The decision of the British electorate to reject all the advice and browbeatings from the Great and Good, and vote to leave the European Union, is above all a display of nationalism.
That word was mostly absent in the discussions I watched on the BBC and in much coverage here in the United States. And when pundits mentioned the word, they used it as a synonym for chauvinism, isolationism, and ignorance much more frequently than as a synonym for patriotism.
In the Brexit vote, Brits chose to reject those patronizing views and express their nationalism. By this, they seem to have meant that they want to make the key decisions about their future, and about how they live, through their own democratic institutions. On the BBC on Friday morning, a typically biased interviewer spoke with Radek Sikorski, the former foreign minister of Poland, who denounced Brexit as dangerous and malevolent. His anger and resentment were so great that they finally moved even the BBC to defend the vote. How? On democratic grounds. Don’t people have a right to vote? Isn’t self-rule sacred? It was half amusing, half inspiring to see the interviewer rise to the defense of his countrymen and -women when they were treated with contempt for choosing Westminster over Brussels.
There is a message here for Israelis — and for Americans.
For Israelis, the referendum fight helps explain their unpopularity among European elites. If nationalism is primitive and infantile and dangerous, it is no wonder that Israel is criticized endlessly and its efforts to defend itself are seen as excessive. Its basic demand — to be understood and acknowledged as a Jewish state — is itself considered illicit; ethno-national states are out of the question these days. Defending your state with actual guns is positively medieval in the eyes of today’s European leaders.
Americans beg to differ, and that’s a reason that Israel is more popular here. Believing in your country and defending it with your army is considered patriotic here, not primitive. The sacrifice of sovereignty to bureaucrats abroad would offend Americans just as it offends so many Britons. All this helps explain Donald Trump’s successes this year, for he speaks a language of nationalism: defending borders and controlling immigration, for example, which was also a central issue in the British debate. That call to “Make America Great Again” is a reflection of nationalism, and it has found a wide audience.
The sacrifice of sovereignty to bureaucrats abroad would offend Americans just as it offends so many Britons.
Of course there were other elements in the Brexit vote, some of which are also found in our campaigns. The rejection of elite advice is one; both the Trump primary victory and the Brexit vote reflect a mistrust of the capital, the main political institutions, and policy elites. Joseph Epstein wrote about aspects of this in the Wall Street Journal(“Why Trumpkins Want Their Country Back,” June 10, 2016); he quoted the words of one woman who was a Trump supporter: “I want my country back.” Epstein focused on domestic matters and “cultural warriors,” explaining that “multiculturalism, identity politics, political correctness, victimhood — the progressivist program generally — are now in the saddle.” The woman he quoted, he suggested, “couldn’t any longer bear to watch the United States on the descent, hostage to progressivist ideas that bring neither contentment nor satisfaction but instead foster a state of perpetual protest and agitation, anger, and tumult.”
EDITORIAL: Reflections on the Shock of Brexit
Whatever Obama is displaying, it is not nationalism, not a plan to rebuild American greatness and military power. He seems to find American nationalism dangerous and, to use that word again, primitive. Recall his 2008 comment on small-town Americans: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Or they vote for Brexit, British cultural and political pooh-bahs might say to express the same sentiments.
It oughtn’t be surprising to Americans that Brexit won, because after all we got so much of our politics and our nationalism from the British in the first place.
Nationalism is a permanent fixture of American society and politics; and in the view of most Americans, it’s a positive one. It oughtn’t be surprising to Americans that Brexit won, because after all we got so much of our politics and our nationalism from the British in the first place. (This certainly suggests that we ought to respect the British decision and work as hard and as fast as we can to help Britain reassert a greater global role outside the EU.) Trump appears to have realized this, viscerally. Hillary Clinton has not yet gotten the message, and perhaps on some relevant issues she cannot move into a more nationalist position. But on many she can: the need for a stronger military (she served on the Senate Armed Services Committee); the need for a more assertive American position (she, along with General Petraeus and then–secretary of defense Leon Panetta, pushed Obama to hit the jihadis in Syria harder and support non-jihadi rebels); the need to control our borders, whatever immigration policy we then adopt.
So why has she not? Politics, partly: She has had to beat Sanders and now must attract his followers. But it’s a cultural matter as well: She is the candidate of the progressive party and of the liberal political and cultural elites Obama has so perfectly reflected. And to them, nationalism is chauvinism and prejudice against foreigners, and it must be suppressed in any enlightened country. If she can free herself from those prejudices (as her husband did when a candidate), she will do better against Trump; if she cannot, and her campaign gives off a whiff of the condescension that marked the Remain campaign in Britain, she will give Trump a gift. Should there be more terrorist attacks between now and November, especially attacks of the Paris or Brussels variety, she might even hand him the election.One central lesson of the Brexit vote is that nationalism remains powerful in certain countries, and I’d bet Australia is another — it is another member of the Anglosphere. The EU project, which deprecates nationalism, also necessarily deprecates and undermines national sovereignty and democratic institutions. I can understand why sacrificing these values might make sense on a continent soaked in the blood of world wars, but I can also understand why it will never make sense to Americans and in the end did not make sense to Britons. They invented modern democracy and representative institutions. Their nationalism never caused a world war; instead, it fueled the effort to save freedom in Europe. They’ve just reminded their political elites that they love their country and their institutions, not Brussels. They fought and died for England, so why be ruled by Brussels? It’s a lesson about love of country and culture that American elites should absorb, and fast.
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.