The White, Working Class: The Correlation Between Brexit and the 2016 Election, By Catherine Proulx

In the fallout after Brexit and the 2016 United States presidential election, the validation and influx of hate speech and hate crimes in both countries have been the focus of many voices of the left and media outlets, and for good reason, as hate crimes have seen a spike in both the UK and the US. Though talking about the rhetoric responsible for this spike is important, there also needs to be an acknowledgment of the economic factors responsible. The left has sabotaged itself in both scenarios by not addressing the demographic that was key in both votes: the poor, white, working class.

In the 2 weeks following the vote to leave the EU on June 23rd, 2016, according to Independent.co.uk, there were 2,241 reported hate crimes in England and Wales. In the two weeks prior the vote, there were 1,546 reported hate crimes. The rhetoric surrounding the EU referendum, also known as Brexit, had two major components that were the main focus of the conversation: economic isolationism and immigration control. What’s interesting is that the core of the arguments for these two points had certain similarities; economic isolationism and the regulation of free trade was believed to be increasingly necessary to address the unemployment and stagnation of wealth in the often-lower-class areas impacted negatively by trade, and the free movement of people contributed to popular consensus surrounding who was responsible for the unavailability of jobs for the lower and working British classes after the 2008 recession. Both of these components also obviously have ethnic connotations as well: restricting free trade impacts the ability to work with countries around the globe as well as keeps the low-paid outsourced jobs ideally within the home country, and the fight against the free movement of people also has a component of negative cultural biases and mostly irrational fear that would be unwise to ignore. Deciding which of these roots, the economic or the ethnic, are the primary contributor would lead to a ‘chicken or the egg’ debate, since racism has been ingrained in society since history has been documented, in addition to class oppression. Instead, let’s now look at the 2016 US election.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, between the election day on November 8th and November 19th, 2016, there have been at least 700 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation. Donald Trump’s candidacy was largely focused on the fear of the Foreign, from cultures, to peoples, to trade deals, to concepts and lifestyles. Trump capitalized on the fear present in America on things that were not easily and wholly understood and could be molded into simple and terrifying blanket statements such as ‘they’re taking our jobs,’ ‘they’re all terrorists,’ etc. This language was very effective in running a loud and media-centric campaign, but what’s interesting about Trump’s campaign is beyond this rhetoric resonating with voters. What secured the white working class vote — based on precedent could have gone either way considering Obama’s success in 2012 — was Trump’s individualized focus on the needs of poor industry communities that were not at all appealed to by Hillary Clinton.

Similar to the UK, the white working class of the US is poor, possibly without a college degree, and working jobs that are easily replaced overseas. In our increasingly globally-focused society, working class Americans have found themselves slighted by those in power that are pro-unregulated trade, pro-immigrant, and work closely with CEO’s and big sources of money. In the mind of the white working class, those views are personified in Hillary Clinton and other establishment democrats. Besides the rejection of neoliberalism, the white working class culturally does not feel attended to. Now, when looking at Trump’s tax plan, one could easily argue that the decrease in federal revenue would be detrimental for the members of the white working class on welfare programs, but as Ronald Wright has said, the poor view themselves more as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In that way, campaigns need to appeal to the current status of the white working class, and where they want to be. At the end of the day, Donald Trump not only did that better than his opposition, he personified the white working class “American Dream.” Hillary’s campaign was centered around racial minorities, women, young people, and the LGBTQA+ community. I doubt that she intentionally neglected the white working class vote, but because they were not appealed to by her campaign, they fell willingly into the arms of a more divisive one. In their eyes, they felt no responsibility for the treatment of others until they were to receive retribution for their own treatment by establishment politics.

I want to be clear, I am in no way excusing the anti-immigrant sentiment, resulting hate crimes, and blatant ignorance and bigotry that has become the white working class, though they are not the only perpetrators of such rhetoric. I am saying that these voters in the US and the UK have been sold the idea that their lost jobs and increasing instability in society are in direct correlation with several factors. People coming into the country and working the same job for less, or people working their previous job in another country, or people buying goods that used to be manufactured at home from abroad. When money has an amount of influence in politics, it’s unsurprising that the scapegoat for this issue is the people from other countries, which is not unrelated to the truth, but definitely not the full story.

There is not one single solution to address this issue. There is no one-step way to end hate crimes, nor are there fair and easy solutions that address the concerns of all politically marginalized groups. In America, both sides of the main party system should be blamed for the increasing ideological polarization currently experienced. This polarization of ideals causes voters to pick between two sides that don’t often overlap. With both parties differing on both economic and social issues, voters are left to pick the choice that overlaps the most with their views. Someone, for example, who supports environmental protection and gun control but also a hawkish foreign policy, or someone who wants to reverse the Affordable Care Act but also affirmative action would find themselves with no major party who matches their views.  Both sides of the aisle have assured the people that it’s nearly impossible to get third-parties to break into the system, which prevents our democracy from being truly proportional. It’s clearly divisive to have people choose between two extremely different sides, so why does our country maintain that system? In the UK, according to the BBC, only England and Wales voted to leave, with Scotland and Northern Ireland both voting to stay within the EU. Even within their multi-party system, the UK’s democracy clearly cannot truly represent everyone. Ranked-choice or position voting, among other ideas, are solutions to these vexing problems that we should consider.

Unfortunately, reformations of democratic systems are no easy feat. Hopefully, while working toward that dream, our country and the UK can figure out how to make sure that the already existing democracies are able to give the entire population equal representation, a variety of options, and the ability to vote for the collective benefit of all those in need.

Catherine Proulx is a senior Integrated Marketing Communications major with minors in Politics and Communications Management and Design at Ithaca College. Her interests include political communications, campaigns, advocacy, and community engagement.

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