Monday, July 11, 2016

BREXIT and US Elections: The Specter of Donald Trump.

"In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son and father". The immortal Bard's lines in King Lear capture best the Brexit shenanigans and the quote literally sums up the events leading to and after Brexit. While there is much that is yet to happen as a consequence of the vote to leave the EU, the vote and how it happened carries important lessons for the American voter in the upcoming US Presidential Election.

First, how did what was seen as unthinkable finally happen? Is the Brexit vote a reflection of a democratic upsurge where the commoners have said a resounding 'no' to the elite who, supposedly, operated like a cabal, unmindful of the interests and well being of common citizenry?

The Brexit vote, above all, as the German magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, illustrates the perils of direct democracy and the virtues of representative democracy. Democracy, with good reason, is still considered. The Economist magazine in a special set of articles on California argued that California's tradition of turning any policy proposal into a Ballot Initiative has made the state virtually ungovernable with nearly 80% of the state's revenues apportioned by commitments to outcomes of Ballot Initatives leaving little wiggle room for administrations to undertake discretionary expenditures. Thus one of the world's largest economies is stuck in a budgetary quagmire.

If votes on Civil Rights and desegregation were left to direct democracy we'd still be living in racist America. If Kennedy had taken a referendum on nuking Khrushchev's USSR he might have received an overwhelming yes and ended the world as we know it. If FDR had gone to the people to ask if the Hitler menace should be ended before subduing Japan he'd have been voted out of office. On the other hand it was representative democracy and the channels of pressure it exerted on elected officials that kept US out of what was seen as 'European war' for long and thus making the effort to destroy Hitler that much more difficult. Seeing a Churchill still lost in his dreams of maintaining an empire the British voter denied him a mandate for the reconstruction of war torn Britain. Representative Democracy, with all its shortcomings, provides the just balance between mobocracy and titular dictatorships.

'Don't trust the experts' was the mantra of the Brexit leaders. Expert after expert warned of the consequences of a Brexit and the repeated retort was always "do you know better than the collective will and what wisdom can rival the collective will of the people".

The so called experts have earned a justifiably bad rap especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial that brought an economic super power to its knees. Ivy League economists provided the theoretical framework for what later came to destroy the American economy. When the GOP played with brinkmanship by refusing to raise America's debt ceiling and trigger a default by the world's richest economy and thus set in motion an economic apocalypse the ratings agencies warned Americans of impending doom. GOP legislators guffawed on TV on the incredulousness of the same ratings agencies that played a vital role in causing the greatest recession since the Great Depression putting themselves as arbiters of what is sensible. The disdain of the experts for the common voter is another recurrent theme that has much validity. Jonathan Gruber, a key expert and architect of Obama's signature legislation, 'The Affordable Care Act', told an audience that Americans were sold on the healthcare reform with promises of cost containment but in reality that was not at all goal and the goal was only to expand healthcare. Gruber, very damagingly confessed, that telling the truth and leveling with the voter would not have garnered the required public support.

Politicians who say one thing on the campaign trail only to govern differently in office is another popular complaint and the Brexit vote was seen as a resounding "no more" to such politicians. Obama campaigned so shrilly against NAFTA and trade pacts that the Canadians were alarmed that a president Obama would abrogate the treaty. Yes, before Trump and Sanders there was a Obama. Obama dispatched Austan Goolsbee, who later served as economist in Obama administration, in secrecy, to the Canadian embassy to assure them that he has no intention of ripping up the NAFTA. A revelation like that would've sunk Hillary Clinton's candidacy but America was in love with Obama. As President Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, has negotiated a trade pact that would go down in American history as the largest trade pact.

All of the above can be rebutted.

From intellectuals who whitewashed the horrors of Communism to Ivy League economists who created the Financial crises they were all unmasked or exposed by other experts, not by the uninformed voter. Distrust of experts has now degenerated into crass anti-intellectualism. On this side of the Atlantic the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump hold it as a badge of honor to distrust experts and extend their distrust to open hostility to any expert who questions the rationale of the plans floated by their candidates. It is now par for the course to besmirch any non-compliant expert as 'part of the establishment', 'the system'. Left leaning economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman lamented how Sanders's supporters militantly threw mud at any economist disagreeing with Sanders's plans and most importantly the costs.

