We Have Entered a New Political Era

One in which popular support for the core institutions of liberal democracy can no longer be taken for granted.

A young couple painted as EU flags protest on outside Downing Street against the United Kingdom's decision to leave the EU following the referendum on June 24, 2016 in London, United Kingdom.
Protesters against the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU following the referendum on Friday in London.

Mary Turner/Getty Images

Britain has Brexited. The consequences of Thursday’s vote are momentous. But it is even more important for what it represents: Today, we are entering a new political era—one in which popular support for the core institutions of liberal democracy can no longer be taken for granted.

The practical consequences of Britain’s departure from the European Union are terrifying. Millions of European citizens living in Britain woke up to the disorienting realization that they may soon lose the right to stay in a country they had made their home. The same goes for British citizens living in France, or Spain, or Germany. If politicians fail to ensure that some amount of freedom of movement between Britain and the rest of Europe is preserved, the disruption to the lives of ordinary people will be on a scale practically unprecedented in peacetime. But even if some reasonably humane solution is worked out, the emotional toll exacted by the uncertainty they face will be serious.

At the same time, Brexit will also speed up the continent’s centrifugal forces: England is turning inward. Scotland may well leave the United Kingdom before the decade is over. The uneasy peace in Northern Ireland is being put to a serious, and wholly unnecessary, test. In the coming years, copycat referenda on EU membership are likely to be held in countries at the European core, such as the Netherlands. There can no longer be any doubt that the European Union is in an existential crisis.

Europe’s weakness harms the West as a whole. As the continent lurches from crisis to crisis and sees the gradual rise of populist strongmen on its own shores, it is getting increasingly tempted to make nice with authoritarian leaders in Turkey, Russia, and China. It’s little wonder that, outside Britain, the only triumphant voices to be heard Friday morning are those of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, and the propaganda outlets of ISIS.

These points alone would suffice to make the outcome of Thursday’s referendum the most significant vote in a generation. But its true importance is even bigger than that: The decision of the British electorate to leave the European Union constitutes the most significant rebellion of the citizens of an affluent liberal democracy against their political system since the end of World War II. It signals the beginning of an era in which we can no longer be assured that the citizens of countries from Sweden to the United States will reliably choose liberal democracy over far-right populism and xenophobia.

There are plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied with the European Union as it is currently constituted. The EU leaves the most important decisions to an unelected council of the ministers of its member states, giving ordinary Europeans little control. And countries such as Greece are paying a massive—and seemingly indefinite—price for the faulty construction of the single currency zone. Though I strongly believe that the human and political consequences of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union made a “Leave” vote unconscionable, I have some sympathy for those who advocated Brexit on the basis of sovereignty or in the hope of building a more robust welfare state.

As the polls show, however, those were not the reasons that most supporters of Brexit had in mind. In fact, voters on both sides of the divide had virtually indistinguishable views on such questions as whether “capitalism” was good or bad. But Brexiters had starkly more negative views on issues such as “immigration,” “multiculturalism,” and “social liberalism.” The vote to leave the European Union was not a vote against Europe’s financial elites. It was a vote against civil rights, against ethnic minorities, against immigrants, and against refugees.

This also puts a rather more sinister cast on all the talk of sovereignty. Voters cared some about whether decisions will be taken in London or Brussels in the future. They cared much more about whether checks and balances would continue to stop the people’s righteous anger from expressing itself. What they really want is the freedom to make discriminatory laws against the immigrants and minorities whom the chief proponents of Brexit demonized throughout the campaign.

As my recent research shows, British voters are far from alone in turning against the limits on the popular will that constitute an important element of liberal democracy. Across most countries in North America and Western Europe, voters have grown deeply dissatisfied with the political class. For a rapidly growing number, this dissatisfaction with particular leaders has started to transform into an actual rejection of democratic institutions. Across North America and Western Europe, the number of citizens who say that it is important to live in a democracy is shrinking. At the same time, the number of citizens who are open to making their countries more authoritarian is rising.

This trend is especially striking in the United States. Two decades ago, 1 in 16 Americans believed that Army rule would be a good way to run the country. Today, it is 1 in 6. The picture is even bleaker among the young and affluent: Support for military rule in this group has increased nearly sixfold, from 6 percent to 35 percent.

Obviously, Brexit won’t lead to military rule. Nor is the Pentagon about to assume power in America. Opinion polls need to be interpreted carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism. But when they show such a stark shift in opinion, it is safe to conclude that something big is going on. That big thing, I fear, is that the citizens of liberal democracies have grown so disenchanted with the status quo that they are willing to put their faith in populist strongmen and radical political experiments.

Two decades ago, far-right populists were electorally insignificant in most of North America and Western Europe. Then, people such as Jörg Haider in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France celebrated a remarkable string of political successes, establishing their movements as a firm part of their political systems and making their countries less hospitable for immigrants and other minority groups. In countries such as the United States, France, or Sweden, they are now within striking distance of outright majorities. Thursday’s referendum proves that there is no magic firewall that is sure to stop them.

It is worth remembering that David Cameron only called this referendum because he, along with the vast majority of Britain’s political class, was convinced that Brexit would never happen. It is also worth remembering that, 24 hours ago, most polls seemed to point to a victory for the forces of stability.

This should serve as a stark warning to people who are confident that Donald Trump could never be elected president. If he manages to turn the election into a referendum on the status quo, he has every chance of winning—especially since all the evidence suggests that the citizens of liberal democracies have never held the status quo in as much contempt as they do now. If we blindly trust the polls that seem to foretell his defeat, we might be in for an even ruder awakening come November.

Read more on Slate about Brexit.