In the week since the Brexit vote, we’ve read a number of analyses about why the Brits — or Little Englanders, to be more specific — chose to secede from the European Union, and what that portends for the world’s current English-speaking empire.
Not to put too fine a point on it: They’re White. And they’re angry.
From there, comparisons with current United States politics are straightforward. We’ll even grant that they’re true. But we find them insufficient.
The broader picture is more historical, and more complicated. Two forces are at play here, one inevitable, the other deliberate: Globalization and Thatcherism — or, as we know the latter, Reaganism.
When we talk about the inevitability of Globalization, we don’t mean the (very) arguable specifics of trade agreements. From shipping to air transport to satellites to the Internet, the world has become more tied together in the past half-century than in the millennia previous. This in turn has allowed manufacturers to seek cheaper labor at great distances.
Every time we’ve bought an iPhone, we’ve tracked its FedEx journey from China to our doorstep. Not only was an iPhone inconceivable when we were born, so was the shipping. Unless you want to invoke high tariffs — and please, ask the 19th Century about how well that worked — this is now a fact of life, with disruptive consequences.
What’s not inevitable is how we’ve handled the disruption. Thatcher and Reagan set about methodically dismantling their countries’ social safety nets, at the same time implementing policies that favored the accumulation of wealth by the rich.
Mission accomplished: You can date the steadily growing income gap from the early 1980s. Globalization has made the world wealthier as promised, but that wealth hasn’t been shared. If you wanna cook up some resentment — particularly among Formerly Middle-Class Whites who grew up in an era of virtually guaranteed employment — there’s the recipe.
But it’s been both a very fast and a very slow boil: Very fast if you have the luxury of taking the historical view, very slow if you’ve had to suffer through it. Causes and effects are only clear if you’re not trapped for decades between them. Today’s Brexit or Trump voters aren’t going to methodically trace their plight back to the introduction of standardized shipping containers or trickle-down economics — they’re going to search for more immediate villains.
Like, y’know, foreigners.
Of course, since they’re lashing out at the wrong villains, their actions won’t change the conditions underlying their anger — if anything, they’ll likely be even more screwed than they are now, and perhaps even take the world economy down with them.
But if that happens, the fault won’t lie with the idiots who voted for Brexit or Trump, but the greedy Elites who drove them to it over the past two generations. Even the Romans knew the wisdom of buying off the unwashed masses.