by Larry Smith
The consequences of the anti-European Union vote in Britain last week have some interesting parallels with Bahamian and American politics that are worth exploring.
For over 40 years, Britain was an integral part of the European project to end centuries of warfare. But there was always a vocal political minority who wanted out - for various reasons.
The current prime minister foolishly promised these critics a referendum on leaving the EU, despite his own preference to stay. So now he’s resigning, and will hand over the country to his political foes.
The situation in the opposition Labour Party is worse. The leader is an undistinguished politician who was a fringe figure before being elected on a groundswell of grassroots support following the 2015 general election defeat.
Labour officially supported the Remain campaign. But many think the leader secretly wanted Leave to win, and did as little as possible to influence the vote. Now, most Labour MPs expect to lose big-time at the next general election if he continues as leader.
The weekend after the vote, almost every member of Labour's shadow cabinet resigned, in an effort to force the leader to stand down. But he insisted he had wide support among the grassroots.
So Labour is embroiled in a civil war, while the leader tries to carry on as if nothing is happening. Does that sound familiar? The parallels with the current situation in the Free National Movement are astounding.
The campaign to leave the EU was marked by angry messages about taking back control from unelected bureaucrats, fixing an immigration crisis, and restoring a nostalgic sovereignty. Experts say that emotional messages like these spread more easily than those focusing on rational or economic arguments, particularly on social media.
We saw this ourselves during the recent constitutional referendum on gender equality, which inspired highly charged messages relating to religion, homosexuality and immigration. Most commentators agree that immigration was also a defining issue in the British referendum debate, following a decade of rising migration from EU countries.
Unfortunately, that concern in Britain has played out in the form of a wave of hate incidents directed at immigrants. Foreign-looking people on the streets are being told to get out of the country, a trend which a senior Church of England official warned could be a prelude to fascism.
This shows what could happen here if the deep Bahamian resentment against homosexuals, foreigners in general, and Haitians in particular, was manipulated by demagogues to be expressed in more concrete ways.
During our gender referendum campaign, for example, there were serious scare stories circulating about 70,000 foreigners waiting for the citizenship changes to be approved - not to mention the gays that were lining up to be married in Christ Church Cathedral.
But perhaps concerns over economic inequality and declining prosperity offer a better way to frame this discussion.
In Western countries, rising inequality and economic insecurity over the past 30 years have led to the defection of blue-collar voters to populist parties of the hard left and the hard right, Those Britons who voted to leave the EU were mostly over 60, poorly educated, white and working class. And most of the unemployed also voted to leave.
This demographic picture resembles the situation in America, where Donald Trump has led an insurgent anti-immigrant campaign that has succeeded in taking over the Republican Party. Research shows that Trump's support is disproportionately male, white, poor and uneducated.
According to a recent Atlantic magazine article, "Non-college men have been trampled by globalization, the dissolution of manufacturing employment, and other factors, for the last few decades, (and this has produced) anger and political extremism manifested in Trump."
Inequality in the US has approached the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, while social mobility has declined. A much greater share of income is now flowing to those at the very top, who can easily buy American elections.
Widespread inequality breeds resentment, which can lead to social disruption. As American commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: "Trump has channeled economic anxiety into a racist movement. When people are struggling, it’s easier to pin the blame on neighbors who look different than to bemoan abstract economic forces."
But while Trump supporters believe immigrants threaten American customs and values, research has found that they agree even more strongly with the statement: “people like me don't have any say about what the government does.” In other words, they share a sense of disenfranchisement.
And the irony is that Trump’s support has unexpectedly firmed despite the fact that he is a silver-spoon billionaire who has personally benefitted tremendously from globalisation. As the left-wing Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders recently warned:
“Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters (in Britain), are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces destroying the middle class. We must create economies that work for all, and not a handful of billionaires. We do not need change based on demagogy, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment."
WHO IS TO BLAME?
A recent analysis by German economists has shown that over the past 150 years, every major financial crisis has been followed by a 10-year surge in support for far-right populist parties.
When such crises occur, people look for someone to blame, and often migrants and minorities are an easy scapegoat for a problem that is far more complex. The campaign to leave the EU was based on fears of migrants, and it is mirrored by Trump’s campaign in the US.
So how does all this political science fit into to a Bahamian context, just a few months out from a critical general election?
Well, clearly, many of the same factors are at work here. There is rising anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of foreign competition among a poorly educated and disadvantaged work force. The Bahamas also suffers from vast inequalities that have enriched the elite, while middle class living standards fall, and the underclass remains impoverished and marginalised.
It is also apparent that we have leaders who are prepared to pander to voters’ fears and resentments while resisting any real change to the status quo. Perhaps the current flux and cynicism in Bahamian politics is based on the same gut feeling that many Trump and Brexit supporters share: “people like me don't have any say in what the government does.”
What we do have is opaque and unaccountable governance in the face of persistent high unemployment, declining investment, rising debt and a contracting economy. And most of the key players have been around for my entire adult life. How long can this go on without something breaking?
Are we in store for a disruptive shift based on demagogy, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment? Or do we try to work constructively to increase social mobility and improve governance for a better future? And what do our political leaders have to say about this?