What Can Americans Learn From Brexit?
Five More Years
Boris Johnson defeated Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party in a landslide vote that gives the Conservatives their biggest majority in almost a century. This ensures the U.K. will leave the E.U. by the January deadline, and Boris will have the support he needs to carry out his ambitious proposals over the next five years. He faces a difficult road ahead; first with Scotland, which will likely vote to stay in the EU, and second, negotiating new trade deals once the U.K. leaves the E.U.
It’s possible this vote will forecast trends in the U.S. presidential election in 2020, much as the 2016 election followed the Brexit vote. Americans are looking at Johnson’s commanding conservative majority and drawing lessons for next year. At a campaign rally, Joe Biden warned, “Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left. It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly.” He has campaigned on being the moderate option for Democrats, but has struggled to resist the leftward drift of the party. Hugh Hewitt wrote that Trump and Johnson could become the next Reagan and Thatcher. Although opposite from their predecessors in temperament and ethics, Trump and Johnson both have the ability to inspire waves of populist support at home and tough negotiations abroad.
But Johnson and Trump have some major differences that may lead to different outcomes. While Trump has catalyzed the far right, Johnson has all but neutralized it. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party didn’t win a single seat in the election. Andrew Sullivan’s piece in New York Magazine is the most insightful read on the U.K. election’s implications for the U.S. Johnson took several risks on the way to victory, including resigning from Teresa May’s soft Brexit cabinet, removing Brexit defectors from the Conservative party, and calling an election no one was sure he could win. Additionally, he found an ideological sweet spot that captures the bell curve of British voters, as Sullivan describes: “Make no apologies for your own country and culture; toughen immigration laws; increase public spending on the poor and on those who are ‘just about managing’; increase taxes on the very rich and redistribute to the poor; focus on manufacturing and new housing; ignore the woke; and fight climate change as the Tories are (or risk losing a generation of support).”
Trump has the pulse of his base, but Johnson showed himself to be a brilliant political tactician over the last three months, orchestrating events to accomplish his agenda. So far, Trump has shown to be the opposite. Johnson has assembled a cabinet of capable leaders who are aligned with his vision. Trump will need to do this to win and succeed in a second term. Trump will not be able to adopt a position similar to Johnson’s; if Johnson were an American, he would be a Democrat. But he could take a lesson from Boris’ shrewdness in building a conservative coalition. I’m not convinced that Johnson is right on many issues, but one thing is undeniable: he found a way to win. That may be the most important takeaway for Americans heading into 2020.
Rebuilding the Culture
There’s another interesting angle to Johnson’s project in the U.K. His most difficult task may be confronting the leftward drift among Britain’s elites and educational institutions. England’s urban centers voted to stay in the E.U. and elect Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to power. The U.S. shares a similar problem; it’s not cool to be conservative. Will Johnson be able to bring conservatives back into the social elite? As Andrew Roberts remarked in The Telegraph, “In five years’ time it should be possible to be a proud Tory in the BBC, a Scottish University, an NHS Trust, the Channel 4 board, or even a major trade union, and not feel that you are carrying The Mark of Cain.” Even as conservatives in the U.S. and the U.K are winning elections, they are losing the culture. What would it take to turn that around?
This is even more true for Christians committed to the Bible’s teaching on family, character, power, and virtue. What kind of conservative leadership - whether it be political or not - could reshape American society to the point that outspoken Christians could lead Ivy League institutions, win Academy Awards, and run for office without fear of being outed over their beliefs on sexuality and gender, truth, and salvation through Christ? This will not be the legacy of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, but Johnson may chart a course for social reform. As Christians, we don’t look to the government to change culture but we don’t dismiss it either. We understand that we have a higher calling than legislation. However, we also have a lot to offer the people around us and we are called to fight for justice and pursue human flourishing as God designed it. Johnson’s conservative government may give us a glimpse into the possibility of conservative social reform. For Christians, it’s worth watching.
Regardless of whether or not this vote predicts what will happen in 2020 it is profoundly revelatory. Johnson’s victory shows what voters want in a candidate, the limits of radicalism on the left, the promise of patriotism, and shifting political lines over social, economic, and foreign affairs. Every one of these issues will come into focus in America in 2020.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.