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The Wisdom Of Britain's Young Voters

By and large, they weren't the ones who got hoodwinked by Brexit

A common insult young folks get is, "You probably still live at home with your parents." In many cases, it's not inaccurate; for the first time in the modern era, more 18- to 34-year-olds are living with their parents than on their own. But the implication is simple: You aren’t worth listening to because you're unable to fend for yourself in the outside world.

Sometimes, though, kids need to stay with Mom and Dad to make sure their parents don’t burn down the very home they stand to inherit.

In a way, that’s exactly what happened to young voters in the United Kingdom last Thursday. Despite 75 percent of those 24 and younger opting to keep their nation in the European Union, they were outdone by older British voters who chose “Leave." Shortly after the results were announced, worldwide markets lost more than $2 trillion and the value of English currency fell to a 31-year low. The U.K.'s credit rating has already been downgraded from "stable" to "negative," and the nation hasn't even officially left the EU yet. And those were just the early signs of the various economic disasters some predict will arise. Essentially, older Britons voted to set their house on fire with the younger folks trapped inside it.

While we can't know what was in the hearts of every one of the more than 17 million "Leave" voters, a driving force behind the Brexit effort was Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, which has been obsessed with making voters believe that immigrants are a problem. Since the late '90s, the U.K. has experienced a massive immigration boom, driven since 2001 by non-British white Europeans. But color doesn't matter when guys like Farage see an opportunity to exploit white working-class voters to further anti-immigration policy.


Anti-immigration forces both in the U.S. and in the U.K. implicitly promise a return to the racial "purity" of days long ago. But immigrants, both here in the U.S. and in Britain, are here to stay. Enter guys like Farage, who seek political power built on the backs of resentful rubes. (Think Donald Trump, just with a better accent.) Farage's speech after the vote emphasized that the "Leave" victory was "for the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people." Those people he has in mind clearly don't include immigrants, nor the young people who reject the campaigns of ignorance that both Farage and Trump are waging. (The presumptive Republican nominee, by the way, has historically low support among voters younger than 30.)

While voting "Leave" isn’t exactly the same as embracing Trumpism, the two efforts are ideological cousins. Growing class inequality may perhaps explain some of the racism behind the "Leave" effort, but it can never excuse it; black working-class Britons voted heavily for "Remain," after all. You don't even have to grasp all the disastrous implications of the vote to know that it's alarming to see exploitative charlatans like Farage and Trump happy at the same time. There's a lot of blame going around for this catastrophic vote, but as Jamelle Bouie put it, a main culprit may be a desire on the part of older, white voters who wanted to protect their idea of what's "British." I say that knowing that much of the anti-immigrant fervor there has been directed at Polish immigrants, who probably thought they were white until they got to the U.K. Xenophobia does not require racism in the traditional sense.

Perhaps what we have in Britain is older voters equating their nationalism with privilege, seeking to consolidate and guard their birthrights of whiteness from the immigrant hordes. But the sad irony is that last Thursday, they set Britain on a course that will make that privilege worth a lot less in the outside world. Political journalist Nicholas Barrett lamented in a comment on the Financial Times website that "the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors."

The youngest voters in Britain had decent turnout last Thursday and still lost. They'll soon have to find a way to exist in that burning house of a country, unless somehow the referendum isn't enforced (which is still possible). But they weren't outsmarted in this election; they were outnumbered. And if anything, men like Farage and Trump likely want young people to feel hopeless. After all, the ones taking the boldest stances against their racism are millennials. Rather than seeing what happened in Britain as a loss for them, we should see Brexit as what it was: evidence that often it's the youngest voters among us that have the most sense.