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By Maria Siano, Contributing Writer
To find out what has been motivating working-class voters during the US Presidential election, Working America talked with more than 1,600 white, Midwestern voters making less than $75,000, what it called a "front porch focus group." There was strong support for Donald Trump because he addressed their frustrations about economic and job uncertainty. His anti-establishment message has resonated with those seeking more independence, both personally and culturally.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Brexit supporters in the UK. Writing in The Guardian a week before the vote on the referendum to remain or leave the EU, Lisa McKenzie observed working-class voters were fearful about an uncertain future. Many hadn't voted in previous elections, but were energized and engaged by Brexit campaigners who spoke to their concerns about the effects of liberal immigration policies and wasteful spending. On June 23, 71.8 percent of voters turned out, the majority (52 percent) in favor of leaving the EU.
Through these nationalist messages, working-class voters are finding a voice, and they seem to be saying they want to improve their economic conditions as wages become stagnant or unsecure, as employers shut down or move jobs elsewhere. And many place the blame for these economic struggles on liberal immigration policies.
A recent New York Times article explored whether the "ugly anti-immigrant tone" of the Brexit campaign contributed to recent violence in the UK, including the shooting of a 41-year-old Labour Party member of Parliament. Since the Brexit vote, aggression toward immigrants has also escalated: Leaflets with anti-Polish sentiments were strewn on cars, and a Polish cultural center in London was vandalized with hate speech. The Muslim Council of Britain also reported 100 hate incidents on social media.
A provocative tone is evident in Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well. The New York Times described his Republican National Convention speech as "dark" and "angry." He spoke of recent violence in the US and questioned the will of other politicians to address it. He said: "People who work hard but no longer have a voice — I am your voice."
Three books offer insights into this recent rise in nationalist sentiments in the UK and the US.
The essays collected in Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Britain and Europe's Dysfunctional Relationship (edited by Patrick Minford and J. R. Shackleton; Institute of Economic Affairs, 2016) call for reform of an EU system that is too restrictive, too unrealistic, and too ineffective. The collective message is that there are benefits to the EU, but some measures have gone too far and are too constraining.
Leaving the EU offers opportunities, they acknowledge: Working-class Brexit supporters seek more restrictions on immigration to prevent an influx of low-skilled workers who potentially threaten their jobs. While the authors see free movement of goods and people among EU countries as a benefit to be retained, they support opening trade with other parts of the world, particularly China and India. Free from the EU system, the UK would also be able to negotiate trade agreements and gain control over food pricing. But the authors suggest reform of the EU could provide many of these measures, too.
Still, they acknowledge EU regulatory constraints are problematic and call for renegotiating the regulations. They propose:
- Considering new terms for UK membership in the EU, or covering the UK under an external treaty, rather than as a member, to provide greater autonomy.
- A simpler banking system that is allowed to fail, but one with recovery mechanisms within the industry.
- Environmental policies with more realistic targets, and more support for research into newer technologies, instead of focusing on renewable energy as the primary solution to climate change.
The authors provide a framework to remain with a reformed EU, yet, they acknowledge renegotiation will be difficult.
Echoing the call for EU reform, in the booklet The UK’s In–Out Referendum: EU Foreign and Defence Policy Reform (Haus Publishing, 2015) David Owen proposes a collaborative approach to negotiate a more flexible design for the EU. A co-founder of the Social Democratic Party who previously served as a Labour Party member of Parliament, Foreign Secretary from 1977–1979, and peace negotiator in Yugoslavia, he currently serves as an Independent Social Democrat in the House of Lords.
Owen highlights how global circumstances have changed since the formation of the EU (when trade among countries was viewed as a way to prevent future world wars), and suggests revising the Maastricht Treaty, particularly since when it was created it was expected that all members would adopt the euro as its currency, and that has not materialized (only 19 of the 28 Member States use the euro).
- All 28 Member States in the EU collaborating to "rethink and work together to restructure the whole EU, not just its parts" (p. 14).
- Preventing domination of the Eurozone — countries where the euro is the national currency — by adding more checks and balances.
- Adding associate EU member Turkey as a full voting member of the European Economic Area (EEA) to improve relations in the Middle East and facilitate migration from Syria.
- Making a stronger commitment to NATO with less focus on EU common defense. He calls for close cooperation between NATO and EU members, with the EU and NATO "acting in harmony, not competition" (p. 17), and suggests EU members in NATO increase defense budgets.
He points to historical collaborations among leaders during World War II as crucial in defeating Hitler and cites the response to the financial crisis in Greece as evidence of flaws in the EU banking system.
Nationalist Violence in Postwar Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2015), by Luis de la Calle Robles, offers an in-depth review of six cases of nationalist activity and points to possible reasons for instances that resulted in violence. His analysis provides a prism through which present-day nationalist aggression in the UK and the US can be evaluated. The six case studies can be viewed as a cautionary tale, and offer potential strategies to avert nationalist violence going forward.
De la Calle identifies a connection "between unresponsive countrywide elites, change-averse regional actors, and repression-induced nationalist mobilization" (p. 9). Through the six case studies (Basque Country, Northern Ireland, Corsica, Catalonia, Sardinia, and Wales), he explores the role of each of the three groups in the process:
- Nationalists turn to violence when they are not able to make progress through legal means — when concessions are not made by those in power. When they feel they are being repressed, they employ more aggressive tactics, primarily as a way to mobilize support for the nationalist group.
- If the statewide political party views a region as relevant to maintaining its political power, concessions are often made to the nationalist group if doing so will not damage the statewide politicians' reputation. Political concerns sometimes prevent statewide politicians from conceding on smaller points, De La Calle says, which can fuel nationalist aggression, particularly in areas where conditions are prime for nationalists to expand, such as when nationalist groups mobilized before or when a statewide political party is decaying. The cases show, making mild concessions on smaller points early in the process can potentially diffuse nationalist aggression.
- Regional elites play a key role in the process because they have a more complete understanding than statewide politicians of the conditions in the area and the strength of nationalists in the region. The regional leaders' standpoint also influences the response: If they are dependent on the statewide party and provide the state with useful information about nationalist efforts in the region, violence is often averted or minimized. If they recognize that conditions could make nationalist growth likely, they also have incentives to support concessions, as a way to retain power. When they are fearful of losing power and act in their own interests, or when they don't share information readily with statewide leaders, violence is more likely.
Each case explores additional nuances, including the type of government, political party structures, and level of competition among political parties.
Today, established politicians, autonomous leaders, and groups with nationalist sentiments have a strong voice in UK and US public discourse. But while nationalist sentiments have increased recently, they are not the only public sentiments.
In the days after the Brexit vote, following the anti-immigrant vandalism at the Polish cultural center in London, other citizens brought flowers to the center as a show of support. Social media posts since the vote have also included notes of apology to immigrants from Poland, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries, in response to anti-immigrant posts.
There has also been a recent shift among Brexit supporters. Vocal advocates of the Brexit campaign, who used nationalist messages to garner support for leaving the EU, have softened their tone and positions now that the measure has been approved. They call for revising immigration policies, rather than "minimal immigration."
Eugene Robinson, writing an op-ed in The Washington Post, says perhaps the backpedaling by Brexit campaigners is a sign of seller's remorse, and he wonders if it foretells the buyer's remorse Trump supporters might experience should he get elected.
As the three books here propose, there are ways to acknowledge the fears, anxieties, and frustrations of working-class citizens — the kinds of sentiments expressed by Brexit and Trump supporters — without fueling nationalist aggression and violence. The systemic reforms suggested can offer relief to those most concerned about their uncertain financial futures.