On Thursday night, British voters broke the deadlock that had seized the country and paralyzed its planned exit from the European Union – handing a landslide to Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his plan to “get Brexit done” in early 2020.
Within 12 hours of the confirmation of the Conservative victory, the result was already being analyzed in the United States for signals of what it all might mean for the coming 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump, in a press availability Friday afternoon, suggested Johnson’s victory over the liberal Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn was a telling signal of his own future political prospects.
“I want to congratulate Boris Johnson on a terrific victory,” Trump said during a bilateral meeting with the President of Paraguay. “It might be a harbinger of what’s to come in our country, it was last time,” the President continued. “I’m sure people will be thrilled to hear that, but a lot of people will be actually. A very big percentage of people.”
Andrew Sullivan, a prominent blogger and close watcher of British and American elections, was even more blunt about What It All Means. He tweeted:
“One lesson from the UK: if the Democrats don’t stop their hard-left slide, they’ll suffer the same fate as Labour. If they don’t move off their support for mass immigration, they’re toast. Ditto the wokeness. Left Twitter is not reality.”
So, how fair are those comparisons? Let’s dig in!
On one level, Brexit and Trump will always be linked. When the United Kingdom voted to disassociate itself from the European Union in June 2016, it sent shockwaves around the world – a stunning result that spoke to the rise of nationalistic populism driven by increasing anger and frustration over economic conditions and immigration, among other issues. Trump quickly attached his own campaign to the Brexit result – even to the point of (wrongly) suggesting that he had seen Brexit coming. When Trump won in November 2016 – a victory fueled by the anger and resentment of people fed up with their belief that the system was rigged against them by the elites – it became clear that the sentiment that had stormed through the UK in the summer of 2016 had come to the US too.
The comparison is inexact, however. Thursday’s election was, without any question, a referendum on Brexit. The stumbles of Theresa May on securing a plan to leave the EU cost her the job of Prime Minister and put Johnson in as her replacement. When he was unable to push through a plan to execute Brexit by the deadline, an election was called to settle the question once and for all.
And, in that election, Johnson and his fellow Conservatives talked relentlessly about the need to get Brexit done in order to begin the next chapter for the UK. Wrote CNN’s Eliza Macintosh of the campaign:
“Boris Johnson campaigned on a single, simple slogan: ‘Get Brexit done.’ Britain, it seems, could not have agreed more.
“Fed up with the political turmoil over Brexit at Westminster, voters gave Johnson the mandate he craved to get the country out of the European Union by January – no ifs, no buts.”
Obviously, we don’t have a Brexit parallel in the United States. Whether or not Trump gets reelected in 2020, the US is going to stay together as a nation. And it’s hard to see any single issue – impeachment? health care? – becoming so transcendent in the next year that it is the sole issue the vast majority of voters care about when they go to the ballot box.
But for US Democrats to dismiss the overwhelming victory for Johnson and Conservatives would be a major mistake. Corbyn, during the course of the campaign, sought to make the election about a much broader swath of issues – pushing decidedly liberal, government-involved solutions for the economic and other problems in the country. As New York magazine’s Jon Chait wrote of the results:
“The British election results, like any election results, are the result of unique circumstances and multiple factors. They are also, however, a test of a widely articulated political theory that has important implications for American politics. That theory holds that Corbyn’s populist left-wing platform is both necessary and sufficient in order to defeat the rising nationalist right. Corbyn’s crushing defeat is a decisive refutation.”
The parallels between Cornyn’s proposed policy solutions and those offered by liberals like Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) – most notably in their firm backing of “Medicare for All” are clear. Which is a point that the more moderate –they would say “pragmatic” – candidates in the 2020 race sought to make in the way of the UK results.
At a fundraiser on Thursday night, former Vice President Joe Biden took note of Johnson’s victory and predicted headlines that said: “Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left. It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly.”
On Friday morning, in an interview with The Washington Post, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that the lesson the left in America needs to learn from the British results is “that you’ve got to be ready to build a coalition and gather that majority.” And former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted:
“Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic showing in the U.K. is a clear warning: We need a Democratic nominee who can defeat Donald Trump by running a campaign that appeals to Americans across our divides.”
Of course, it’s in those candidates’ political interest to see what happened Thursday in the UK as directly correlated to what Democrats may be in danger of doing here if they choose one of the more liberal candidates as the party’s nominee. But it’s hard to totally ignore what happened in the UK. Democrats would be foolish to do so.