The Brexit Message for America

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union generated a huge drop in the British pound and shock waves for global stock markets. It should jolt American policymakers to discuss how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not flee from them.

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union generated a huge drop in the British pound and shock waves for global stock markets. It should jolt American policymakers to discuss how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not flee from them.

The Brexit vote sent shock waves throughout the world and raised questions about whether simmering anger over the effects of globalization could lead to Donald Trump winning the White House this fall.

The plummeting British pound and sagging worldwide stock markets provided an immediate warning sign of the portentous moment caused by the vote to leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to step down and allow someone else from his Conservative Party to navigate the departure confirmed the vote has clear political consequences.

But the anxieties reflected in Britain don’t exactly equate to those in the United States. While older, white Britons voted to leave, younger Brits voted to remain in the EU. Trump has won the hearts of older, white Americans, younger voters gravitated to Democrat Bernie Sanders.

A weekend editorial in the New York Times offered an explanation. Economically stressed working class voters blame their plight on trade deals that have profited corporations and banks, but cost them good-paying jobs and economic security. Younger voters feel the same stress and anger over income inequality resulting from a global capitalism, but see value in “economic integration, mobility and diversity.” They favor political action to fix, not flee from, economic dislocation.

There are material differences in the makeup and diversity of British and American voters that make analogies to the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election tricky at best. But the real lesson from Brexit may be the sharp distinction between how older alienated voters and younger anxious voters want to face the future. “Leave” voters in Briton yearned to a return when they fared better. “Remain” voters acknowledged problems, but seek forward-looking solutions.

Trump, who praised the Brexit victory while in Scotland to promote his golf course, is clearly pointing back in time to when “America was great.” The question is how Hillary Clinton can carve her message to resonate with those who want change, but not reversion to the past. The litmus test of her success will be how well she wins over the young voters who flocked to Sanders’ candidacy.

“The lesson for American voters,” the New York Times editorialized, “is to see their economic problems clearly, lest they be manipulated into voting against their own and their nation’s interests.”

Who wins the presidential race in November could come down to, as it has so often, a handful of swing states, several of which are in the Rust Belt, which have borne the brunt of the effects of globalization combined with technological changes and moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump and Sanders have blasted previous trade agreements and strongly opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration. Clinton, whose presidential husband steered through NAFTA, initially favored the TPP, but during the campaign dropped her support.

Opposing trade deals may appease older, alienated voters, but it may not be enough for younger, anxious voters. Opposing the TPP won’t stop trade, any more than Britain departing the EU will halt trade, even if new tariff barriers are erected. So the forward-looking question may be how to take into account and address the inevitable dislocations from globalization.

This question will be of consuming interest to voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it should be a top priority for the entire country because economic dislocation knows no boundary. In Oregon, many rural communities remain in economic distress because of changing policies on timberland management.

The nation would benefit from a robust, candid conversation about how to cope with the side effects of globalization, not hide from them.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.