Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A bridge from Brexit

By john a. powell

A few days ago, we woke up to a new world. Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Some were pleased, many were deeply concerned. What is likely is that many will be affected. Some wonder if the EU will survive. It will take months if not years to fully understand the ramifications.

Here we are asking: What does this mean for the US? Which of the same elements that ushered in a successful Brexit vote also exist in the US? Does the UK's successful Leave vote make the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, built on anger and fear, more mainstream? Would a Trump presidency be the American parallel of England leaving the EU?

It is clear that anxiety, frustration, anger and fear played a large role for many in the UK voting to leave. In the US, there have been a number of studies showing anxiety, frustration, anger, and fear are playing a large role in our current election cycle, too. And while those sentiments might appear more extreme among Trump supporters, and are expressed in different ways, frustration and anger are also evident among Bernie Sanders supporters as well.

This begs a more central question: What is the underlying force fueling these feelings? The reasons most often cited are the economy, huge rates of inequality, fallout from globalization and the belief that governments are no longer responsive to ordinary people, but instead work for the elites. From the right, there is also a particular anxiety about a perceived Other, a feeling that Other groups are taking away the dominant culture, and that a collective sense of self is being threatened.

These reasons are all related, but they are not reducible to each other.

In Europe, concerns about the immigrant and the refugee Other, especially Muslims, has been a staple story of the right for some time. In the US, anxiety and discontent about the election of President Obama as the first black president, and the decline of the percentage of the white population, continue to be a staple of the right, and one that has taken on a more explicit role under Trump.

The right wing has been more than willing to stir up and capitalize on these feelings. And to many on the right these feelings are not solely about a loss of economic security, and the loss of a government that responds to their needs, but are also what some would call an existential fear -- "Who are we? We are losing our soul as a white, Christian, Protestant country to the Other."

This position that some call existential I am prepared to call deeply spiritual or ontological. We all have and we all need a sense of who we are. Many liberals assume this existential position is derivative of other concerns, in particular economic ones. This is important to note. If our ontological concerns are only a product of economic concerns, then the way to address these concerns is through an economic response. This assumes we are what we have, that our belongings are more important than our belonging. If people's response to ontological concerns is inconsistent with their economic wellbeing we write books and think pieces about what's the matter with those folks. We assume they are irrational, acting not just against their economic interest, but against their self-interest.

For far too long, many in elite circles have argued that globalization would benefit the average worker. We were told that in the long run globalization would be good for us, and that the government cannot do anything about the forces at work in the global economy. The choice that has been given to most people is: either accept globalization or a dysfunctional nationalistic economy. As we deal with toxic inequality spreading around the world, it is clear this position is clearly wrong. I have written that globalization can take many different forms, and that our government could support a globalization that is more sensitive to the needs of ordinary people. Folks here are still reacting to why we used taxpayer money to save the banks, but not the ordinary homeowner or renter. In Europe, after the 2008 financial crash, policies of austerity appeared to be more concerned about elite credit institutions than the suffering of ordinary people. People feel betrayed either by their governments or by other institutions in alignment with the elites.

It might be useful to think about how we organize ourselves socially. I believe our sense of self is organized around at least three related, but different axes: one is economic, one is political, and the third is ontological. Along the economic axis, the global economic system does not work for ordinary people. Along the political axis, the government appears to have been captured by the elites, and is not responsive to the needs of ordinary people. And along the ontological axis, the place where we are concerned about who we are as a nation and culture, there are those who define their ontological position against the Other, and there are also those who don't, but who may not engage with ontological concerns in a meaningful way.

People who voted for leaving the EU and people who support Trump have concerns along all three axes but the most important, and the one most easily exploited, is the third--who we are becoming. Who belongs. This suggests that we must take these concerns seriously, and not reduce them to just one of the other axes.

To recognize someone's anxiety is not to adhere to it. Anxiety can move in different directions. Which direction it takes is driven by the story we tell. One story is about the Other taking from us, not just our stuff, taxes and jobs, but our culture and soul. This is the right wing position. Members of the right assume this position on principle (they believe it) or for strategic reasons (it serves some purpose such as getting elected). This story is divisive, and it's meant to be. This is an Us and Them story, a story of winners and losers, and it's based on fear and anger.

There is another story, one more likely adopted by liberals. That story is about focusing on the economy, and it makes overly rational arguments. It asserts that the fear of the Other is just irrational, if not racist. This story prefers not to talk about the ontological anxiety, as it sees this as divisive and not real. It also adopts this position either on principle or for strategic reasons as well. The principle reason is a belief that this anxiety is derivative, and that we can address all concerns through a rational discussion about the economy. The strategic position is that even if anxiety is real, it is simply too divisive to discuss and should be avoided. This position leaves the engagement with anxiety to the right. This is a dangerous mistake.

There is a third story, and it is the one that I advocate. This story recognizes that there is growing anxiety. This story recognizes that change is happening very fast and can be difficult. This story rejects the Us and Them. Without reducing us to the same, this story also recognizes that we are connected--and not just economically, but also more fundamentally: we are connected as people.

To make this story work requires real effort, starting with acknowledgement. There is a common suffering, and there is also a possibility to more consciously connect. This story is based on bridging, promoting empathy and love and an emerging shared vision of a future. It will build on our example of the past. It is slow to demonize someone for having anxiety.

This story also acknowledges that we must address economic and political realities. Both the economy and the government should be structured to serve people, not the other way around. We must have governing structures that are responsive to people and not captured by moneyed interests. Our government should support the civil rights of all members, yet there must be a way to do so that extends the possibility that this approach is about all Americans. If there are policies that support immigration and resettlement of refugees, how do we talk to and engage working class whites that might feel threatened? Certainly simply asserting that those who have anxiety are morally suspect is not adequate.

While the government promotes inclusion, it must stride to make it clear that including a group does not entail disregarding other groups. I am aware this is not easy, especially if one group defines its well-being based on the exclusion or subordination of other groups. But we are reaching for a different story. This story must appeal to our better angels and talk to both our conscious and unconscious. We must all be given space to participate and shape this story. But this story also knows that political leadership and social architects play an important role.

In this story, we must have an economic system that works. An economic system where wealth is shared. Certainly there are unknowns and risks, but those with the most financial resources should be charged with taking on more of the risk and burdens. (Think of what this would have meant in the last recession.) The elite should not be able to capitalize on all the growth but socialize all the risk.

And while national interest will continue to be important, we must also begin to think about people globally. We should make sure that as we create new structures for capital, that we have parallel structures for people. If we need to defer benefits, we should look to those most able to bear the time and cost. We should work towards limiting the influence of wealth in the democratic space. Wealth should become our servant, not our master. The reasons for large corporations must be reevaluated. They should exist for the benefit of the common good and not simply to maximize profit for a very few. And this story acknowledges these spheres are interrelated--governments must set rules and structures for the economy that respond to all people.

This is the story that is often missing. People can and will change, but change is not easy. We need help. We need time, resources, and a story. We need all people to be part of the story, including the elites, in order to share in our economic, political, and cultural future. We need a government that is responsive, effective, and inclusive. We don't have that today, but the solution is not to have government go away, but to work to make it work.

When we focus on these changes, we must also devote time, thought, and resources to the questions of not just what we have, but also who we are and who we aspire to become.

This discussion is not intended as a blueprint for the future, but an orientation in a new direction. Beyond Brexit and beyond the outcome of the 2016 Presidential race, we need a bridging story that gives reason for us to believe in a shared future.