Why Americans shouldn’t map the UK’s politics onto their own, in one chart

Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

With Britons voting to leave the European Union—a win for populist voices favoring isolation—there are some in the United States who see a harbinger of victory for Donald Trump, whose campaign relies on similar nationalist themes.

However, the UK and the US remain two different countries separated by thousands of miles and their preference on the appropriate temperature of beer. And though the pressure of globalization on the lower-middle class in both economies is fueling political grievance, the actual economic situations are quite different.

When it comes to Brexit, PM David Cameron’s first mistake (before deciding to hold this referendum) was his government’s insistence on austerity as a response to the financial crisis. Cameron moved to cut spending and reduce the UK’s debt, but his cuts landed on the lower class without meaningfully reducing the country’s government debt. That’s one reason the Leave campaign promised to funnel more money into the NHS—a promise it has already reneged on.

In the US, the Obama administration was able to embrace stimulus and expand the social safety net immediately after the crisis, then hold the line against major budget cuts when a Republican congress came to power.

However you feel about these policy paths, the outcome for households has been very different, with disposable income staying stagnant in Great Britain while rising in the US.

Disposable income isn’t just an economic indicator; political scientists believe it correlates closely with the results of elections. When disposable income is rising, voters are less likely to vote for major change. In which country would you expect arguments that economic woes are due to immigrants and foreign powers to gain traction?

This isn’t to downplay the very real problems in the US economy—poverty and wage stagnation in the lower-middle class is a real issue, as is inequality and the personal debt needed to gain employable skills. But though growth has been slow in recent years and prospects for a major surge aren’t apparent, it is worth recognizing that the shrinkage of the middle class appears to be because former members of the cohort are growing richer, not poorer.

And, incidentally, while skepticism of public opinion surveys is all well and good, the reality is that polls in the UK consistently showed a level split between Leave and Remain, while US polls continue to show a clear preference among voters for Hillary Clinton over Trump.

Americans can’t take a Trump defeat for granted, but the idea that Brexit is a signal of a Trump victory doesn’t map on to the US political situation except in the broadest generalities—look a little closer, and you’ll find the colonists aren’t the metropole.