Brexit vote part of an anti-establishment 'wake-up call'

While at least a small part of the Leave vote was likely an effort to stick it to the so-called elites and punditry, it surely can be linked to an anti-establishment trend that has grown throughout Europe and the United States.

Vote results prompted 34 different calls for referendums by anti-establishment parties

While anti-immigration is certainly a key factor for some Leave voters, other issues, such as anti-globalization, anti-mass-corporatization and the impact of the 2008 recession may have played a role. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

The virulent reaction to the United Kingdom's Brexit vote may help to explain what motivated the Leave campaign in the first place.

Those apparently in the know, the same people who predicted a victory for the Remain side, have been casting off the referendum results as the actions of a reckless and xenophobic voting bloc, who have unwittingly unleashed an economic and political cataclysm upon the planet.

While at least a small part of the Leave vote was likely an effort to stick it to the so-called elites and punditry, it surely can be linked to an anti-establishment trend that has grown throughout Europe and the United States.

'Shocked but not surprised'

"I am shocked but not surprised," Elliot Tepper, political science professor and senior fellow at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said about the results. "We have seen across Europe and in the United States, the rise of anti-establishment feeling. And certainly there are reasons for the disaffection."

Those reasons aren't only attributable to a public fed up with mass migration, Tepper said. While anti-immigration is certainly a key factor for some, he pointed to other issues, such as anti-globalization and anti-mass-corporatization sentiment. Also significant is the impact of the 2008 recession.

Tepper suggests all this has come together to create a mood of hopelessness and disaffection that expresses itself in a variety of ways, including the Brexit vote.

"The anti-establishment sentiment, or the Leave sentiment in the U.K., is a mixture of forces that indeed does have a strong nativist xenophobic component. But there is also a sense by many that the world is passing them by and somebody has to be at fault. And in this case, it was Brussels [where the EU is headquartered]."

The idea that the "little guy" has no voice is a phenomenon all across Europe and in the U.S, Tepper said. Yet there are parties and leaders and movements that have emerged to give them that voice, he added, even though it may contain elements they don't support.

Frustration with the establishment

Susi Dennison, director of European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Leave vote was very much an expression of frustration with the establishment, as well as a comment on how the current and previous governments haven't been delivering what many want to see.

Voters have concerns about public services — and the pressures a growing population is putting on those services — as well as concerns about the pressure the U.K. austerity package is putting on everything. 

"They believe the stories that the Leave campaign told of the EU being responsible for that," Dennison said.

It was very telling, she said, that a slew of the populist parties — including France's National Front, Germany's AFD, the Freedom Party of the Netherlands and Lega Nord in Italy — were the first to welcome the Brexit results.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen says pro-independence movements in the European Parliament will meet soon to plan their next move after the British vote to leave the European Union. (Tamil Zihnioglu/AP)

In the 24 hours after the vote, Dennison said there were at least 34 different calls for referendums by anti-establishment parties across Europe on various topics, not all related to EU membership.

​This isn't a left or right phenomenon, she said.

The parties her organization looked at came from across the political spectrum and included new and old parties. They all had one thing in common: an anti-establishment frustration and a sense the EU is not working in its current form.

'Let the people down'

"A sense that the establishment has let the people down is common to them all," Dennison said. "The idea that they can re-establish that democratic link between the people and government is quite common to them all."

It is for those reasons that support has been showered upon political figures like presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose voters may share much of the same impulses that animated Leave supporters.

"The idea that the fix is in and it's against us has some basis in reality for a broad demographic," said Tepper. 'We saw that in the Brexit vote and we see it in the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump."

The degree of alienation a lot of citizens feel from their institutions and elected politicians, the anxiety associated with globalization, and technological change bringing about the potential for job losses — all these factors were in play in the Brexit vote, said Richard N. Haass, president U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"One piece of potential, positive effect would be if policy-makers and officials — be it in the EU or the U.S. government or elsewhere — take this as something of a wake-up call and understand the price they pay if they continue to alienate voters and citizens. That sooner or later, as Mr. Churchill put it, they'll get the order of the boot."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Steven D'Souza