Voters in the United Kingdom shocked the world, and shocked themselves, last week with their vote to leave the European Union. The outcome was unexpected by market analysts and politicians alike, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been: polls had always shown the vote would be close, and polling has been unpredictable in the U.K. of late.
Here in the U.S., political analysts predictably tried to make the result meaningful in the context of the 2016 presidential race.
But the vote isn’t likely to have much direct impact on the U.S. elections this year. There’s not much evidence that many American voters were following the referendum very closely — indeed, there’s quite a bit of evidence that the British electorate wasn’t as fully informed on the issue as it could have been. Foreign relations rarely have a large impact on U.S. elections as a whole, and a referendum in another country — even one as important as this — is unlikely to change many Americans’ votes. What may impact the elections is the economic fallout from the passage of Brexit, but it will take months to tell whether this uncertainty directly impacts the U.S. economy or just the stock markets.
It may be true the British electorate and the American electorate are in a similar mood this election cycle, and that might help to explain the passage of Brexit as well as the success of Donald Trump. In both cases, distrust of free trade and immigration have helped fuel voter resentment. However, there were unique factors at play in the Brexit referendum that simply aren’t applicable to U.S. politics.
British voters were not only concerned about immigration, but about the loss of their control over that important issue — and a variety of others — to the European Union. That’s simply not an issue in the United States, which maintains full control over its own immigration policy. Indeed, any action the president might wish to take on immigration is more likely to be countered by Congress or the courts rather than some faceless international organization.
Similarly, many of the comparisons made to explain Brexit to American readers have been ill-advised at best, and misleading at worst.
The European Union is an international organization, not a country, so the U.K.’s withdrawal is not, as the website Vox explained it, similar to a U.S. state seceding, not least because states are not able to secede. Indeed, there is no equivalent to the European Union in American domestic politics or in foreign relations. We have entered into various free trade pacts, including NAFTA, but thankfully none are permanent organizations as powerful as the EU. The United States has, quite consistently, resisted joining international organizations that might undermine its sovereignty — such as the International Criminal Court.
Although some limited parallels can be drawn, the passage of Brexit should not be taken as a foreshadowing of the U.S. presidential race, as some have posited. Referendum campaigns decided on the basis of specific issues are far different from races between two candidates, in which a whole campaign can turn on one sentence uttered by an individual. Moreover, the referendum barely passed, suggesting that the unique factors leading to Brexit’s success may not be applicable outside the European Union.
We should look at why Brexit passed in the context of Britain, instead of trying to apply it to our own elections. That will help us understand the economic and foreign policy impact of this vote for years to come.