Prime Minister David Cameron may be the most hated man in the Disunited Kingdom, both for calling the referendum on membership in the European Union and then for losing it. He scratched a scab of underlying resentment in older, rural and suburban, poorer and less educated voters against the successful cities, against globalism, and most importantly, against immigration. The Economist describes it as a “giant, nation-changing misstep, one guaranteed to scar the country for decades and diminish his place in the history books. He leaves office in ignominy.”
But what happened in the U.K. was in fact a preview of what might happen in the American election: the complete surprise shocker revolution of the older generations, the boomers and seniors, rejecting the changes that have happened in their respective countries in the last decade. It's not a fight to retain the status quo; it's an attempt to turn back the clock, to make things the way they were.
In the process, the baby boomers and seniors are destroying the future for their own children and grandchildren — and alienating them in the process. As a baby boomer, I can only say that we should be ashamed of ourselves.
In the U.K., the voters in favor of Brexit were disproportionately older, poorer and residents of smaller centers. The jobs they once had digging coal or building cars have disappeared. Meanwhile, in the last year, 330,000 migrants have come to the country because it was doing well economically and offered them jobs — jobs older Britons couldn’t or wouldn’t take.
In the cities, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the European Union. That’s where the educated, the wealthy, and the young congregate, and they know a good thing when they see it. One commenter on the Financial Times, now known to be political journalist Nicholas Barrett, caught the attention of the internet with this analysis of the generational and geographical divide:
A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded, and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”
But there were enough unhappy, underemployed older Englanders and Welsh, hating the changes that have taken away their jobs and their pride, seeing what they think is their heritage disappearing, to swing the vote. And the biggest source of anger was immigration, what they saw as waves of outsiders taking their jobs and changing the English way of life.
But here's the thing: Nicholas Barrett and other young people are complaining about how they got screwed by the oldsters, but when you look at the data, they really screwed themselves. The young did themselves no favor by showing up at the poll at half the rate of older voters; had they appeared, the results would have been very different. As much as the boomers and seniors won it, the young threw it away.
Lessons for America
Donald Trump says many of the same things the Brexiters did: Stop globalization and bring back jobs. Make America great again. He speaks to angry middle America where jobs have been lost, where the children have all left to go to the cities. Unlike the U.K., they have power and influence thanks to a crazy political system that gives the 3/4 of a million living in North Dakota the same number of senators as the almost 40 million in California, and now they have a presidential candidate who promises to do what they want: turn back the clock. Clean up the washrooms. Kill Obamacare to save the money for their Medicare. And most importantly, stop immigration and get rid of the ones who are already here.
At election time, the young will disproportionately stay away from the polls, as will the poor and black and Hispanic. America might well see the effect of all this pent-up anger from the boomers and the seniors, and might well wake up to as big a shock as the British did.
This is a demographic battle, and as seen in Canada, the young will win it.
But the boomers and seniors are, to put it bluntly, a dying breed. A demonstration of what's coming down the demographic pipe can be seen north of the border in Canada. Unlike the States, electoral ridings are based strictly on population, and an independent committee draws the maps, so there's none of the crazy American gerrymandering of constituencies. The maps pretty much represent where the population is, and it plays out in real time.
The previous conservative government played to its older base in the last election; it pandered to boomers and seniors, attacked Muslims wearing head coverings. It defended the oil industry, denied climate change and ignored the expert advice of its scientists. It attacked the media as biased and on the pretense of fighting fraud, made it harder for people to vote.
And it got thoroughly trounced by urban voters, who are now the majority. By the multicultural cities, which were painted Liberal red across the country. By a modern, centrist young man who immediately selected a cabinet with full gender equity, “because it’s 2015” and that’s what you do.
This is the future of the U.K. and of the U.S., the inexorable tide of youth will roll right through their parents and grandparents generation. (I voted for the New Democratic Party, the home of the old left wing intellectual socialist Bernie Sanders crowd; we got totally rolled over. This is not a left/right thing; it's generational change.)
David Cameron should have run down the clock; every year would have made more young and urban voters and buried more boomers and seniors. Americans do not have that option, but this might well be the last election where the boomers and seniors still have the votes to pull something like this off.
But as long as young people don’t show up, every one of those boomer and senior votes are worth twice what the Generation Y or Z vote is. So if millennial Americans don’t want to wake up on Nov. 9 to the kind of shock the British experienced on June 24, they had better get to work.