Brexit Offers Lesson in the Danger of Protest Votes

Recent events in the UK serve as cautionary tale for U.S. come November

The loss of the Remain campaign in the UK's Brexit vote shows how protest votes can have a real impact at the polls. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty

Primary blame for the result of last Thursday's EU referendum in Britain lies with the Fleet Street press, the Conservative Party fighting their internal civil war through a vote and a tidal wave of xenophobic isolationism that both they and the far-right UK Independence Party exploited with terrifying enthusiasm. But there appeared to be an alarming number of voters who supported Brexit for a welter of other reasons that were at least somewhat more sympathetic — whether as a protest against the nominally pro-EU David Cameron, as a strike against what they see as a capitalist/neoliberal state or to hasten a coming workers' revolution. At least some of those people have a bit in common with America's own Bernie-or-busters: They're political idealists who allow purity to trump reason. Meanwhile, others were more isolated protest voters who simply wished to register some displeasure with the EU or extend a middle finger to the establishment; now they suffer something of an electoral hangover.

This episode serves as a stark warning about the knife's edge Western democracies now stand on: Every vote counts, and none should be wasted in impotent protest.

The forces that drive the tidal wave of anti-EU sentiment in Europe and the meteoric rise of Donald Trump here in the U.S. are politically reactionary ones. UKIP's Nigel Farage, Germany's Alternativ fur Deutschland, Holland's Geert Wilders and of course our own Donald Trump are all feeding off of a groundswell of virulent racism that is finding more and more public space in which to express itself. It should surprise no one that Trump has earned such enthusiastic and sincere support from neo-Nazis, nor that a pro-Brexit man with Nazi ties was responsible for assassinating British MP Jo Cox days before that nation's referendum because of Cox's integrationist views. Where once the far-right stewed in permanent resentment about being consigned to the fringe of public life, they now appear to be enjoying something of a renaissance under trendy new labels like "alt-right," as if they were the hipster version of white nationalism. These people are the fire burning on the West's right, fueling its electoral engine — nothing more or less.

Yet to listen to some leftists on both sides of the Atlantic talk, one would think that this nationalist tide was a vindication of their most radical beliefs. No less than the U.S. Green Party's presumptive presidential nominee Jill Stein wrote on Friday:

"The vote in Britain to exit the European Union (EU) is a victory for those who believe in the right of self-determination and who reject the pro-corporate, austerity policies of the political elites in EU. The vote says no to the EU's vision of a world run by and for big business. It is also a rejection of the European political elite and their contempt for ordinary people."

Meanwhile, veteran left-wing campaigner and former MP George Galloway backed Brexit saying that, like Jill Stein, he wanted to combat the "neoliberal policies" of the EU and arrogate more power to the British people to support an eventual left leaning government.

This is, to say the least, stunningly tone-deaf when one of the architects of Brexit, Nigel Farage, said Friday that Britain's single-payer National Health Service might have to be privatized — after campaigning on the notion that exiting the EU would save money to be reinvested into NHS health care. Whoever takes over at 10 Downing Street will almost certainly be to Cameron's right — someone who favors a punitive austerity regime and is very likely to continue it. Meanwhile, online, many cheering for Brexit come from the extreme, crypto-fascistic right. In short, this is not Jill Stein's revolution.

Yet it has been a trend on the left in both the UK and the U.S. to suggest that any black eye given to "the establishment," even if it's from a decidedly rightward hook, is a victory for all. The group of voters in the U.S. who have vowed to support Bernie Sanders until November, pledging to vote for him in a write-in campaign, think in similar terms. So flawed a liberal is Hillary Clinton, they say, that even a nightmarish term under a President Trump is preferable, because at least his campaign is also "anti-establishment." Still others think it is precisely Trump's capacity for mayhem and destruction that makes him an asset to the left: His tenure will be so destructive that the people will at last rise up in a glorious revolution in response, and then we'll get real change.

But as British socialist David Renton puts it so well, "if the opening to a new situation of political instability has to come about through a big victory for the press, the parties, and the people of the Right, then it is unlikely that the instability which follows will assist the Left." Making one's self a handmaiden to a fundamentally reactionary movement only furthers its ugliest aims. The change we'll get is most certainly not the change envisioned by the likes of Galloway or Stein. The energy for Brexit and Trump is not coming from sober Marxist analyses on neoliberal crises of late capitalism, but from a staunchly pro-capitalist, deeply prejudicial resentment that seeks to scapegoat all for the misery caused by capital. 

Many UK voters, apparently, were not even well acquainted with what the EU is. The Brexit referendum became a proxy for anger at the Tory government and at wider economic inequality, with blame being displaced onto Brussels and the refugees and immigrants who have become inextricably associated with free movement across Europe's borders. The small number of leftists who jumped on board only aided that, handing the far-right a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime victory.

The same will happen with Trump in the United States if we do not stop sleepwalking, and if liberals and leftists cannot at least temporarily suspend their internecine squabbling to combat a greater threat. Part of what they must do is combat the sense of inertia many feel from so many elections where votes didn't seem to matter. In the UK this led to people casting ballots for Leave without any appreciation of what might happen if that side actually won. Call it "Regrexit" if you must, but there does appear to be a phenomenon of voters who cast their ballots as a protest against the "status quo" suddenly feeling very sorry for helping to upend it in the worst possible way.

For all those who think Bernie-or-bust is reasonable, I urge them to consider what has been awakened across Europe. Justice will not be served by bitter or clueless ballot protests — but darker forces will be very grateful for your support. And there will be no time for regrets.