What the South can teach the U.K. about Brexit

Nigel Farage is the leader of UKIP, a British nationalist party that advocated in favor of Leave.

When I was fourteen, my family moved to London for six months. My parents are professors, and my father’s university was subsidizing our stay as part of a study-abroad program for its undergraduates. We lived in a posh part of Hampstead, and part of the deal was that I got to go to a top-flight British private school in north-central London. My parents’ work had taken us abroad for stretches before, so I knew a little about how to be a cultural outsider among other boys (not to mention that I often felt like an outsider even in American schools); new for me in London was the sense that I was an outsider by class and not just by nationality. I’d come from a lower-echelon North Carolina public middle school; I’d worn a tie maybe three times in my life before I got to the UK, and now I wore one every weekday. My school friends’ parents all drove BMWs and Audis and Mercedes; they all lived in posh parts of London too, but their homes actually belonged to them.

Kids asked me where in America I was from, and I told them North Carolina. Most of them didn’t know where this was, but when they found it on the map, more than a few of them knew enough to tease me for being a hick. They were pretty good at it: Britain, of course, has its own geographies of privilege and perceived stupidity. Like most fourteen-year-olds would, I alternated between joining in the self-mockery and shrugging it off, trying all the while to minimize my Southernness and indeed my Americanness.

This was late 2004: the Iraq invasion was beginning to reveal itself as an evil blunder; the London bombings of 2005 had yet to bind America’s post-9/11 paranoia to the lived experience of the UK and Europe. Everything reached a fever pitch in November, when the US re-elected George W. Bush. My British counterparts saw this as a crime I should have to answer for: what the hell were we Americans thinking? What good could possibly come of this? How could a whole nation be so damn stupid?

Highgate School, which the author attended in 2004, dates from 1565.

I’m no longer in touch with the friends I made then, but I bet most of them voted to Remain last week. As an American looking on, I want to ask them the same questions they asked me then. (I have done my best to bury my schadenfreude.) Not that I expect them to have answers: disbelief reigns on Facebook from my friends on both sides of the Atlantic. But as a Southerner, I think I understand this all somewhat better.

It may be the South finally has something to teach the British about their politics. The rhetoric of the Leave movement is hardly original; in the South, it would be kitsch at this point if it weren’t still so threatening. We have often watched white men declare that a distant, federal government is impinging on a more fundamental, local sovereignty; that said government and its local collaborators are permitting people of color to benefit from the hard work of whites (and that white people are endangered by these people of color); and most fundamentally that rejecting federal authority is a necessary step toward restoring a glory and power that has lapsed.

Of course, I admit all disclaimers here—the UK is not the American South, and the particulars of its situation mean that this rhetoric has different valences on either side of the Atlantic, and indeed at different moments in time. Even so, it seems to me that the alleged novelty of the Leave movement is, by the light of this comparison, easy to overstate. Their ideology is freshly scary, but—like parallel nationalist movements across Europe, like Trump in the United States—it’s not new. Nigel Farage would have been intelligible to John C. Calhoun. We here in the South have been learning about his ilk for a long time.

This, I submit, is what the South has to share with the British about the politics they now confront. Much of this has been recognized elsewhere, and is reinforced rather than identified by the comparative experience of the South. But Southerners—mostly people of color, faithful to the ideals of governments that were rarely faithful to them—have paid for this knowledge in blood.

1) The rhetoric about the inequities of federal governance is largely a red herring. There is a constitutional question at stake, but that question is not really about the formal balance of power between the federal government in question and the British national or Southern state government. We in the South have watched resistance to federal authority wax and wane; it has been minimal, for instance, vis a vis the projection of American power abroad, or the war on drugs—and at a maximum when federal authority imposes forms of racial equity on the states. To be clear, even in the South, resentment of the federal government is real (we’ll come back to this later), but despite all of the bluster about formal sovereignty, that resentment isn’t of the abstract, formal cession of sovereignty or authority; it’s of particular choices that government makes and of the particular people it represents. In the case of the UK, it is impossible to imagine a successful Leave campaign without the (faulty) insistence on a connection between European power and the increasing presence of migrants and refugees. (Although let’s admit up front: more than was ever the case in the South in its antagonistic relationship to federal authority, there are legitimate questions about the way E.U. governance imposes on the democratic sovereignty of the UK.)

