It’s anyone’s guess how things will go in Thursday’s referendum on British membership in the European Union, also known as “Brexit.” Right now the polls are essentially tied at around 47 percent for and 47 percent against (not that British polling has a particularly good track record). But win or lose, the fight over Brexit is symptomatic of a much larger crisis facing out-of-touch elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
The European Union was the ultimate triumph of technocracy. The smart set not only insisted that a common European currency would work fantastically well, they insisted that doubters were knaves and nuts. Then the waves of Euro-crises hit the continent, most notoriously in Greece.
The European Union’s bureaucracy and paper-parliament were set up to be as insulated as possible from the concerns of actual voters. Representatives to the European Parliament are selected by party elites as a kind of highbrow patronage. They invariably defer to the permanent bureaucracy, which acts like a transnational cartel, one that happens to be composed of governments. As Daniel Hannan, the rare Euroskeptic skunk to infiltrate the garden party that is the EU parliament, put it, “faced with a choice between democracy and supra-nationalism, the EU will always choose supra-nationalism.”
EDITORIAL: Why Britons Should Vote to Leave the EU
The European Union’s bureaucracy and paper-parliament were set up to be as insulated as possible from the concerns of actual voters.
There are parallels aplenty here in the United States. For generations, American elites, particularly on the left side of the aisle, have insisted that democracy gets in the way of optimal decision-making. Stuart Chase, an economic adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted an “industrial general staff with dictatorial powers” to run the economy. In 1962, John F. Kennedy declared: “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” These problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.” Columnist Thomas Friedman openly yearns for the American government to be “China for a day” so it could overrule democracy and the rule of law in pursuit of “what works.”
This attitude virtually defines the Obama administration’s approach to everything from climate change (the Environmental Protection Agency, not Congress, destroyed the coal industry) to immigration (even President Obama admitted his executive orders would be unconstitutional, then went through with them anyway). Hillary Clinton’s disdain for the rules regarding her server and e-mail, whether criminal or not, have the distinct stench of aloof aristocratic arrogance (as does her family’s foundation).The thing about the rule of unaccountable rulers is that people will defer to them so long as they feel things are moving in the right direction, economically and otherwise. But when their incompetence and self-dealing seems to come at the expense of the public, the deference ends. This is where the populism of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump overlap. Both ran on very similar claims that the elite are in it for themselves. Both insisted that their respective parties were “rigged.” Neither wants to get rid of interventionist government (alas). Rather, they want government to be even stronger and more activist for their chosen constituencies. Trump’s success in the primaries was a direct result of the widespread sentiment — right or wrong — that the “establishment” had different priorities on trade, immigration, etc., than the rank and file.
No matter how Brexit turns out, and no matter who wins the presidential campaign, this populist discontent isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it’s shaping up to be the new normal.
— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected]. © 2016 Tribune Content Agency, LLC