The Unbearable Triteness of Brexit Commentary
Does everything always have to be about America? Yes, pretty much, if you're an American.
It says something deeply disturbing about contemporary political discourse that Paul Krugman—who regularly ignores those he disagrees with as "knaves and fools" unworthy of his time and attention—was a voice of calm reason over Brexit. "I'm finding myself less horrified by Brexit than one might have expected," he wrote about the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. "The economic consequences will be bad, but not, I'd argue, as bad as many are claiming."
Such shoulder-shrugging was in short supply, especially from those less well-versed in economics than the Nobel laureate. Indeed, the irredeemably smug insta-responses on both sides of the Brexit issue underscore that Americans are as quick to virtue-signal as they are to proclaim that the apocalypse is (yet again!) upon us. Throw in a solipsistic inability to see the world as in any way independent of domestic U.S. politics and you've got the making of a media shitstorm that left everybody hip-deep in manure but no clearer about what Brexit really means.
Krugman's even-more-insufferable colleague at The New York Times, Roger Cohen, made Brexit all about himself. "It's not just the stupidity of the decision," he fumed. "It's not even the betrayal of British youth. It's far more: a personal loss. Europa, however flawed, was the dream of my generation." In perhaps the most-ridiculous commentary on the surprisingly lopsided "Leave" win, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow delivered a 15-minute history lecture that argued Great Britain's action would soon give rise to World War III because the only thing standing between a European war of all against all was a political union that dates all the way back to 1993 and a common currency that most members have used only since 2002. Given that the clock has not even yet started ticking on Britain's official exit and that NATO, which binds together a couple dozen European countries plus the United States and Canada, is still going strong, fears of a sixth Battle of Ypres seem, well, a tad exaggerated.
And let's not pretend that the E.U. is some vague, toothless entity against which there are no legitimate reasons for resentment. Recently, for instance, the E.U.'s "commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality" (a real thing) issued strict rules for banning "hate speech" on the internet, and has secured the participation of Microsoft, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter in enforcing disturbingly vague and illiberal rules. Even E.U. defenders, such as the Times' Cohen, grants that it needs serious changes. To categorically assert that 17.5 million Leave voters (against 16 million Remain voters) are simply racist and anti-immigrant is to ignore pro-Leave voices who are libertarian, cosmopolitan Brits such as science writer and House of Lords member Matt Ridley and member of the European Parliament Dan Hannan, both of whom support opening borders to more goods and people. The E.U., notes Ridley, "still has no trade deals with America, China, Japan, Brazil, India, Canada, Australia and Indonesia."
Comedians ranging from Full Frontal's Samantha Bee to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump showcased another unseemly, widespread element of Brexit "analysis": It's really all about domestic U.S. politics, don't you know? Bee, a former Daily Show reporter who now heads up her own TBS show, attributed the Leave win to "xenophobia" and anger and argued that "Even a brain-damaged baboon couldn't miss the parallels between the U.S. and Britain." To be sure, Trump himself was tweeting up a storm drawing such connections. "Just arrived in Scotland," he tweeted immediately after the vote. "Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!" (The Donald was also taken to task by commenters who noted that not only did Scotland vote against independence in 2014, a majority last week voted to remain in the E.U.) Soon enough, he retweeted comments such as this one: "What has happened in the UK in the last 12 hours is exactly what will happen in November…vote TRUMP 2016."
Whatever legitimate similarities obtain, the differences between the United Kingdom and the United States on issues such as immigration, free trade, and however you want to define xenophobia are greater still. While 77 percent of Brits want to see immigration reduced, for instance, about three-quarters of Americans—and 56 percent of Republicans—think even illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country if they meet certain requirements. To the extent that there is anger in the United States at "the establishment," it's a trans-partisan sensibility that motivates liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and everyone else in the country. How else to explain Bernie Sanders' unexpectedly strong showing against the fully-anointed-by-party-elders Hillary Clinton? And what does it say that Americans disapprove of both Clinton and Trump in record numbers (but we hate the anti-establishment Trump more)? Or that Clinton and Trump currently hold the same positions on the NAFTA and TPP trade deals (they're against them)? And that party identification levels are at or near historic lows? This all may signal voter anger, frustration, and even desperation, but it's not simply coming from a single group of voters in the States.
But people such as Bee and Trump are less interested in getting to the truth of the matter and more about signaling to their respective tribes. One of the biggest misperceptions that Americans have long held is that everything in the wider world is a direct result of American action (or inaction). We wholeheartedly believe that when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. This sort of deeply rooted, reflexive solipsism is the main driver of a foreign policy that insists that America is "the indispensable nation" that must be involved everywhere and always. It undergirds an outsize sensibility of U.S. responsibility for every good, bad, and indifferent economic and cultural outcome on the globe. Such thoughts actually pander to the one fear we're afraid to countenance: That America just might no longer be the beating heart of a global order that is nonetheless getting richer and more free as power decentralizes all over the planet. The only thing worse than being responsible for everything is to not matter as much as we think we should.