Politics in Perspective

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


Two weeks in London in December provided a chance to gain a fresh perspective on the United States’ crazy politics of 2016.  The bottom line is that the U.S. isn’t alone.   New economic and cultural realities worldwide have sewn a sense of resentment and displacement among traditional working class constituencies in England and the rest of Europe, as well as in the USA.

Half a year after the vote to have the UK withdraw from the European Union, Britain is still reeling from Brexit’s fallout.  Everyone we talked to thinks that Britain will move forward with the exit, even though the June referendum was only advisory and was passed by a narrow vote.  Like the Donald Trump victory in the United States, Britain’s YES vote on Brexit was a surprise to most of the “experts” –particularly pollsters.  London and other urban centers voted to remain in the EU, but angry voters in the hinterlands—riled by immigration and the loss of traditional jobs—pushed the Brexit vote over the top.  Sound familiar?

There was no single figure to embody the angry opposition to the EU, but there were at least two vocal ringleaders—Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Trump acolyte, and former London Mayor, now Conservative M.P. and Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, who cuts a decidedly Trumpian profile (starting at the hair!).  More importantly, there remains a palpable lack of public confidence in the political establishment.  Despite his opposition to leaving the EU, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, called the Brexit election—a seemingly “low-risk” political calculation–primarily to assuage UKIP and a significant percentage of Conservative P.M.s. Cameron lost his political bet and resigned in the aftermath of the referendum vote; his successor, Theresa May–another “Leave” opponent, is a work in progress.

The Conservative Party is divided over Brexit, in much the same way the GOP is divided over trade, immigration, Russia and deficit spending. The Tories still seem destined to stay in power–as much as anything, because there appears to be no viable opposition party.

What has happened to the Labour Party in Britain should be a cautionary tale for Democrats in America.  After years of Tony Blair and his uncharismatic successor Gordon Brown, Labour lost its majority and the party faithful placed much of the blame on Blair and his New Labour (moderate) policies.  Labour took a major haircut in the last Parliamentary elections and turned to Jeremy Corbin, the Bernie Sanders of the UK, as its leader.  This sharp left turn has rendered Labour virtually uncompetitive.   The Scottish National Party has taken over what was once a Labour stronghold. Per BBC News, “Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in the wake of the Leave result that it is ‘democratically unacceptable’ that Scotland faces being taken out of the EU when it voted to Remain. A second independence referendum for the country is now ‘highly likely’.” (Shades of Calexit, as deep-blue California enters the Trump political era.)

A leftward turn by American Democrats is unlikely to prove a winning formula.  Despite disappointment over November’s election results, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote and Democrats picked up seats in both the Senate and U.S. House.  What Democrats need is not necessarily ideological purity or populist policies (AKA pandering) but rather better communication and more persuasive candidates.  California is a much better model for a national Democratic resurgence than are Britain’s Labourites.

What is clear, in viewing the American electoral circus, Britain’s Brexit issues and the testiness of politics in much of Europe (France, Italy Germany and the Netherlands all have volatile elections this year) is that globalization and rapid technological change, coupled with the worldwide proliferation of cyber and media anarchy, have created a globally bifurcated society.  While modern urban and suburban centers from California and New York to London, Paris and Berlin are on an economic roll, people in rural and exurban communities and traditional manufacturing towns are hurting.  Immigrant bashing and anti-trade diatribes have proven to have real appeal to those who see the world passing them by. But how will they react if the promises of Donald Trump the Brexit advocates and Europe’s anti-establishment politicians don’t turn out to improve their lives? What if Trump can’t—or won’t–keep his promise to “drain the swamp”? (The early returns are not promising.)

California has gone through its own bout of alienation in the early years of this century, when power shortages and fiscal chaos spurred the recall that ousted Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to “blow up the boxes” of a bloated government. It didn’t—couldn’t—happen.  While Governor Schwarzenegger was much more policy driven and centrist than Donald Trump, his administration foundered and failed to deliver on its promises.  Between disappointment in Schwarzenegger and rejection of the national GOP agenda, the Golden State was ready to listen to a pragmatist. who preached prudence and persistence.

When the dust has settled on the political upheaval that is shaking Western democracies, it may take a new cohort of Jerry Browns to restore equilibrium.

Maybe 2020 isn’t too late for Joe Biden after all.

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