expect Britain’s deplorables to be roused by that more readily than its young, cosmopolitan, educated urban youth with an eye on a career underwritten by globalist capitalism.
Is it about British youth not wanting borders? One would expect Britain’s yuppies to be concerned about that. They may want to study in Spain, visit a friend in Germany and enjoy the services of a low-wage Polish nanny when they start a family. But one would not expect youth in hardscrabble Bradford, possibly attracted to Labor’s economic program, to wax enthusiastic about high levels of Muslim immigration–or Polish, for that matter.
These issues will break in different ways in Britain and France. America, too.
The immigration issue in particular will play out differently as conditions differ.
In Europe the issue of a borderless EU is hopelessly tangled up with the border (or lack of a border) between the EU and the rest of the world. My guess is that it easier for a young professsional in London to favor relaxing borders because the net effect will be mostly positive: low cost services, a congenial multicultural environment filled with good restaurants, exciting cultural frisson and a diverse set of friends that are unlike you in many ways but like you in other ways that count: politeness, civility, education, professionalism, generally shared values. In turn, youth in Bradford may have somewhat different experiences.
People want to look for patterns, and better yet if they can find those patterns at higher and higher levels of aggregation. It is satisfying to work out a pattern that appears to conform to how the world is actually working. And per the above there is always a risk, in looking at higher levels of aggregation, that your pattern making impulse will get the better of you. And for this reason I worry about reading too much into the election in two dimensional terms–i.e., the pendulum swung “right” but BANG hit a wall and is now swinging “left”. What we think of as right and left can no longer be thought of in conventional two-dimensional terms.
While the British election is being played up as a victory for Remain and all the allied forces things may not be so simple. Corbyn appears to have underplayed Brexit, ducking the many cross-cutting and treacherous cultural issues, emphasizing instead old school class issues. In that respect he was able to pick up more support than expected from a collapsing UKIP. So Labor’s resurgence is likely not a simple victory for Remain, and all that that implies.
But since I myself like to find patterns, and am as guilty as the next person as reading more into the tea leaves and chicken bones than may be there, I will venture my own pattern recognition opinion.
What unites the seemingly different pendulum swings is–to use a leftie term–suspicion of neoliberalism. And if you don’t like that nomenclature perhaps it is more direct to say that our necessary elites have become too much untethered from their obligations, and we have a multi-front crisis of legitimacy in consequence.
The rightward lurch for Brexit and Trump evidenced suspicion over neoliberalism’s preference for the global over the national, for the universal over the particular, and for diversity as a canonical creed. The recent election may be signaling its own suspicion over neoliberalism, this time expressed in conventional bread-and-butter terms.
If this has any validity is it possible at all to look for lessons for a United States that differs in many ways from Britain? Maybe. I think there is room for a push left in this country. But just as Corbyn was wise to underplay Brexit promoters of a left agenda here would be wise to underplay those parts of the current progressive alliance that will likely generate divisions and not help build alliances.