What Brexit actually tells us about our own politics

The vote in Britain last week to leave the European Union has been cast as analogous to the populism coursing through our own politics. Having spent several years covering the EU and British politics from Brussels, I find these comparisons too simplistic in many ways — while missing one other, big lesson.

The “Leave” campaign, like Donald Trump, might have talked about the effects of regulation and immigration on jobs and wages. But there’s a vast difference between the largely unelected, unaccountable apparatus of the EU and our own lawmaking process. Britain, for instance, has had little to no control over the flow of people from other EU member nations. Our elected Congress is fully empowered to fix U.S. immigration policy whenever it finds the will to do so.

Similarly, withdrawing from the EU has no U.S. analogue, short of a state’s secession. Even the North American Free Trade Agreement, from which Trump has publicly mused about scrapping, lacks the volume of law flowing from Brussels. The EU also began with free-trade roots, but it gradually expanded to something far more comprehensive — and, in the eyes of skeptics, intrusive.

No, to the extent Britain teaches us about populism, it’s about the fragility of matters that political elites consider settled.

Some of the surprise about the “Brexit” vote stems from opinion polls that indicated it wouldn’t happen. Much of it, however, comes from a smug assumption voters would recognize the brilliance of the plans their betters made for them. History’s course had been set, and the common folk should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But we Americans are about to celebrate for the 240th time the truth that sometimes in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. Brexit could be considered unthinkable only by the kind of people arrogant enough to pronounce “the end of history” and to delineate “the right side of history.”

It is a conservative impulse to assume history is the future’s best guide, and that we should break with the past only soberly and deliberately. But some perspective is in order. The English have lived under the House of Windsor for 99 years, the Kingdom of Great Britain for 309 years, the Magna Carta for 801 years. They have been part of the EU for barely four decades, less time than most British voters have been alive. If Britons deemed the past endangered, it was not their recent experience in the EU, but all that preceded it.

When the dissolution of political bands has happened in the past, it has been to establish a more liberal order (in the classical sense of the word, not our contemporary, U.S. political meaning). This was the original promise of the EU. But the progress of that liberal order is increasingly illiberal in many respects.

The same holds true here (although much of the unease with our options in November reflects an understanding both represent the wrong path, in different ways, which was also true in Britain). The lesson of Brexit is there’s nothing inexorable about a liberal order trending illiberal.