I arrived in London early on the afternoon of June 24, already knowing the results of the Brexit vote. I had checked obsessively on the flight from Los Angeles through the wonders (or burdens) of airborne Wi-Fi. Like most locals in England, I was stunned. Even those opposed to remaining in the European Union assumed that, at the end of the day, the majority would vote to stay put. In this regard, I had figured that the Brits would do as the Scots had done in their independence referendum in 2014, pull back from the brink of rupture at the last minute.
The results of the vote shocked to the core. Londoners, who voted 60-40 in favor of staying, were despondent and bewildered. All of the employees at the hotel where I stayed, every one of whom was a foreigner, gave voice to a mix of anger and fear. They came to London in search of opportunity, education and stability. They no longer knew where they stood in their adopted country. Similarly, everyone I met in shul and at Shabbat dinner later that evening, to a person, was aghast at the self-inflicted wound of the British, shuddering at the prospect of Boris Johnson as Britain’s next prime minister. Many of us could not avoid asking ourselves: If so many of the British pulled the lever as they did, couldn’t Americans do the same and allow the unimaginable to happen in November?
It is quite easy to surrender to dark predictions of the imminent demise of Britain, the European Union and the world at this juncture. In a more sober moment, I realize that I don’t share the dire pessimism of many. While I believe the vote was a colossal political miscalculation by David Cameron and a bad decision by the electorate, it also strikes me that there is too much on the line for the EU to act impetuously and vindictively by freezing the United Kingdom out of Europe. It is important, then, that negotiations over the “divorce” proceed not in the heat of the moment, but rather deliberately, as the consistently surprising and sage Angela Merkel proposed, thereby assuring the best interests of both parties.
And yet, in assessing the damage, it is clear that we must begin to connect the dots. What we are witnessing is not the venting of the wrath of British voters alone. We are witnessing a global phenomenon, a wide-scale pushback against the post-World War II ideal of liberal democracy. One sees this throughout the Continent, from Greece to Hungary, Spain to Poland, from Russia to Great Britain, and reaching across the Atlantic to the United States. One can even see the grave threats to the democratic order in Israel, to which politicians such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ominously referred, as part of this trend.
The current democracy deficit has many causal factors, though two in particular seem worthy of mention. Each derives from a different version of liberalism. First, globalization, the idea of open global economic borders without national restraints, once upon a time seemed to be the perfect system for the fleet, wireless and borderless 21st century. It turns out, though, that globalization can and has run roughshod over the economic and social orders of old, rendering obsolete the local worker, shop and customs. What Britons who supported the Leave campaign said the day after the vote was that, at last, they had their country back. The sense of ceding power — and of a lost cultural identity — was profound.
That feeling of cultural, economic and political loss results from a second factor: the extraordinary movement of populations in the world todday. Not since World War II have we seen as high a number of refugees: an estimated 65 million in 2015 (compared with 40 million in the 1940s), according to the United Nations. The arrival of new immigrants and refugees into Western countries, often from the Middle East or Central Asia, was initially welcomed — or at least permitted — in the name of a humanitarian, pluralist liberalism. There was a sense that the developed world had a responsibility to the developing world, a moral obligation to extend a hand to the less fortunate as a basic human right.
Over time, locals in the absorbing countries came to feel displaced by the new arrivals. Their unease and fear are understandable and cannot be dismissed as misanthropy or a mere figment of their imaginations. Social services are strained, good jobs are scarce and new cultural norms challenge old ones. And yet, neither the challenges nor the dynamism of global movement are new.
It is striking that the Western country that has absorbed the largest number of refugees and immigrants of late, Germany, with 1 million in recent years, is the most stable in the European Union. This should tell us something about the possibility of moving ahead into the 21st century without turning one’s back on liberal democratic values. To be sure, there do need to be reforms made in order to overcome globalization’s disregard for local workers in the name of the next cheap labor market. And there is surely a limit to the absorptive capacity of Western countries regarding new arrivals. But the answer does not lie in a closed-door policy. Hopefully, the British and European Union, after the bracing wake-up call of the Brexit vote, will return to their senses and recognize the mutual benefit of their partnership, even under a different name.
David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.