ISET Economist Blog

We'll Take Our Countries Back and Make Them Great Again!
Monday, 27 June, 2016

For the likes of Boris Johnson, currently UK’s most popular politician and a leading figure of the Brexit revolt, “The European Union has become too remote, too opaque and not accountable enough to the people it is meant to serve.” But how about the UK itself? How close are 10 Downing Street or Westminster to the working-class folks of England’s industrial north? How representative is Britain’s Eton-educated ‘political class’ of the people they are meant to serve? And if Boris Johnson is lauding the British people for deciding to take control of their own future, why not let the Scottish people do the same? 

Consider also this statement by Mr. Johnson: “There is simply no need in the 21st century to be part of a federal system of government based in Brussels that is imitated nowhere else on Earth”. Nowhere else? How about the federal system of government based in Washington DC? Haven’t we heard enough in recent months about “Washington politicians” not listening and being out of touch, failing to protect people’s jobs or health, building bridges to nowhere, lying about WMD as a pretext for funding CIA covert operations, and wars abroad? 

The truth is that Brexit, and Trump, and Bernie Sanders are symptoms of something more systematic than a bunch of nostalgic traditionalists in British “rural areas and market towns” forming a "Stop the world, I want to get off" movement, as Robin Oakley wrote in his CNN column last week. What we are facing today – in Europe and the US – is a twin crisis of the “nation-state” and of democracy in a globalizing world.


Much of the Brexit rhetoric was about regaining control over national borders and reigning in migration from the Middle East and Africa. But the terms “nation” and “national” - given their genetic connotation – are becoming less and less convincing in the 21st century. Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland may be extreme examples, but most European “nations” of today have their genetic roots in hundreds of tribes that had once roamed across Eurasia. Moreover, white Europe is no longer all that white, having seriously compromised its racial purity through past colonial adventures and dependence on migrant workers. 

Even less convincing is the notion of “national borders” given our collective realization of their totally arbitrary nature. The elimination of (artificial) political barriers to the movement of people and goods was probably one of the most welcome features of Pax Europaea. But, (colonial) borders are being increasingly questioned everywhere else, in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, destabilizing existing political regimes and unleashing waves of migration across borders. 

Having emerged in the 19th century, nation-states served a purpose – helping break the old royal and imperial order and providing an alternative narrative around which to organize societies and deliver law and order. Yet, being programmed to claim exclusive ancestral rights to territory and pursue ruthless linguistic and cultural homogenization, nation-states inevitably clashed with their own societies and each other, producing two world wars, innumerous attempts at ethnic cleansing, genocide, and hitherto unprecedented bloodshed. 

Starting with the League of Nations, the 20th century has seen several efforts to establish regional and global frameworks to resolve conflicts and promote cooperation among nation-states. Spearheaded by regional powers, multilateral organizations, philanthropists, and corporations, these efforts rest on the premise that the nation-state has become TOO SMALL to handle any of the global challenges facing humanity in the 21st century – from war and conflict to climate change, to disease control, to innovation, to effective taxation (as vividly illustrated by the Panama papers), to business development and global migration. 

At the same time, and rather paradoxically, nation-states have become TOO BIG to be able to accommodate demands for cultural and economic autonomy coming from regional groups, ethnic and religious minorities. Such local groups increasingly find themselves outnumbered and “not listened to” within existing nation-states, providing a strong impetus for independence movements, separatism, civil wars, and frozen conflicts, and (mostly) unrecognized states. 

The sovereign nation-state paradigm is not yet dead, yet all signs point to the fact that it is living its last days. On the one hand, nation-states face ever-increasing pressures to succumb to externally imposed rules of the games (financial, economic, environmental, etc.). On the other, they are strained (and, literally, torn apart) by internal demands for greater linguistic, cultural, and economic autonomy, federalization, and outright secession. 

Perhaps one of the greatest political challenges of the 21st century will be to engineer a smooth transition from the old system of fully sovereign nation-states (already proven to be ineffective) to a new political order allowing to maximize local freedoms subject to global constraints – related to e.g. wealth and income inequality gaps (the engine of mass migration), energy security and environmental degradation. 

