The Brexit Raises a New Issue For Hillary Clinton: The Democracy Deficit
Focusing on immigration and trade fails to grasp the larger challenge posed by populist insurgencies worldwide.
How the (not so) United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union affects US politics is now a hot topic.
Some suggest that the “Brexit” is a sign that an anti-immigration voter backlash is coming to the US. Others, like CNN pundit Van Jones, go so far as to suggest that the UK proved Donald Trump could win.
Attempting to calm potential panic, Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisers told The New York Times there is little to fear from the Brexit campaign’s success, assuring supporters that the political circumstances of the two countries are “very different.” The advisers claim no need to alter communications strategy on topics such as immigration and trade — two of the central topics in the UK referendum campaign.
Clinton’s advisers are correct on the details but seem to be missing the bigger picture.
It’s true that in the US, immigration, for all the passion it arouses, is viewed far more favorably than in the UK. Recent polls show a majority of Americans have a favorable view of immigrants and 43 percent of US voters want less immigration. This is drastically different than the 78 percent of UK voters who wanted limits on the number of people moving to the UK from the EU.
Clinton must take rising xenophobia seriously, but immigration-related fear cannot alone make Trump president.
While it’s an open question whether Clinton’s economic platform will appeal to displaced workers (many of whom feel they were displaced by trade policies championed by her husband), there is another, larger and less-discussed lesson from the Brexit to which Clinton’s staff would be wise to pay attention: the “democratic deficit.”
The democratic deficit — or unrepresentative aspects of political institutions — has long plagued the European Union. It leads many to call the institution “technocratic,” “elitist” and “unaccountable.”
In the case of the EU, the democratic deficit stems from elections limited to only one branch of the institution, perceived lack of transparency and overly complex governing structures.
Millions across Europe claim EU institutions do not sufficiently represent their will. This sentiment is particularly strong in the UK, where a recent report showed that 74 percent of UK citizens do not feel their voices are heard by the EU.
Perceived powerlessness in the face of a multinational institution inevitably leads to resentment and estrangement. Such institutional alienation likely served as a base off which other feelings, like anti-immigration and economic resentment, mobilized in the Brexit vote.
The democratic deficit is hardly an isolated phenomenon. The US suffers from it, too.
US voters increasingly feel their voices are not heard in the political process. A 2015 New York Times/CBS poll showed the supermajority of voters believe the wealthy have disproportional influence in American politics. This feeling is not misplaced; the vast majority of voters are indeed politically powerless.
Resentment resulting from this deficit is also apparent in the US. The 2016 insurgent campaigns of Trump and Bernie Sanders have proven democratic alienation is enough to disrupt and potentially fracture existing US political-party arrangements.
Both Sanders and Trump attracted disaffected voters by attacking the US political system as one bought by special interests. Trump attacked his GOP primary opponents for courting Koch money and touted his self-financed campaign as evidence that he could not be bought. Sanders accepted only small campaign contributions and decried corporate influence in elections.
Voters are angry and rightfully so. And despite claims by her advisers that everything is fine, Clinton has not yet done enough to address these concerns.
While her policy platform on democracy reform is strong — virtually identical to that of Sanders — she has failed to make the democratic deficit and her plan to fix it central to her campaign.
To avoid a Brexit-like backlash, Clinton must work significantly harder to convince the American people she stands with them, not above them. And she must reinvigorate the belief in collective and personal agency to shape the country’s future.
This means taking seriously the American public’s feelings of alienation and powerlessness — particularly concerning the wealthy buying political influence. Toward this end, she should continue to embrace reforms like publicly financed elections to present a concrete and realizable route to political empowerment.
Fortunately for Clinton, she is well-positioned to be a champion on this issue.
First, the Democratic Party finally seems to be warming to the idea of campaign-finance reform. All three of the party’s major candidates for president had strong, comprehensive plans to address the democracy deficit.
Second, Sanders proved focusing on money in politics mobilizes and expands the Democratic base. This alone should serve as enough of an incentive for the Clinton campaign.
Third, Clinton can afford to irk Wall Street: Her unprecedented fundraising advantage over Trump would be a sufficient buffer to counter any financial retribution. Moreover, as former Bush administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson underscored over the weekend, there are strong signals that Wall Street would prefer stability under Clinton than the unpredictability of Trump.
Lastly, Trump is quickly losing his claim as a reformer. To date, he has not endorsed meaningful policy to fix the democratic deficit — making his claim as a reformer fallible. Trump also has started to court large donations for the general election — completely destroying the moral high ground he claimed for not taking corporate donations during the nomination fight. That opens the door for Clinton to use the democracy deficit effectively in the upcoming debates.
In some respects, it may not be fair that the burden of cleaning up the democratic mess — one created by generations of men — falls upon the nation’s first female presidential nominee. Nevertheless, it’s gradually becoming clear the timing and circumstances may make it Clinton’s job.
The Brexit serves as a reminder, though: Should Clinton fully embrace fixing democracy, she must be ready to make good on any promises she makes. If not, the crisis of institutional legitimacy and potential for backlash will only grow larger — just as it did in the UK.