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Behind the Brexit

Failed institutions, clueless politicians, and betrayed voters
by Gordon Adams

Jun 27, 2016 | Foreign Policy, Politics


Photo Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos


The elites really are out of touch!  Watch out for the consequences. On the morning after votes were counted in the United Kingdom, I sat for an hour on a conference call hosted by the Atlantic Council, where the “policy 1 percent” talked about the implications of the British vote to leave the EU.

What you had was an intelligent, but largely irrelevant discussion among elite writers, diplomats, financiers, and think-tankers who focus, rather narrowly, I fear, on what they love to call the “European Project”—the 65-year effort to integrate more closely the markets and economic activities of European countries.

So the air was filled with “NATO” this, and “Brussels” that.  With urgings that the UK rethink the vote. With deep sympathy for the travails of the European institutions.  With endless rehashing of the “inaccuracies” in the propaganda of the British “Leave” campaign.

I used to do this European integration stuff for a living—was weaned as a “Europeanist,” with deep knowledge of the European institutions, from economics to security. I was part of this little policy 1 percent that “believed” in Europe, that saw nothing but good come from greater integration. And we could have that discussion because all of us were divorced from what was happening in the European and American streets; stuck in our little tribal world of “Europeanists.” Happily gabbing with each other about the “Commission,” or the “Council,” or the “regulations” or the “integration process.”

Politicians with few principles, weak connections to existing party institutions and governing structures, and a lot of media savvy have been dipping into this well for a number of years now, and the results are beginning to bear fruit.

But there is a rumble out there in the European jungle; and it doesn’t really have much to do with the European institutions, per se. It has been rumbling for a while among German right-wing organizations, the LePen movement in France, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, angry Danish voters, and unhappy Hungarians.

The Brexit vote, close as it was, was less about Brussels and bureaucrats than it was about policy-makers being out of touch with a populace that has been ignored and unheard for too long, about a wave of unhappiness that is growing across Europe and in the United States. The unhappiness is about powerlessness, job loss, about income and wealth gaps, societal change, and above all, disengaged institutions and policy-makers who pretend they hear, but do not, do not respond, and seem not to care.

More than 45 years ago, several of us started a European journal called Agenor, the name for the father of Europa in Greek mythology. One of the key goals of that publication was to do something about the reality, apparent in 1967, that the fledgling European institutions were unaccountable—that there was, yes, a democratic deficit at the heart of the European project. The deficit we saw then has now become an oil slick of unaccountability, affecting all of the industrial democracies.

Institutional bankruptcy and sclerosis are now at work everywhere, an erosion of the political structures that have, for decades, been the glue that holds political systems together. The Republican Party in the United States is breaking, faced with a tidal wave of know-nothing voters and a media-savvy candidate who can reach over the no-longer credible party elite and touch this chorus of unhappiness. The Democratic Party has failed to touch this current (Sanders, an independent, clearly did) and, only by grace of arbitrary and undemocratic rules, nominated a candidate for president distinguished by both competence and high negatives in the public. Why the negatives? Because of a reputation that she is given to what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness.”

It is about Belgians who had no government for almost 600 days and whose counter-terror efforts suffered the consequences. About a Euro-skeptic populist movement called “Five Stars” making headway against corrupt and inept political parties in Italy. And so on, in virtually every country.

The British Tories were fractured over this vote, and the supporters of “Leave,” including the UK Independence Party, led by failed politician and nativist Nigel Farage, could get away with a scandalous dog-whistle campaign about immigration, and reap the rewards as older English voters gave voice to their unhappiness. The Labour Party is not much better, saddled with Jeremy Corbyn, a leader who is not heartily supported by most of the party’s members and cannot seem to articulate a clear message in response to the dissatisfaction.

What comes through loud and clear is that the European and American political parties are out of touch. The Brexit outcome in the UK is not so much about the fancy trimmings of economic benefits and losses that come with EU membership as it is about the ability of extreme movements to seize the opportunity created by institutional bankruptcy and ride the wave of discontent about wealth, jobs, income, and powerlessness.

These nativist, and, yes, sometimes openly racist movements focus that unhappiness on the political and economic elite, and exploit the fear of “the other” to advance themselves. Whether it is African-Americans (throw them out of my campaign rallies), Latinos (build a wall), Muslims (keep them out of the U.S. or throw them out of Europe) immigrants and minorities have become a convenient, powerless easy  target. So let’s blame our problems—security, poverty, crime, benefit cheating—on them and throw out the rascals who have failed to stop the “foreign” invasion.

Politicians with few principles, weak connections to existing party institutions and governing structures, and a lot of media savvy have been dipping into this well for a number of years now, and the results are beginning to bear fruit.

It was revealing that the 1 percent policy elite on the Brexit call that Friday morning after the earthquake vote did not even bring up this disconnect until I asked about the “political unraveling” of industrial democracies. “Oh, yes, of course that,” was, for the most part, the response. And then we were back to the “implications for NATO,” or for “the UN,” or the “special relationship.” Or, as former UK Ambassador to the U.S. Sir Peter Westmacott put it on the call, “what we need is good, constructive leadership” to deal with the unhappiness.

Yes, and what, exactly, does that mean? Wouldn’t David Cameron say he was a “good constructive leader”? Surely he would. And he lost. Because he was out of touch.  Will a new Tory leader be “stronger” and “more constructive,” equally out of touch, or a Trump-like wild card like Boris Johnson?

Political leaders and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic are failing this test. They do not see the phenomenon or do not know how to reach out to it. Reaching out would be about putting an end to policies that discard entire generations to the unemployment dump heap. Or ending a string of policies that seem to benefit the economic 1 percent, at the cost of dislocation to the rest. Or, ending the rhetorical and inaccurate pretense that some free market “pie in the sky” will make everything better, by and by. How about shutting down the pretentiously erroneous argument that government is the enemy, when the unheard know, in their guts, that many government policies and institutions have been designed by the 1 percent to work for the 1 percent?

When the curtain has been pulled back, and the wizard is exposed, the disconnect between the wealthy and influential and the powerless and ignored becomes most clear. The disintegration of our political institutions has now pulled back the curtain.

The “policy 1 percent” in Europe or in the United States have a binary choice now. They can hurriedly restore the curtain and hope nobody notices it had opened (“good constructive leadership”). Or they can respond to the discontent with policies that make a difference. And face the real dilemma—how and why are they out of touch, and how do they reconnect? Quibbling about EU regulations or a far-away “European project” is not the answer; institutional revolution may be on its way.


Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at American University, a Fellow at the Stimson Center, and a policy consultant, living in Brunswick, Maine.

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  1. Thanks for such an intelligent synopsis of a complex and multilayered event. I am so glad people like you exist.

  2. This begins to sound like the 21st century version of the conditions described in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism,


  1. Stop, Think and Ask “What If…” | Many Things Considered - […] 40 years of increasing interconnection with Europe, and in the process turning their backs on the last century of…

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