And while the institutional intricacies of the emerging new political order are yet to be worked out, it is clear that it will draw its legitimacy from the ability to solve problems, not (imagined) common ancestry or God’s mandate.


As much as Brexit can be understood as an expression of voter anger against the EU bureaucracy, it was also an exercise in direct democracy, a revolt against patronizing ‘experts’, traditional political parties, and, generally, Britain’s social and economic elites. 

The ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘anti-system’ sentiment is not confined to British politics. As argued by Elizabeth Drew in The Trumping of American Politics, “revulsion at government and traditional politicians” is a central theme of contemporary US politics, hitting the ongoing presidential contest “like a tornado”. 

This revulsion is very much evident in developed democracies, where political parties and professional politicians appear to represent nobody but themselves, creating demand for outsiders, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are ready to take on Washington (and London, and Brussels). 

The institutional machinery of representative democracy, once perceived to represent and reflect, now comes to be seen as standing in the way of, and distorting, the popular view (or views). Even in established electoral systems that have been designed to prevent the emergence of new parties (such as the US and UK), individual politicians find it profitable to directly appeal to the party base, actively ignoring the established “elites”. 

In new democracies, such as those in Eastern Europe, political parties have become a joke, and parliaments are the least trusted public institutions. Ad hoc parties come and go, change names and ideology, morph into ever-shifting political alliances, not living long enough to develop a bureaucratic apparatus, membership, etc., etc.  

Clearly, the migration debate has sharpened the differences in the political preferences between the ‘simple folks’ (who don’t see the benefits of globalization), and national political establishments and pundits (who claim to care about the ‘long term’ and the ‘big picture’ but fail to get their views across). Yet, the migration debate alone will not be able to explain the drawn-out process of erosion in people’s trust in conventional democratic politics, political parties, and professional politicians. 

Democracy draws its inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek texts, which present it as a system of government “for the people and by the people”. While democracy may be unattainable in its pure idealistic form, recent advances in communication technology make it much easier for the ‘simple folks’ to shop for information and actively engage in policy debates way beyond occasional voting. In other words, technology enables more direct forms of democracy and of democratic participation in state affairs.

On the one hand, modern technology allows people to communicate with each other, find support for their ideas or interests, and get organized. In this way, it greatly reduces the role of intermediaries (professional politicians) in the political process, enabling people to “take their countries back”, not only from Brussels and Washington but from the political establishment as such. 

Naturally, the political class comes under the fiercest attack in the EU and US context where ‘democratic’ decision-making appears to be particularly far removed from individuals and communities, however, this is just the beginning. I believe that similar demands for autonomy and more direct democracy will be raised within existing nation-states. And, very importantly, this trend is irreversible.

On the other hand, advances in technology greatly reduce the role of party organizations in the political competition process. It no longer takes massive grassroots machinery and party bureaucracy to start a new political movement and win votes. All it takes is a message, one impressive speaker, Facebook and Twitter accounts, a good crowdfunding platform, and a skilled campaign manager. Well, almost.

Not all of this is good news. With the fixed cost of establishing a new party going down over time, the political market will see a lot more entry and cut-throat competition, resulting in the ‘simplification’ of political messages (xenophobic walls and borders, jobs, free healthcare, and education for all). Indeed, there is a danger that representative democracies, with their ability to filter, 'check and balance', will give way to illiberal direct democracies, suppressing minorities, building walls, etc. This danger is real and a lot of thought should go into developing a proper institutional response, as discussed, for instance, in Kenneth Rogoff’s Britain’s Democratic Failure

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While working on this article, I wrote to my former teacher, Ronald Beiner, whose Democratic Theory class I took back in 1991. This is what he wrote in response:

“It's been a very bad week for those who complacently assume that things will necessarily get better if elites are humbled and direct-democracy energies get liberated. There's no guarantee that populist politics won't inflict atrocious things on the world, as they have in the past. Right now, things are looking pretty scary: Trumpism, Brexitism, the resurgence of the radical Right in Continental Europe. We have to have our eyes open to all those real dangers and think hard & seriously about effective institutional responses. I'm not sure what those might be, but I suspect that at the moment the political classes in Western democracies are also scratching their heads trying to figure it all out.”

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.