Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union sent shock waves through global financial markets and political bodies. The British exit, or “Brexit,” from the EU was a jolting reminder that when voters are frustrated with their governments, populism becomes a powerful political force.
In the case of the Brexit, many factors played a role. Terrorism, immigration and, some would argue, xenophobia — not to mention concerns over sclerotic economic growth — contributed to the decision by the majority of British voters to re-establish their national independence.
The heart of the Brexit vote, though, was a rejection of centralized, bureaucratic government and a call for a more accountable, accessible and localized government structure.
“Leave” voters disliked the behemoth EU bureaucracy in Brussels. As Conservative energy minister and Member of Parliament Andrea Leadsom explained during a debate over the referendum, “The truth is, 60 percent of our rules and regulations come from the European Union. As city minister and now as energy minister, all day long I’m told ‘you can’t do that, you can’t do this, because of the EU.’ … There are five presidents of the EU. Now, can anyone name them? And did anyone vote for them? No … and you can’t kick them out, either.”
Even still, the British political establishment supported the “Remain” position, as did President Barack Obama. But, as the Financial Times reported, “To millions of voters up and down the country, the referendum campaign has brought home just how little faith they have in Britain’s politicians and parties, business lobbies and trade unions, think-tanks and investment banks.”
By voting for Brexit, Britons will remove a huge bureaucratic overload. But warnings of economic calamity for the U.K. are plentiful.
British leadership must proceed with extreme caution ensuring that their exit from the EU is not abandoning Europe. In fact, the U.K.’s leadership ought to look to the example of Switzerland, which has never been an EU member but instead has treaties with it.
This is also a time of reflection for American voters who are now grappling with similar issues. Some of the campaign slogans, issues and rhetoric used in the Brexit electoral battle are eerily similar to the arguments being made in our own election.
Candidates in the U.S. should take note of the populist winds instead of dismissing or deriding them. Voters are frustrated because our government has become so big and polarized, and their political leaders are out of touch, out of reach and out of sync with their constituencies.
Brexit’s greatest lesson may be that voters desire a government close and accountable directly to them.