The decision of the British electorate to reject all the advice and browbeatings from the Great and Good, and vote to leave the European Union, is above all a display of nationalism.
That word was mostly absent in the discussions I watched on the BBC and in much coverage here in the United States. And when pundits mentioned the word, they used it as a synonym for chauvinism, isolationism, and ignorance much more frequently than as a synonym for patriotism.
This should not be a great surprise: Nationalism is out of favor. It has, especially in Europe and for obvious historical reasons, been understood as a basis for fascism and extreme chauvinism. Orwell wrote that nationalism is “power hunger.” Einstein considered it infantile — the view most officials in Brussels probably take. Nationalism is considered by European elites to be a primitive view — indeed, not even a view but an emotion.
In the Brexit vote, Brits chose to reject those patronizing views and express their nationalism. By this, they seem to have meant that they want to make the key decisions about their future, and about how they live, through their own democratic institutions. On the BBC on Friday morning, a typically biased interviewer spoke with Radek Sikorski, the former foreign minister of Poland, who denounced Brexit as dangerous and malevolent. His anger and resentment were so great that they finally moved even the BBC to defend the vote. How? On democratic grounds. Don’t people have a right to vote? Isn’t self-rule sacred? It was half amusing, half inspiring to see the interviewer rise to the defense of his countrymen and -women when they were treated with contempt for choosing Westminster over Brussels.
There is a message here for Israelis — and for Americans.
For Israelis, the referendum fight helps explain their unpopularity among European elites. If nationalism is primitive and infantile and dangerous, it is no wonder that Israel is criticized endlessly and its efforts to defend itself are seen as excessive. Its basic demand — to be understood and acknowledged as a Jewish state — is itself considered illicit; ethno-national states are out of the question these days. Defending your state with actual guns is positively medieval in the eyes of today’s European leaders.
Americans beg to differ, and that’s a reason that Israel is more popular here. Believing in your country and defending it with your army is considered patriotic here, not primitive. The sacrifice of sovereignty to bureaucrats abroad would offend Americans just as it offends so many Britons. All this helps explain Donald Trump’s successes this year, for he speaks a language of nationalism: defending borders and controlling immigration, for example, which was also a central issue in the British debate. That call to “Make America Great Again” is a reflection of nationalism, and it has found a wide audience.
Of course there were other elements in the Brexit vote, some of which are also found in our campaigns. The rejection of elite advice is one; both the Trump primary victory and the Brexit vote reflect a mistrust of the capital, the main political institutions, and policy elites. Joseph Epstein wrote about aspects of this in the Wall Street Journal(“Why Trumpkins Want Their Country Back,” June 10, 2016); he quoted the words of one woman who was a Trump supporter: “I want my country back.” Epstein focused on domestic matters and “cultural warriors,” explaining that “multiculturalism, identity politics, political correctness, victimhood — the progressivist program generally — are now in the saddle.” The woman he quoted, he suggested, “couldn’t any longer bear to watch the United States on the descent, hostage to progressivist ideas that bring neither contentment nor satisfaction but instead foster a state of perpetual protest and agitation, anger, and tumult.”
There is an international side of this, too. Americans are not worried about their relationship with Brussels. But they are bothered by a sense of declining American sway in the world. Polls find that Americans believe their country is playing a less important and less powerful role in the world than in years past, that the world is growing more dangerous, and that the Obama administration is not tough enough. They see the president stiffing allies and friends — threatening the British, distancing from Israel — and trying to cozy up to enemies such as Russia and Iran. They see Obama making a pilgrimage to Hiroshima and palling around with Raúl Castro.
Whatever Obama is displaying, it is not nationalism, not a plan to rebuild American greatness and military power. He seems to find American nationalism dangerous and, to use that word again, primitive. Recall his 2008 comment on small-town Americans: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Or they vote for Brexit, British cultural and political pooh-bahs might say to express the same sentiments.
The lion departs from the Euroweenie Union and tells them their on their own its time for the eagle to leave the vultures nest of the United Nations let them solves their own problems