The Infamous lie
If voters don't want candidates to sugar coat it or tell lies then they should start getting educated and that means stepping out of echo chambers. The day after casting a Brexit vote the most searched term in google was "what is EU?" The average Britisher voted in a referendum without even knowing what the EU was. This is dangerous illiteracy. In a way Gruber is correct. Towns that depended on EU subsidies cheerfully voted to exit. A key promise by the Brexit leaders was that they'd divert millions of pounds, that they said is being sent to EU, to supporting Britain's NIH. Boris Johnson traveled and campaigned with a bus that had the promise painted on it in large, very large, letters. A day after the Brexit vote Nigel Farage openly accepted that there is no such diversion because the promise was, simply put, a lie. Experts had cried hoarse on that only to be ignored.Trump's promises of negotiating debt, threatening NATO allies to put up money, constructing a wall, barring Muslim immigrants, deporting a 11 million Hispanics are all cockamamie schemes that are mere fantasies and can cause immense harm to the economy.

If politicians changing once in office is a crime then the Brexit campaigners are equally guilty. Once they got what they wanted the Brexit leaders sheepishly walked back their key promises. "Stopping immigration", 'Not so fast'. "Dissociating from EU completely", 'Not so fast, we need access to the single market'. An incredulous TV anchor gave Nigel Farage a real 'What the F**k' look after he walked back each of those promises. And oh despite the eagerness to unhitch themselves from the EU the Brexit campaign really, to the consternation of the EC, wants to slow walk the divorce.The Guardian newspaper ran a column titled "A pyrrhic victory? Boris Johnson wakes up to the costs of Brexit".

Here's a message to the Bernie-or-bust voters who, taking their cue from a Hollywood actress and airhead, Susan Sarandon, think that a Trump presidency might usher in the revolution quicker, by virtue of destroying everything in his way, if Bernie does not get to the Oval office. This is lunacy. A Tory minister ridiculed the protest voters who voted for Brexit nonchalantly thinking that "it would be a vote for remain, he would be seen as having stood up for principle". Each vote counts and every voter should vote carefully. Thinking "I'll vote as protest and hope to God that somehow the sane verdict prevails and I'll be safe to brag about my principled protest vote". Remember Bernie supporters who shun Hillary, Gore lost Florida and the Presidency by a few hundred votes. Every vote counts. Vote your conscience, yes, but don't vote thinking somebody might hold his or her nose and vote for the less objectionable candidate and thus prevent Trump from entering the oval office while you get to cast a 'protest vote' that you can boast about over drinks at a pub.

Did doomsday arrive in England? Yes and no. Yes, the experts were correct. A market meltdown occurred and the pound crashed. Nearly 2 Trillion dollars in market capitalization was wiped out. The day after Brexit saw a very interesting and in some sense tragic role reversals. Post-Brexit the 'exit' cheer leaders were less than eager to take over the country and make good on their promises. On the other hand the 'remain' campaigners who had roped in the experts to predict doomsday were left fending off doomsday. Today Cameron and Obama are acting responsibly to contain the damage because unlike Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage they have a conscience and could not unconscionably sit back and chuckle "I told you so" because lives are affected. When Trump says he'll renegotiate US sovereign debt he betrays his idiocy that makes him think that US debt is like the debt of a realtor who has the luxury of telling his creditors "well I have no intention of paying in full but here's what I can pay". Even a suggestion by a US president that the US will not make good on it's debt will send seismic shock waves into the world market and destabilize the dollar as the global currency in which other countries hold their debt, all of which would make any candidate think twice before speaking but not for a bloviating idiot like Trump.

From LA Times article. The infamous poster showing Muslim immigrants.
Here is what the Brexit cheerleaders did achieve though. Britain was plagued by a rash of racist incidents fueled by xenophobia. When Trump and Farage talk in dog whistle terms about past glory they are voicing a 'white' rage against nations that are changing fast, demographically. Immigration was front and center in Brexit campaign. A notorious poster showed Syrians streaming into Britain by the thousands. Immigration from other EU countries, a freedom guaranteed by the single market, was another reason. It is no wonder that the Brexit vote pivoted on age with the youth voting to remain while the older voters going for the exit. The young college graduate needs access to opportunities across the borders and has less interest in protecting the British character. Also the Islamophobia that the Brexit campaigners unleashed was exactly like what Trump is doing. It'd do good to remember that the worst terrorist attacks on English soil were carried out by the Irish. Today the Muslim immigrant appears outlandish to the Brit and American but not too long ago the Irish, the Asian (especially Chinese) were seen likewise in America. Terrorism and immigration are indeed legitimate  concerns but demagoguery not only does disservice to the debate it perverts the debate. A curious irony in the Brexit vote and the Trump phenomenon is that both Johnson and Trump are the products of elite educational institutions.

British author Frederick Forsyth cheerfully told America's public radio station NPR that for all the doomsday predictions UK will be just fine and that the youngsters of today do not know of a time when Britain was doing just fine, alone. Forsyth is a hypocrite. He, more than any common Britisher, enjoys the fruits of a globalized world market. His books sell across borders and he signs movie deals. 'Day of the Jackal' was a Anglo-French production while 'Odessa File' was an Anglo-German production. What Forsyth enjoys he has now denied to the graduates of England. Shame on you Forsyth.

