Brexit Starts a Whole New Chapter for Nation-States and Democracy

Many observers are interpreting Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in much the same terms as Donald Trump. “Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing,” Trump said. In a written statement, he went on that the British “have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy.”

There is certainly an overlap between the nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-elite and right-wing politics surging this year both here and in Britain, in most of Europe, and, as I’ve argued here repeatedly, across almost the entire world. As Friday’s headlines and pundits are trumpeting, the British vote indeed may be a good leading indicator of where elections are headed in the U.S. later this year and in Europe the next – but what it indicates for the longer term is probably exactly the opposite of what these commentaries, and insurgents like Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, and the Brexiteers, represent.

In recent years, as discussed frequently on this blog, academic opinion on the future of the nation-state has been split between a variety of views. Probably the bulk of writers in this area expect the nation-state, as it has existed for over 400 years, to remain largely unchanged. Perhaps the largest contingent of dissenters has believed that we’re headed toward more multi-national and supra-state governments – ranging from specialized global entities like the World Health Organization or World Trade Organization to federations like the European Union. Others see the world cracking into smaller units – cities and their regions, for instance, which are gaining greater attention all the time as the locus of most innovative policy efforts as well as almost all the world’s growth. An even smaller number of thinkers speculate on a new medievalism of overlapping and interlocking fiefdoms of different sizes and kinds with different, and multiple, claims on individuals.

Then there’s folks like me who take things even further and argue that the crazy-quilt of overlapping “governments” of the future will include entities we hardly think of as “governments” today, including for-profit businesses, non-profits, terrorist organizations and criminal gangs.

As of this morning, Britain has taken the first step in tearing apart one of the world’s major transnational organizations. It’s clear that others will soon follow – including at least six other potential EU exiters. The right-wing party in the Netherlands didn’t even wait until lunchtime today to demand a similar vote. It’s also clear that the “Leave” vote in Britain was driven by the same anti-globalization, anti-immigration anger that has swept over not only the whole of Europe but also our own country. So, at first blush, these would appear to be – as Trump and others have heralded it – the first waves of reasserting national sovereignty and the firmness of borders (not to mention border walls).

Think again. The waves are cracking and demolishing all walls, not building them up.

The immediate effects of the Brexit vote include not only calls for further nation-state exits from the EU, but also resurgent sub-national claims to exit from their nation-states. The Scots – who voted overwhelmingly to Remain – almost tore Britain apart two years ago and are now almost certain to do so by 2018. They are not alone. Scottish secession kicked up greater agitation for not just Basque but also Catalonian independence in Spain, and will undoubtedly do so again. Belgium has been dysfunctional for so long already that it’s improbable that the forced marriage of Flemish and Walloons will withstand these rising tides of non-nation-state nationalism.

Further east, the diverse nationalities and language groups that were long held together by the vice of Soviet power have remained restive. Russia itself – which is celebrating Europe’s demise today – has its own problems, with an economy set to collapse in the next decade or two and historically unhappy non-Russian populations occupying huge swaths of its immense southern and eastern territory; it is not inconceivable that, by mid-century, “Russia” has downsized and moved west to incorporate the various “Ruses” of the past while losing hold of its non-Russian peoples. China faces similar, though not as severe, challenges; most people I know who either study or live in the Middle Kingdom believe it’s headed not toward any stable quasi-democratic future but backward toward either an Orwellian revival – clearly the direction President Xi is aiming – or, if that fails, a new Warring States period. We don’t even need to dwell on where the Middle East is going.

In sum, the nationalist resurgence of 2016 is not the new normal. It is but a way station on the road to the larger crack-up.

The U.S. itself is not immune. That should be the clearest lesson of the U.K. vote. That vote was very segregated: London as well as Britain’s historically more European-oriented satellite states strongly supported the “Remain” position; other parts of the country – those not enjoying the benefits of global trade, finance and elite educations – overwhelmingly wanted to leave. As in the U.S., and increasingly everywhere else, this wasn’t a “close vote.” It’s a totally polarized vote. The different tribes of Britain – defined now more by their opportunities and, thus, their, global connectedness than by historic ethnicities – are going their separate ways. It just so happens that such tribes increasingly live in close proximity to each other. Even as the world is getting more virtual, it’s also getting more geographically concentrated.

The same is true here. This country is deeply divided into two ideologically homogenous but wholly incompatible blocs. These blocs are also almost entirely geographically independent. Given the snarling animosities of this year’s campaign, it is highly likely that talk of actual separation will rise after November. Since Obama’s election, conservative enclaves and states have increasingly raised the specter of secession; lefties – which increasingly means the globally-connected urban, coastal elite – increasingly will be willing to let them. As borders and territory everywhere come to matter less and less to the economic and political elite, but more and more to the Left Behind, it is unlikely that the U.S. will be spared this phenomenon.

That means not just the end of nations as we know them, but also of democracy as we know it. Yes, there is a rising authoritarianism in every country – but I don’t mean that I expect totalitarianism to wipe away democracies everywhere. The countries pursuing right-wing nationalist models will continue to falter economically, as they already are doing, and will simply fall further behind the more fluid elite societies. Different places and groupings of people will offer different governing alternatives; some will be authoritarian, some will be internally democratic as we understand that term, some will probably be things we haven’t even conceived yet. But all these groupings will be – as they already increasingly are – internally cohesive, almost monolithic. Elections as we know them will be almost unnecessary in California, in (as one British commentator called it) “Remainia,” or in other cosmopolitan groupings. Everyone agrees, which is why they’re there. Nor will they be needed in the very different societies of Idaho, the English Borders, or Novorossiya. Instead, the choices that matter will be those between such entities, not within them. People will “vote” with their feet, their markets or their clicks. The old science of politics will be a thing of the past.

The “End of History” is so over. This is the beginning of a whole new chapter.

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