Underneath all the commentary about Britain’s decision on Thursday to leave the European Union lies another question. What is the vote’s significance for Western political arrangements? Does this move by the UK, a country that used to manage more of the world’s resources than any other, prefigure more changes in both the Europe and the United States? The motives to leave among British voters exist elsewhere.
Rationale for a referendum
If Britain can hold a referendum, so can the United States. Let the US have an In vs. Out referendum in each of the fifty states, to see how many people want to remain in this union, and how many people want to go. Let the votes be counted state by state, just as we do for a presidential election. Then let the states that want to leave, leave. I can tell you a vote like that would resolve a lot of tension in our political system. It would also give the country a new start, which it has needed badly since the national security state came into its own in the 1960s.
Britons have demonstrated that such a vote is possible, that a decision follows the vote, and that policy follows the decision. If Britons want to leave the European Union, they can leave it. If Americans want to leave their own union, they can do the same. Morally, their fellow citizens have to let them leave. Husbands or wives do not hold each other prisoner after one member of the household calls for a divorce.
Mistaken interpretations of the Civil War notwithstanding, the states united under the Constitution have always formed a voluntary association. For military and political reasons, southern states may have been mistaken to secede when they did, or how they did. They may have been rash to fire on Fort Sumter, and over-confident about their prospects for success in a war.
Nevertheless, all the grief of that conflict did not resolve disagreements about issues of sovereignty and states’ rights, for any but that generation. Union bayonets and cannon only resolved, by force, particular issues of slavery and secession that faced the country at that time. Military victory did not change the voluntary spirit of our Constitution’s preamble. In all his determination to preserve the union, Lincoln did not say the north’s military success changed the fundamental nature of the political bonds inherent in the Constitution.
Why should our states be bound to Washington any more than British districts are bound to Brussels? You need not evaluate that political issue in order to conduct a vote. If fifty states cannot organize a simultaneous referendum, let each state organize a vote on its own, as in the presidential primaries just completed. No legal constraint exists to prevent these referenda. If citizens within each state want to vote on the matter, they have the ability and right to do so.
Let’s follow the example of our British brethren, to see what people actually think about this matter.
Nativism and liberty
I’ve written before that it is extremely not good when a revolt against central authority becomes tied up with nativism. It happened here in the United States with the Tea Party, and apparently it has happened in Britain with its desire to free itself of the EU. No necessary connection at all exists between these two impulses. One represents a wholesome drive for autonomy and all the benefits of freedom. The other represents an ugly, we-were-here-first attitude that is as closed and impoverished as it is ungenerous. Liberty is a generous impulse, and it cannot coexist with nativism. The ugly or the sublime will win out. So far the forces of liberty have been back on their heels for some time, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Britons’ campaign to leave the European Union was nativist and nationalist, but we should not use that observation to draw incorrect conclusions about politics in Britain or the United States. Trump’s followers say they want their country back. We saw the same sentiments in Britain.
When you say you want your country back, you need to have a clear idea of who took it away from you. When you try to answer that question, you see the concept is incoherent. Politics is not about stealing countries. Governments tax and they control territory, but they do not steal countries. Neither do immigrants. To say you want your country back is simply a sentiment directed against people you don’t like, people you see as a threat. It is nativism disguised as patriotism.
Note that nothing about nativism is patriotic. It is a narrow, selfish, resentful stew of hate that does nothing to build strong bonds among patriotic citizens. People have to live together. You cannot build a country, which is a social and not a political concept, when you exclude people, and say you can’t stand to have them around. That is the opposite of patriotism. It is also – in the practical political forms the sentiment takes – the opposite of liberty.
Force the issue in the US, as the British did for membership in the EU
Here in the US, the country people want to have returned to them is beyond retrieval. Donald Trump has shown no capacity to retrieve it, or to bring about any other incoherent result we might hear him talk about on a given day. So let’s return to the significance of Britain’s vote, to compare it with positions and outlooks in the United States’ current presidential campaigns:
Clinton – Status quo, stability rules
Trump – Fake revolution, intellectual incoherence, as described in Beatles’ Revolution
Brexit – Real revolution, from both British and European points of view
That’s what we need here: a real revolution that first challenges, then overturns Washington’s authority. Brussels wanted to regulate its way to European unity. A clear majority of Britons said no thanks. Here, the feds have done far more than regulate, though that by itself is onerous enough. The feds here practice a Hunger Games style of opulence and corruption. They crave power, accumulate it like Midas accumulated gold, and do not care what suffering they cause in the provinces. Just let the taxes roll in. Electing a strongman like Trump won’t change this concentration of power and wealth in a distant capital.
The provinces need to turn their backs on the center. Simply reject Washington’s money. Say we want no part of it. Force federal officials to go through special security checkpoints every time they want to enter a state to conduct their dubious and altogether too often nefarious business. Reject all controls that contradict the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment. Goad the feds into threats of force, to show their so-called authority rests on nothing more than coercion. Their proclaimed desire to help does nothing more than cloak their desire to control.
Proposals to dismantle current power arrangements in the US place Britain’s vote in a new light. Don’t focus on the nativist, resentful rhetoric that began to infect the UK’s we-want-out campaign. With one referendum in one large country, we see the EU project in trouble. Brussels overreached, believing it could use bureaucratic coercion to forge a continent of compliant business firms and even more compliant people. The European Parliament and its regulatory agencies acted with pride. Now they have received a shock.
Americans need to deliver a shock of similar magnitude to people in Washington, who demonstrate their reliance on coercion every day. Putting Trump in the White House may give his supporters the illusion they have their country back, but for states in our shattered union to achieve Britain’s independence, they must do what Britain did: leave.
Update after the British vote, plus Beatles lyrics
Divorces can take a lot of time, or they can happen fast. On the slow track, a couple can take years to work through a painful separation. Faster, one member of the couple says, “You want out? Your stuff is on the doorstep.” British voters, officials, and people who don’t like change may hope to take the slow way out, but EU officials have feelings, too. Also, the EU does not want a lingering divorce to lead other members to the exits for the same reasons Britain did. Everyone pays too much for too little benefit. Meantime every member has strong doubts about millions of people across South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa who want to escape disastrous warfare, destruction, imprisonment, torture and death.
Reports in today’s news indicate the European Union wants the doorstep solution for the UK. Britons may face uncertainty, but Brussels faces a lot worse than that.
Here’s what the Beatles had to say about revolutionary change during another unsettled time, the 1960s:
You say you want a revolution
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
You say you got a real solution
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
We’re all doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait
You say you’ll change the constitution
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
You’d better free your mind instead
In publication since 2009, The Jeffersonian occasionally publishes topical collections of essays on politics, such as Revolution on the Ground and Infamy. To learn about these and other books, visit Dr. G’s Writing Workshop.
Revolution in the Air, by Steven Greffenius
Revolution on the Ground, by Steven Greffenius