The treason that the Bard alluded to finally came to the fore when the "exit" cheer leaders suddenly found themselves facing victory and a PM who resigned. Michael Gove undermined Boris Johnson, who was widely seen to be a solo-in to 10 Downing street if the 'exit' campaign won, and was finally undermined himself. Meanwhile the labor party too erupted into full blown revolt over how ineffectually Jeremy Corbyn campaigned on behalf of the 'remain' camp and thus lost the war for unity.

The American electorate is divided along racial, educational, income and age more than ever before. And the lines are hardening pretty fast. It is fashionable for Americans to lament that their legislators don't compromise but when it comes to electing those who compromise it is the American voter who cheers purists like Sanders or a pretend purist like Trump.

What is the message for Hillary Clinton and Obama from Brexit? It is foolish to rubbish the Brexit vote as merely the revolt of the uninformed voter and xenophobia. The first principle of democracy is to respect the choice of a people. Globalization and technology have completely changed our lives but they also have upended lives by destroying vast swathes of jobs in the economy. There is real palpable anxiety amongst voters, especially those without a college degree. Obama is paying the price for his demagoguery on trade because now when he wants to pass a historic trade pact he's running into demons he had unleashed. A positive case to be made for globalization and trade. Governments need to find effective ways of ensuring that it's citizenry have a stake in the economy and not feel left behind. Obama is rising to the task of unmasking the danger Trump poses to the republic. Clinton is yet to find her voice. Clinton's trust deficit with voters is an impediment for her.

                                           Obama on Donald Trump: "Where does this stop"

Recent appearances by Obama show a marked trait in how he speaks. Obama takes long pauses, pregnant pauses, in between sentences and they seem to indicate that he thinks the danger of Trump's racism is real and grave and at the same time he's incredulous that many in the GOP are not standing up against it. On the other hand Trump doesn't know what a pause is when speaking. Clinton doesn't pause between sentences because she's delivering canned responses that she thinks she needs to say in order to appear presidential.

As voters head to the polls in November they need to do their homework, they need to question their candidates, question their own assumptions and then vote with sincerity. This election is a war for the heart and soul of America. Will America show the world that it takes more than a billionaire demagogue to destroy America?

A Guardian columnist, in a column titled 'There are liars and there's Boris Johnson and Michael Gove", quoted the lines of Rudyard Kipling:

I could not dig; I dared not rob: 
Therefore I lied to please the mob. 
Now all my lies are proved untrue 
And I must face the men I slew. 
What tale shall serve me here among 
Mine angry and defrauded young?

We could as well close with the foreboding lines of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats from his 'Second Coming'

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


1. A pyrrhic victory? Boris Johnson wakes up to the costs of Brexit
2. 'Voters in one fading port town wonder whether they were misled on Brexit'
3. British steel town that got millions from the EU, but voted to leave anyway
4. 'After Brexit vote, U.K. sees a wave of hate crimes and racist abuse'


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Aathma said...

Excellent article Sir..lucid and clear..will referendum on Kashmir the same fate?

Raja M said...

Aravindan makes it sound as if Obama was vehemently opposed to trade before he got elected as a campaign strategy, and flipped his position right after he got elected. Obama has held a consistent position on trade, that trade should be used as a tool to promote labor protections and benefits US.

For example in 2006, he supported and voted for the free trade agreement (with Oman (which included progressive labor protections similar to the agreement that we had with Jordan in 2001). He also supported trade with Peru which included labor and environmental protections.

In 2005, he voted against CAFTA (incidentally along with Hillary Clinton) when that trade deal did not have labor and environmental protection clauses (CAFTA bill secured the fewest votes of support for a trade bill in US senate 54-45). In 2007/8, Obama explicitly wanted to amend NAFTA, to include labor protections, and made it clear that he did not want to repeal it.

In a similar vein, as the president, no-one who has looked at prior US trade agreements, would dispute that Obama TPP's included significant labor/environmental protections. (The fact that it was not good enough for Bernie's supporters just indicates the movement of the Democratic party to the left).

Simply put, Obama's has consistently supported trade agreements which includes labor/environmental protections, and opposed those that did not.

Aravindan making much out of Austan Goselbee's comments summarised by a consulate official is convenient hackery to paint Obama's position with a broad brush. In 2007, in the AFL-CIO democratic primary forum, when asked, "Would you scrap NAFTA or fix it?", Obama replied:
" I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now. And it should reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should also be good for Main Street."

Does this sound like someone who is trying to unleash demons against free trade?

Why bother checking facts, when they are inconvenient?