It is as if the world turned dark. In the United Kingdom, the nation lit the fuse via the referendum to overturn almost a half-century toward ever-closer union with Europe. Now, the educated in Britain watch in horror at the multiple explosions that follow. They believed they dodged a bullet when Andrea Leadsom, who virtually nobody had heard of four weeks ago, dropped out of the race, thus leaving Theresa May to become Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.
Just as Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the opposition Labour Party, was elected by a bizarrely small part of the population due to British rules allowing party members to select party leaders, now the next Prime Minister could have been contentiously elected by 0.003 percent of the population. Yet the Brexiteers had, as the Brits would say, the “cheek” to accuse the EU of not being democratic!
Yet the impact on global markets was not due to one country leaving the EU; it is that polls show in other countries, such as France and the Netherlands, important countries that contribute more to the EU than they get back, the citizenry would also vote to leave the EU if given a chance. In other words, the carefully designed program to forestall the European competition, which (twice in the last century) led to World War, is crumbling.
Things are clearly not much better in the United States. The presidential race features two candidates that share one thing: they are both exceedingly unpopular in their own parties. Recent violence of many types — Orlando, Dallas, the division represented by police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the Black Lives Matter movement — all haunt us. These events all happening in a country famous for citizens who stop at stop signs on deserted country roads at 2 a.m., because it is the law, and the law in a democracy is properly established and worthy of respect.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming — William Butler Yeats
Then, all over the world, the forces of good seem unwilling or unable to stand up. The North Koreans test nuclear missiles with regularity; the Chinese seize expansion in the Pacific; the Germans announced that Iran did not wait for the ink to dry on its agreement with the West before attempting to acquire high-end and illegal nuclear technology; and it is not so much that we cannot defeat ISIS, it is that no leader in the West is willing to commit to do what it takes to do so.
In practice, this means the U.S. won’t stand up. Leaders in the U.S., especially President Obama, yearn to apply the available funds to social welfare programs, not military expenditures. One hears the voice of General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I certainly agree that we should not go around saying that we are the world’s policeman. But guess who gets called when suddenly somebody needs a cop.”
But if the U.S. won’t provide leadership against forces such as ISIS, there will be a vacuum of power, and only bad things can result.
It is easy and true to say these are not good times or a happy world we live in.
Still, perspective is called for. The market panic over Brexit is part of a short-term run to safety by the capital markets. British productive capacity is unchanged by the vote. One reason the British people can indulge an interest in sovereignty is they are so much more prosperous than they were in 1975 at the time of the last Brexit referendum.
One could gain from remembering what Lloyd Blankfein, then chief executive of Goldman Sachs, said to a young aid panicking during the collapse of Lehman Brothers as Goldman had been summoned to an emergency meeting: “You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve; you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach.”
We are blessed, in the U.S., in the U.K., in Europe and in the free countries of Asia that have seen such extraordinary economic growth since World War II, as well as in other spots of freedom around the world, with enormous resources. Some of these are economic and some are the legacy of great intellectual and political achievement such as the Magna Carta in England and America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Most of our problems can be solved through a combination of good governance and a good civil society.
If you think back to the American founding, and the extraordinary group of men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft first the Declaration and, years later, the Constitution, one can marvel at the intelligence and leadership that men such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin possessed, but it is no less a source of marvel to consider the habits of a society and the political systems that served to elevate these men and bring them together to establish a new Republic.
Perhaps the missing link in modern political discussion — be it about immigration or broadening the franchise or regulations for party politics — is this: Will these policies lead to better governance?
The day is dark, but not as dark as our forefathers have known. Our opportunity is vast. Our challenge is to build the systems that will enable us to build a bright future.