Goodman: Americans should look in the mirror before mocking United Kingdom

The UK is mired in controversy over Brexit. Don’t laugh. The conditions that led to it are similar to what’s happening in the United States.
Anti-Brexit protesters stand near a satirical sculpture of British Prime Minister Theresa May by German artist Jacques Tilly near the Houses of Parliament in London on April 1, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Jason Alden
Anti-Brexit protesters stand near a satirical sculpture of British Prime Minister Theresa May by German artist Jacques Tilly near the Houses of Parliament in London on April 1, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Jason Alden
Published April 5

Prime Minister Theresa May is set to lose her job, and the British people are set to lose their minds two years after their declaration of independence. Brexit has spawned Brexiety, leaving all inflicted to beseech the heavens for a last-minute miracle.

Yet as the wheels spiral off the cart in Britain’s ill-conceived dance with disunion from the European Union, Americans should take no comfort that it’s transpiring a world away.

We’ve convinced ourselves such a departure from the senses – and potentially tens of trillions of dollars in lost wealth -- could never happen here.

The truth is, it already is.

Fueled by angry partisans, anger-generating TV pundits, and politicians long on rhetoric but short on remedies, the seeds are sown and the harvest is near.

Like 51.89% of fed-up UK voters who wanted to free-fall into the future, Americans are similarly amped up about why our nation – the world’s most envied economic power-- isn’t doing better.

The haves have more, the have-nots less. Check.

The ruling elites have let us down. Check.

Immigration is out of control. Checkmate.

As in the United Kingdom, all of this is breeding a new rallying cry, “It’s the system, stupid.”

Donald Trump secured the presidency with this core message, in part because Hillary Clinton ignored it.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto what’s-his-name, and the other Democratic wannabes have picked up the cue and are running with it. Want free health care? Run against the system. A chicken in every pot? Run against the system. Want to win? Run against the system, and everyone connected with it.

However, in both the UK and USA, this is no longer limited to a popularity contest where voters are asked to choose among political mortals. Now we’re talking bigger game, wholesale systemic change that changes everything.

That’s what the Brits brought on with Brexit, as a bare majority of the voting public (51%) lashed out at the status quo by opting to leave the EU behind with no details worked out, no exit plan initiated. Just, “We’re out of there.”

If you decide to upend a nation’s economy and long-forged relationships, a 16-word referendum passed by 51% of the vote isn’t enough. It’s more like a suggestion, not a mandate; a prescription for therapy, not a declaration of manmade anarchy. Worse, May is utterly miscast as prime minister, performing as Neville Chamberlain while the script calls for Churchill.

We’re toying with similar fire today. An NBC News/WSJ poll shows 45% of Americans are warming to socialism over capitalism -- younger Americans in particular who think it would be swell to change everything despite the disruption it would wreak on everyone.

How did we reach this point of national immolation?

First, we’ve had a breakneck breakdown in trust, especially in the institutional pillars that traditionally reinforce our sense of control and stability.

Every year Pew Research measures our confidence in these pillars. Today, only three – the military, small business, and police – are consistently above the 50% mark. All the rest – public education, the criminal justice system, big business, organized religion, the Supreme Court, the president, Congress, the media – are below the line.

Second, frustrated with government paralysis, Americans are resorting more and more to direct democracy via ballot initiatives to correct, amend, and/or change public policy. Property taxes. Felons’ voting rights. Environmental protection. Anti-corruption ethics reform.

This is not unique to us; it’s happened all over the world. From immigration (Hungry) and government reform (Egypt, Morocco), to military conscription (Austria), and same sex marriage (Slovakia, Romania, others).

The difference is the United Kingdom went all – well, 51% all in – to impose a cure worse than the original illness.

In America, states like Florida are now grasping the dangers of unfettered citizen-driven change. Florida voters raised the bar to pass a constitutional referenda from 50% to 60%. State lawmakers may ask voters to consider an even higher standard – a two-thirds super majority – moving forward.

It sounds un-democratic, right (“We the people” and all that)? Yet it may serve to help save democracy from itself.

In their last measure of the health of democracies worldwide, based on everything from partisanship to civil liberties, The Economist ranked America 25th, barely ahead of Botswana. The United Kingdom was 14th. Safe to say that’s already changed.

We hope our UK friends find that miracle, forged by the willpower to do not only what’s right but what’s best.

Then, back home, let’s together reject the snake oil appeals that would push us toward a similar predicament.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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