On Thursday, Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union. Despite a very aggressive campaign by Remain supporters, the frustration held by the majority of British voters remained staunch and the outcome reflected it.
While the structure of Britain and the EU is very different from the United States, many of the conditions that prompted Brexit exist here too. And while we can tell ourselves "the state of the union is strong, that'd never happen here," the risk may be more palpable than we think.
Four reasons are most commonly cited on why Brexit occurred:
A wide gap in cultural values between the British and the rest of the EU;
- Frustration with widespread dysfunction in Brussels and the EU's inability to resolve any number of major problems;
- Immigration laws and the concern that non-British citizens can too easily enter the country and take advantage of the social service system; and
- Widespread dissatisfaction among voters on the state of their nation, the state of the world, and their chances at a better life.
All four of those conditions exist here too.
The cultural gap only continues to grow between regions (the East and West Coasts vs. most of the South and much of the Midwest). That gap is equally prevalent between people who live in large cities and nearby suburbs and people who live in small cities, exurbs and rural areas. It exists on an array of issues from climate change to abortion, LGBT rights to guns. And the ultimate distinction between the two - trying to preserve a way of life vs. trying to adapt to a changing world - are virtually irreconcilable.
- Washington is no less dysfunctional than Brussels. It's possible that the coming election will produce a better climate for cooperation and action (Clinton, Schumer and Ryan are mainly competent and rational, but Clinton is also polarizing, Schumer has to deal with getting 60 votes for anything important, and Ryan's majority will be both smaller and more radicalized).
- Immigration is just as big of an issue here. It won Donald Trump the Republican nomination. And unless Trump somehow wins, builds the wall, and then the lives of his supporters are magically transformed, there's no real solution to the immigration divide anywhere in sight.
- Americans are just as scared and unhappy as the British. That's why Trump won the nomination. It's why Sanders did so well. It's why control of Congress keeps flipping from party to party. If they're unhappy enough, people will vote for change for the sake of change, even if they know it's a bad idea.
If you're a small business, what does this mean for you?
So here we are. If you're a small business, what does this mean for you?
It means knowing we're in a turbulent time marked by not only widespread fear and dissatisfaction, but also a deep divide between those who want to move forward and those who want to return to the past.
It also means not expecting anything useful or productive for your industry to come out of Washington anytime soon and to instead, if you need new regulations or laws, look to city and state government, where things can still get done.
Most importantly, it means understanding that there may be deep ideological and psychological divides amongst your customers, lenders, suppliers, vendors, regulators, investors and others. Those divides could impact their attitudes and behavior towards you, so the better you understand it, the better prepared you'll be.
The upshot is - we're in trouble too. Can it be fixed?
A resounding rejection of Trump would send a message that we're not willing to risk everything solely out of frustration. Maybe a Clinton-Schumer-Ryan tandem can get things done. Maybe as baby boomers die out and Millennials age, the cultural gap will narrow.
Maybe decision-making responsibility for widespread societal problems can keep shifting to cities and states, to private philanthropy and even to tech startups. But none of this may solve the problem and most of these solutions are unlikely to happen.
Maybe our union is so strong, nothing can threaten it, no matter what. Maybe.