2) Yet this is not just about policy, or about E.U. governance; there is another constitutional question at stake here. Nigel Farage is skilled at implying it rather than articulating it. The question is just this: who constitutes the people who should wield popular sovereignty and possess democratic power—and who does not? The real concern is not that the formal structure of power is improper, but that the wrong people are empowered within that structure. The main slogan of the Leave campaign, “Take Back Control,” (which always invites the question “from whom?”) was not accidentally deployed alongside images of non-white migrants; when Nigel Farage declared the Leave vote “a victory for real people, ordinary people, decent people,” he was not accidentally implying that Remain voters were less authentic and less decent people. In the context of widespread fear-mongering about migrants and multi-culturalism, the claim for the rights of “real British” (or for that matter “real Americans”) against the relevant federal government is inseparable from the claim that certain people who are technically British or American are not, in fact, “real” members of the body. To our chagrin, we in the South have grown adept at seeing this rhetoric for what it is—even though it is often well-concealed, generally disguised it as a claim about formal structures of power merely.

So let us tell you that when the Redeemers showed up to overthrow democratically-elected interracial governments in the post-bellum South, they too spoke of taking back control from a distant government, even as they killed their neighbors. And when George Wallace ran a segregationist campaign for the presidency in 1968, his slogan invited supporters to “stand up for America” (we all knew who belonged to that America, and who didn’t). And when the “North Carolina Citizens League” organized opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education, items one and two on their agenda were to “maintain racial segregation” and “preserve state sovereignty”—which they asserted were in the best interests of “patriotic” citizens. In the South, from the Civil War to the present day, rhetoric about the illegitimacy of federal authority more or less tracks the willingness of the federal government to insist on a broad and inclusive definition of “the people” in a political sense.

A pro-Leave advertisement, which was widely acknowledged as bearing resemblance to Nazi propaganda.

3) Because this rhetoric marks authority as illegitimate not because of that authority’s formal structure, but because of its affiliation with a particular vision of “the people,” its anti-institutional bent has no inherent limit. We have seen this through the ages in the American South, from the redeemers to the much more recent activity of the North Carolina state government, which for all its handwringing about local sovereignty in other spheres has pre-empted city-level ordinances designed to protect LGTBQ people. I expect you will see it in Britain as well, as British institutions—governmental and otherwise—see their standing challenged because of their affiliation with migrants and people of color. Others have written that the Leave campaign was governed by an essentially destructive impulse; this is one of the reasons why.

4) Relatedly, if you are angry that certain people are being improperly recognized as politically or socially legitimate, the alternative to removing the legitimating authority is undermining those people’s status yourself—or removing them altogether. Thus the degradation and murder of those on the margins (and their perceived sympathizers) is not somehow separated by a bright line from anti-immigrant policy and political rhetoric, but is rather part of the same continuum of political activity.

Here in the American South, anti-Black violence has always been a political tool. Such violence has enforced the marginalization of Blacks—kept them out of the economy, out of politics, and out of public—in times when the government formally hasn’t (as during the redeemer era and some episodes of the civil rights movement). And when governments have spearheaded racial repression in the South, vigilantes have piled on. That we are still having political conversations about whether to erect memorials to lynchings around the South tells you all you need to know about virulence of the politics embedded in the lynchings themselves. It is therefore neither a mere coincidence nor a consequence, as such, of the Brexit referendum that hate crimes have spiked across Britain. These crimes, like the assassination that preceded them, are a component of the politics the Leave campaign has unleashed, and they will survive the Leave campaign by many years. As others have said, as some in the South have proven in blood, these politics will be stifled only by strong and willful collective action.

