If Tony Blair’s op-ed on Brexit is mournful and even elegiac in tone, that’s understandable. Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was, after all, a repudiation of his legacy as prime minister. And if it isn’t as mournful as it might have been – well, Blair has done quite well for himself since leaving office, which must provide some consolation for his errors. The people of Great Britain won’t be so lucky.
Neither will Americans, if they follow the British path.
One thing is clear: Although Tony Blair laments the failure of the “political center,” this didn’t happen because he and his colleagues failed. It happened because they succeeded.
Why "Leave" Won
It's impossible to discuss the Brexit vote without first acknowledging the fundamental role that racism and xenophobia played in its outcome. English voters’ national identity and religion – their primordial whiteness – was a key element in the Leave victory.
Nigel Farage, head of the far-right UKIP party and a leader of the Leave campaign, described Muslim immigrants as “a fifth column” and exhorted voters to be “braver” in “standing up for our Judeo-Christian culture.”
That’s racism, pure and simple.
But the Leave campaign also preyed on economic fear and uncertainty. A bad economy makes people more vulnerable to nativist demagogues.
Leave fostered helpless rage, saying that Great Britain was under the thumb of “faceless bureaucrats.” It also claimed that the EU was costing too much. The far-right UK party sent a bus around the country painted with these words: "We send the EU £355 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.”
Never mind that the figure is a lie, or that Farage reneged on the National Health Service pledge less than 24 hours after voting ended. It's still an extraordinary sight: a far-right party using one of British socialism’s greatest achievements to sell its nativist agenda.
But then, Tea Party demonstrators held signs saying “keep government out of my Medicare.”
Farage blames immigrants for Britain’s economic problems, but won’t lay a finger on crooked bankers. “The banking collapse was caused,” he once claimed, “… by bad government policy and the total failure of bad regulation, rather than by greed.”
Whatever their differences, Tony Blair and Nigel Farage certainly share a belief in the innocence of bankers. “The right attacks immigrants while the left rails at bankers,” Blair complains in his op-ed, describing both as “the venting of anger at those in power and the addiction to simple, demagogic answers to complex problems.”
That, too, is nonsense. But that kind of nonsense is popular on both sides of the Atlantic, among the self-described "centrists" who dominated both Bill Clinton’s Democrats and Blair’s Labor Party.
Clinton defends bankers, too. It was Clinton who characterized criticism of crooked bankers as “blood lust” and told Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that if he took Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein “into a dark alley and slit his throat … it would satisfy them for about two days.”
Like Blair, Clinton is unable to distinguish between irrational hatred and a wish to see the law enforced evenhandedly against bankers. But then Clinton, like Blair, has made a lot of money from bankers.
Both men employed social liberalism and personal charm to turn their parties rightward and expand the power of the global financial sector. They and their associates shared a common inclination to dismiss the left – once the heart and soul of their own parties – as the vestige of a dead age, a nest of shrill and clueless extremists no better than the right.
Blair, Right or Wrong
That's not to say Tony Blair gets everything wrong. He correctly notes that Leave could not have prevailed without a significant number of Labor voters. In fact, a number of Labor strongholds voted solidly for it. And he’s right that most of these voters were “worried about their flatlining incomes and cuts in public spending.”
And yet, Blair takes no responsibility for those flattened incomes or public spending cuts. He should. They’re the direct result, not only of David Cameron’s economic mismanagement, but of New Labor’s policies: its bent toward privatization, its dismissive attitude toward the public sector (combined with a fawning attitude toward business), its hostility toward unions, and its support for a global economic order that favors corporations over working people.
Blair also overlooks his own unique role in fostering immigration, especially from Syria. Blair deceived his nation into joining the U.S. war with Iraq – a war that is the direct cause of today’s Syrian crisis. The British haven’t forgiven him. In a study conducted just last month, 53 percent of those polled agreed with this statement:
“I can never forgive Tony Blair for what I think he did wrong.”
Only eight percent considered Blair innocent of wrongdoing.
Undeterred, Blair frets that “the political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”
But the problem isn't the sales pitch, Mr. Blair. The problem is the product.
The “centrists” in Tony Blair’s New Labor and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats might disagree with their electoral opponents about certain policies, but they agreed with them on some key principles: the power of free markets, the privatization of government services, and a global economic order that emphasized corporate control over trade.
This shared ideology led to bank deregulation, weakened unions, stagnant wages, soaring inequality, personality-driven elections and the undermining of the social contract – all executed with “bipartisan” comity.
The public is tasting the fruit of these centrist successes now. Turns out they don’t much care for it.
Socialist Jeremy Corbyn now leads Blair’s party. The Conservatives are likely to be led by rabble-rousing Leaver Boris Johnson. It’s hard to tell which might offend Blair’s urbane sensibilities more: the bearded and rough-hewed Corbyn, or Johnson, a grinning moptop who comes across like the product of an unholy gene-splicing experiment between Nick Nolte and a Lhasa Apso.
Blair unironically laments the public’s loss of respect for “experts.” He fails to note that the experts in question repeatedly failed to predict the effects of their own policies – and paid no price for their failures. But then, neither has Blair.
“Let’s take back control,” said the side of that UKIP bus. Control has been lost, all right, but not to “faceless bureaucrats.” It’s been lost to global elites, and to the politicians and “experts” who serve them. The global financial system needs to be reformed, democratized and taken out of their hands.
The Home Front
It’s unclear what Britain’s vote means for the U.S. This country differs demographically from Great Britain, and right now Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s poll numbers are devastatingly bad. But the election is months away. A lot can happen.
Trump certainly bears a stylistic resemblance to his British counterparts. He calls his opponents “lying Ted” and “crooked Hillary,” while Farage calls Cameron “Dishonest Dave.” He embarrasses the GOP establishment by saying racist things they’d rather just hint at.
It isn’t working – at least, not yet. Could it? This measurement of anti-immigrant “fear” isn’t perfect (more on its methodology here), but it suggests two things: that there is much greater fear of immigrants in Great Britain than there is in the U.S., and that this fear is nevertheless unusually high in the U.S. right now.
Democratic complacency would be foolish. Even a Trump defeat would likely be a one-shot affair, based more on his extravagant defects than on Democratic strengths.
Trump’s trade speech this week spoke to people’s pain in a deceptive but surprisingly effective way. Democrats will only damage themselves if they keep supporting NAFTA-like trade deals and other harmful pro-corporate policies, either explicitly or implicitly. Voters understand that these policies played a major role in their current misery.
The New New Democrats
Hillary Clinton broke with Barack Obama by declaring her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest bad trade deal. But, thanks to her campaign's appointees on the platform committee, the Democratic Party’s draft platform does not include language opposing the TPP. Bernie Sanders was told that’s because the party doesn’t want to “embarrass” President Obama.
Know what would really embarrass President Obama? Seeing his party lose the presidency to Donald Trump.
This omission doesn’t make sense – unless Clinton doesn’t really object to the TPP at all. That’s how the public is likely to see it, anyway. A failure to condemn the TPP would seriously wound the party’s chances – up and down the ticket, now and in years to come.
It’s true that Trump would undoubtedly break his economic promises, just as Farage has done. And it’s reassuring to know that Trump’s campaign is being rejected by younger voters, just as Leave’s was. They’re the future, after all.
But young voters also rejected the establishment Democrat in this year’s primary. And this election is happening now, not in some unforged tomorrow.
Tony Blair understands that voters are rejecting the status quo. Democrats risk being seen as the party of the status quo. So far Trump hasn’t sent buses around the country advertising his campaign. But if he plays it smart and the Democrats don’t, he could still take the country for a ride.