We are told that the narrow majority of voters in the British referendum on staying in the European Union were mainly working people with less education than those who voted for staying in the Union. We are also told that almost every economic expert who weighed in on the controversy, irrespective of their politics, said that the British economy would suffer if Britain left the E.U. and that the very people most likely to vote for exit were those likely to be hurt the most. But, evidently, the winning side did not care what the experts had to say and voted for exit anyway.
What are we to make of this? I think a majority of Brits have lost confidence in both their political leadership and the experts, from both parties—the leaders of both the Labor Party and the Conservatives came down hard on the side of staying in the EU. For years, these ordinary, working class Brits have heard their leaders talk about the benefits of trade and of being in the E.U. (which amounts to the same thing, since being in the European Union was sold mainly on the benefits of free trade inside the Union).
While they saw their country benefiting, the benefits did not flow down to them. They saw the City—Britain’s hugely powerful financial establishment—getting fabulously rich, they saw the price of real estate in London going so high they could no longer afford to live there, and they saw many in the south of England getting ever more wealthy, too. But not them, not the working stiffs from the midlands and the north who made things and fixed things and sold things in small retail shops. They saw Polish plumbers taking their jobs and British car companies getting sold off to global companies without a British nameplate and their jobs in that industry disappearing. Somebody was getting rich for sure, but it was not them.
The experts had long argued that free trade with the world and access to the European market on insider terms would be good for Britain and the politicians had agreed. Were the experts wrong? No, they were right. In the aggregate, trade has worked for Britain. But who cares about the aggregate if you are among those in the aggregate who are getting hurt, who are working harder and harder every year and getting less and less as others are becoming fabulously wealthy.
Years ago, the Labor Party could be counted on to represent the interests of the coal miners and the truck drivers and retail clerks and plumbers. After all, most of them, or at least their parents, had done all these things. But the Thatcher administration shut down the coal mines and the top figures in the Blair government had gone to the same top universities that the top Tories had gone to. There was no dirt on their hands, or, in most cases, on their parents’ hands. They had become part of the upper middle class: professional, highly educated, with nice stock portfolios carefully tended by keen investment advisors in the City, comfortable homes and the prospect of sending their own children to the best public (in my country private) schools. The experts were in the same class.
Many of the people who voted for Brexit were saying, in effect, to the politicians and their experts, “You can take your facts and your analysis and your expertise and shove it, for all the good it has done us. You have sold us down the river and we have little to lose by trying something else.”
By now, the parallels to the United States should be obvious. But the analogy is hardly exact. The difference is the Reagan Democrats. When Lyndon Johnson went up to Capitol Hill to offer his civil rights legislation, he knew that the century-old alliance between the Democratic Party and the southern states was doomed. The Solid South (solid, that is, for the Democrats) was gone. What became clear shortly thereafter was that many working class white Democrats would join the southern Democrats and become Republicans, too. The Democratic Party was no longer the party of the white working class. It became the party of the upwardly mobile, well-educated white professionals of the two coasts, joined to African-Americans and Hispanic Americans; two groups that the leaders of the Republican Party would not go after for fear of alienating the Reagan Democrats. Many Democrats rejoiced, saying that they would no longer have to compromise with people whose views and values they did not share.
This implies that those members of the white working class who left the Democrats for the Republican Party had found a new home. But it turned out that while their votes for Republicans were welcomed, the movement conservatives and business Republicans who ran the party paid no more attention to them than the Conservative Tories paid to their counterparts in Britain. The Republicans, just like the Tories, embraced a multitude of policies—from reducing retirement benefits to slashing job training to embracing free trade—that cut directly against the interests of their new-found party members. The reality was that working class Americans had a home in neither party. Both parties, just as in Britain, were run by well-educated, well-heeled people with good connections whose kids went to good schools and had great prospects.
And now, of course, those forgotten Americans are saying to Democrats, the experts, and to the Republican movement conservatives and business leaders: “You can take your facts, and your analyses and your experts and shove it, because none of it has done any of us any good.”
I’d like to share some interesting data with you. Here is a list of the 10 states with the highest income and the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, along with an indication of how each state voted for president in the last election:
Highest Income/Capita Highest NAEP Scores
Maryland (D) Massachusetts (D)*
Alaska (R) New Hampshire (D)*
New Jersey (D)* New Jersey (D)*
Connecticut (D) Wyoming (R)
Massachusetts (D)* Minnesota (D)*
Virginia ((D)* Indiana (R)
New Hampshire (D* Virginia (D)*
California (D) Nebraska (R)
And here are lists of the 10 states with the lowest income and lowest NAEP scores:
Lowest Income/Capita Lowest NAEP Scores
Mississippi (R)* New Mexico (D)*
Arkansas (R)* Mississippi (R)*
West Virginia (R)* Louisiana ((R)*
Alabama (R)* Alabama (R)*
Kentucky (R) California (D)
New Mexico (D)* Nevada (D)
South Carolina (R) West Virginia (R)*
Tennessee (R) Arkansas (R)*
Louisiana (R)* Alaska (R)
States that appear on both lists in each series are asterisked. Five of the states with the most successful education systems are also on the list of the states whose citizens are among the highest earners in the country. Six of the states with the worst performing education systems are home to the lowest earners in the country. The states with the highest income earners and best education systems voted heavily Democrat in the last presidential election. The states with the lowest income earners and worst education systems voted heavily Republican in the last presidential election.
Just as in England, those with the least education are those who have been hurt most by globalization and free trade. They are most likely, as we see now in the way they are reacting to the candidacies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, to reject not just the leaders of their parties but also the experts they think have ignored them and their interests. They believe that immigration pushed by their elites and unfair trade treaties negotiated by the same elites, with the encouragement of the experts, is at the root of their problems.
But they aren’t. What is at the root of their problems is the fact that they don’t have the education or skills that are now needed in high-wage countries like the United States and Britain to justify their wages when global employers can get people with the same skills they have a small fraction of the price elsewhere.
In fact, they don’t have the education and skills needed to compete with the kinds of robots that are now available, a greater threat by far than outsourcing now is. The experts have told them that raising trade barriers will only produce a trade war from which they will suffer, which is true, but the experts have offered no solutions for their lack of work and steadily eroding wages when they can find work. It is no wonder that they resent competition from immigrants who are eager to take the jobs these workers now have to fight for at wages they would never have considered a few years ago. No one has offered to provide the massive effort to provide them the education and skills they now need to compete.
If I have got this anywhere near right, the presidential election in the United States may be won by the candidate who convinces the people who have been most hurt by globalization and automation that that candidate feels their pain and is prepared to do something about it. In the primaries, Donald Trump convinced them that he feels their pain, and they are prepared, so far, to overlook the fact that his proposals would hurt them, not help them. Hillary Clinton has proposals that could help them, proposals that could and should be greatly amplified, but she has failed so far to convince those most hurt by globalization and automation that she feels their pain. The Brexit vote is a warning shot across our bow. Will we hear it?