The two big electoral events of 2016—Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president—were seemingly conjoined from the moment the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. That historic day in June was a sign that American voters might also choose, once given the chance, to give their ruling elites as hard a kick as possible, for as many reasons as possible. And just as the European Commission, a symbol of elitism, became the target for the British public, so too did Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton become a target for the American public on election day.

The two political upheavals are united in that both societies include a class of people whose job prospects have been wrecked by the outsourcing of labor, people for whom globalization is a problem rather than an opportunity. Perhaps the most important similarity, at least in the long term, will be that both events raise the possibility of a new left-right hybrid in domestic politics: one that learns from the years of lax immigration and the years of lax economics. This hybrid acknowledges the failures of right-wing free-market economics, favoring forms of protectionism over internationalism in trade policies; it also ignores some of the restraining shibboleths of left and right in recent years, instead recognizing legitimate fears of economic competition from abroad and the social concerns that immigration can bring.

Any adaptation to this reality from the political mainstream will not come easily. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, traditional politicians of the left and right have been struggling to speak to their own constituencies, let alone across the aisle. It proved as hard for Clinton to reach left-wing voters in rust-belt Michigan as it did for former British Prime Minister David Cameron to appeal to traditional right-wing voters in Sunderland, a car manufacturing hub in the United Kingdom. Both nodded at the gravity of such constituents’ concerns, but both failed to recognize the true severity of those fears. 

Meanwhile, as compromised centrists, Clinton and Cameron were unable to speak to the flaws within their own political party or really lay into the failures of their opponents’ parties. Both gave unsatisfactory answers to growing suspicions that their respective country’s current economic policies favor the few over the many. Nor did either sufficiently address the fact that voters have not been moving to the political left in any large numbers—not least because in the United Kingdom and the United States, the left loathes talking about the identity and immigration concerns of the public and prefers to lecture on why the public is wrong to feel the way it does.

Social liberals have spent years scolding and lecturing conservatives without listening to what the other side has had to say. Rarely did they consider the possibility that the public did not need to be corrected, because the public was not necessarily wrong. Recognizing the existence of the people who have been “left behind” is not the same as doing something to help them. Finding them work may prove difficult. But castigating them for racism and other assorted bigotries is rubbing salt in their wounds. 

It is true that Trump used inflammatory language against minorities and women, but liberals should not have attacked his supporters by portraying them as racist, misogynist, and homophobic fascists. Supporting border control or conservative values should not automatically earn one such a violent label. The correct response would have been to acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns over the free market and immigration. The incorrect response was to name call, which Clinton resorted to when she said that many of Trump’s supporters belonged to a “basket of deplorables.”

In her concession speech, Clinton emphasized how important “tolerance” is in politics. True, the Trump campaign displayed a level of intolerance to contrary views, but it was not alone. Similarly, anyone voting Leave in the United Kingdom was portrayed as racist: but this attempt to shut down debate simply constituted an attempt by the Remain campaign to hold its opponents below the waterline. After all, the main Leave campaign in the United Kingdom’s referendum conspicuously veered away from putting forth a blatant anti-immigration platform, even if such sentiments drove some but certainly not all voters to the polls. The campaign centered on a sunny, optimistic vision of a United Kingdom, still a prominent global player, but merely unshackled from the restraints of Brussels. 

In such a situation, it would be wrong to blame the public for choosing a rather drastic way to signal its massive discontent. Would it have stood any chance of being heard if Clinton had won, or for that matter, Marco Rubio? No. The public sensed that both—perhaps Rubio in particular—would, as the favored candidates of their respective parties, simply give a nod to its concerns but, once in office, do little or nothing to address them. To have voted for such a person would not have been a way to make the public’s message heard, any more than a narrow Remain vote would have made the undeniably concerned voices of British voters heard in the corridors of Brussels. When it seems that nothing at all can get through to the elites, pushing the emergency button becomes not only a legitimate but also possibly the only responsible thing to do.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now