5) Back to where we started: the rhetoric about the inequities of the federal government is mostly a red herring: mostly—but not entirely, and those who dismiss it as simple racism are contributing to its longevity. It is an uncomfortable truth in the American South that folks who veil their racism in anti-government rhetoric often also have real reasons for resenting distant power-brokers. The South has long been the poorest part of the United States. In small communities across the region, people have for a long time been listening to politicians promise jobs and growth, and waking up four years later to find themselves still unemployed and their towns still desolate. Federal regulation sometimes stand in the way, too—as they did during Prohibition, when federal agents roamed the Appalachian backcountry smashing poor folks’ stills.

It was easy for those folks to resent the government—for people like them, it still is—and their resentment of the governing apparatus is also a resentment of the governing class, whose control straddles (or reveals as artificial) the divide between the political and the economic. So it has been for a long time in the South—and so it is now in Britain, where as Peter Mandler writes "a majority of people around the United Kingdom are feeling like non-people, un-citizens, their lives jerked about like marionettes by wire-pullers far away.” (And there is an elite and it is distant: the people who voted Leave were the same people my British classmates were experienced at mocking.) If the South has a special affinity for demagogues—Huey Long, George Wallace, now Donald Trump—this is part of the reason why.

The lesson of Southern experience is not that we should not listen to such men in good faith, but that we must find ways of listening to the many thousands of people who do—because they themselves feel elsewhere unheard, and as though their real concerns are treated as void. As many have observed, Britain and the E.U.’s late drift toward technocracy only further legitimates the sense of exclusion many Britons feel from the halls of power. This is the other main reason why the Leave campaign was essentially a destructive impulse.

6) Much of the present debate misses the point. There has been a great deal of back-and-forth in the Anglo-American press which seeks to discern which of these resentments was primary—that is, whether it was really anti-immigrant or anti-elite resentment that most drove Leave voters to the polls. This feels a bit like the blind men groping the elephant. For the last and perhaps most important lesson of Southern experience is that these two sentiments are interrelated and indeed in some ways a unitary phenomenon. On a psychological level, people diminish others when they themselves feel diminished, and cling to the advantage of their race most strongly when their other advantages are challenged. More pragmatically, the assertion that immigrants or people of color are not legitimate members of the political (or economic) community is fired by the well-founded fear that a powerful, remote elite does not regard “ordinary” Southerners or Britons as members of that community either.

If the relationship between racism and anti-elite sentiment is in some ways a psychological defense mechanism, or a necessary corollary of a conception of politics as a zero-sum game, Dr. Martin Luther King was emphatic that it is also an outgrowth of a deliberate stratagem of the White elite. Speaking in Montgomery in 1965, he referred to Southern historian C. Vann Woodward: “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land… If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.”

Racism was, in other words, a device by which some Whites concealed their dominance of other Whites. British history is not Southern history, but nor is it in this regard entirely different. As did the South, Britain fabricated empty status for wretched Whites by denying status to people of color: British colonialism generated political and economic power for previously marginal White Britons more by inventing a subjugated, colored colonial class than by redistributing the relative access of White Britons to power in London (whether in banks or in Parliament). (This by the way is why the Leave campaign was steeped in nostalgia for Britain’s colonial past.)

Dr. King was clear about the implications of this history: When the old racial order frays, so does White tolerance for elite governance. In these moments, we must choose between a politics which looks toward the past, toward the old racial order; and one which looks forward, toward a political economy in which it is unnecessary. Any lasting anti-racist organizing must, as King realized over the course of his work, address the legitimate grievances of all poor and (formally or informally) disenfranchised people. Racism has acquired a life independent of its historical influences. But all the organizing in the world will only trim it until its roots in an unequal political economy are pulled.

I share these observations speculatively and with the sincere recognition that I cannot speak for the whole South, much less for those who have suffered and died in service of a better South. Humbly, I speculate that my British classmates were right to vote to Remain. But I also think that they and their fellow elites probably did so for the wrong reasons. The best reason to vote Remain was not so much to shield the current political and economic order, but to protect the possibility of a politics which reaches beyond it. It is that possibility, more than trade ties or treaties, which Britain must now work to recover.

Oh, and we’re still doing the same work in the South. Let’s keep sharing tips.