Background to Brexit: Populism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Resentment

Harvard sociologist Bart Bonikowski explains why Brexit has two important lessons for political analysis on both sides of the Atlantic

Image of raised fist made of people

Third in a series on what Weatherhead Center scholars think about the unfolding institutional, political, and economic consequences of the June 23 United Kingdom referendum on European Union membership.

In the weeks following the UK’s historic referendum on EU membership, pundits have been weighing the implications of the vote for the U.S. presidential election. The more alarmist analyses have claimed that if the unthinkable happened in the United Kingdom, it could also happen in the United States: Donald Trump could ride the wave of populism to the presidency.

These conclusions are largely unfounded. Trump may win, but Brexit tells us little about the probability of that event. The demographic composition of the two countries is vastly different, as are the mechanisms that shape the outcomes of popular referenda and presidential elections. Barring a major economic crisis that originates in Europe and spreads to the US—an unlikely event in the next four months—the two votes should be treated as independent events. 

Nonetheless, Brexit does carry two relevant lessons for political analysis on both sides of the Atlantic. First, it represents yet another case of nationalist populism in the West. That the radical right is surging is hardly news to Europeans, but Brexit marks the populists’ largest victory to date. It thus presents a useful opportunity for comparative research. Second, the Brexit vote illustrates what happens when political leaders actively cultivate racist and nativist beliefs among their supporters. This should give Americans pause regardless of the presidential outcome in November.

On the first point, both the “Vote Leave” and Trump campaigns demonstrate that contemporary radical-right politics fuses two constituent phenomena: nationalism and populism. My research shows that established democracies, including Great Britain and the United States, comprise populations with widely differing understandings of the nation’s meaning. Within each country, people disagree sharply about legitimate criteria of national membership, about their nation’s virtues, and about the nation’s rightful place in the world. These beliefs cohere into competing cultural models that independently predict policy preferences and social attitudes, including sentiments toward immigrants.

Image of Pull Quote by Bart Bonikowski

One of these cultural models, which I call “restrictive nationalism,” is predicated on ethnocultural exclusion combined with low levels of pride in national institutions. Its adherents tend to be native-born, older, and less educated. The widespread prevalence of restrictive nationalism provides fertile ground for political appeals based on anti-elite and anti-immigrant rhetoric—that is, for the type of populist discourse that has sustained the radical right. We should be cautious, however, in placing too much weight on surging nationalism as an explanation for recent political changes, because nationalist attitudes have been relatively stable, at least in the US (my forthcoming article with Paul DiMaggio shows a short-term increase in ethnocultural varieties of American nationalism following 9/11, but this did not produce the kind of virulent politics we are witnessing today). Instead, it appears that politicians have mobilized voters by appealing more effectively to the latter’s preexisting beliefs. This raises the question of why nationalist cleavages have become salient at this particular historical juncture.

One way forward is to examine not only popular attitudes but also political discourse. The successes of radical-right politics have been fueled by populist rhetoric that vilifies political elites and promises a return to simpler days when “the people” (a vague but hardly neutral term) were in control of their own political and economic future. As my research with Noam Gidron shows, populism has been widespread in the EU and the US for many years, on both sides of the political spectrum. It is the discursive tool of political outsiders—usually elites themselves—who seek to gain power by eschewing mainstream politics. Whereas left-wing populism tends to target economic elites, right-wing populism frequently portrays political elites as corrupt and out-of-touch, not least because of their support for immigration and minority rights. But if populism is not new, as our research suggests, why has it been so successful in mobilizing nationalist publics?

Table from Bart Bonikowski, Populist Style in American Politics

The standard narrative is that voters who have been left behind by economic globalization and neo-liberal policies are revolting against the establishment. There is some evidence for this: many Brexit and Trump supporters come from segments of the population that have experienced economic stagnation in recent years. But placing the emphasis solely on economic motivations ignores the central importance of ethnoracial identity politics in both countries. Brexiteers and Trumpists are not only less educated and less well off, they are also, crucially, mostly white, native born, older, and deeply resentful of immigrants and ethnic minorities—traits that set them apart from other working- and middle-class Brits and Americans who oppose Brexit and Trump. Moreover, at least in the US, supporters of nationalist populism do not appear to be especially dissatisfied with their economic circumstances.

To understand why nationalist populism has risen to prominence in European and U.S. public discourse, we need to look at the growing ability of political elites to channel public grievances into ethnoracial resentment and political distrust. Amidst anxiety about terrorism, the Great Recession, and mass migration, radical politicians and conservative media outlets have for years disparaged immigrants, engaged in thinly veiled racist discourse, and challenged the legitimacy of political institutions. This rhetoric resonates with politically disaffected voters who define their nationhood in ethnocultural terms. Whether frustrated with their own economic conditions or fearful of cultural change (or both), these voters blame their problems on dishonest politicians, dangerous minorities, and greedy immigrants and look to system-wrecking parties and candidates for solutions. As Dani Rodrik argues, populist politics may well represent a backlash against globalization, but globalization is as much about the cross-border flows of people and culture as it is about free trade.

This brings me to the second lesson of Brexit, concerning the consequences of nationalist populism. My research suggests that access to power often neutralizes populist actors, leading them to embrace more mainstream political strategies. We have already observed the fragmentation of the Brexit leadership in the UK, as sensationalist campaign slogans have given way to the reality of governing during economic and political crisis. Whether Trump is capable of toning down his rhetoric remains to be seen, although the evidence thus far is not encouraging. But regardless of the actual political outcomes, the climate in the UK following the Brexit vote demonstrates that public legitimization of overt racism, nativism, and xenophobia has real social consequences. Outbursts of street-level aggression against immigrants and minorities have become more common in the UK, as previously latent hatreds have become overt. Similar trends have already been reported in the United States.

Brexit leaders may have ceded the movement to establishment politicians and Trump’s campaign may yet fizzle, but both countries are likely to bear scars of their encounters with nationalist populism for years to come. Unfortunately, as in past waves of nativism, the highest price is likely to be paid by the immigrants and minorities vilified by opportunistic political elites. The remaining question is whether the simmering resentments will cool off over time, or whether new political upstarts will seize the opportunity to further stoke exclusionary sentiments in pursuit of their own self-interest.

Bart Bonikowski (@bartbonikowski), WCFIA Faculty Associate and Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.

Bart Bonikowski is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Undergraduate Student Programs at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. A resident faculty member of Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, his research applies insights from cultural sociology to the study of politics in Europe and the United States.

Key References

Bonikowski, Bart. Working Paper, 2016. “Schemas of the Nation in Modern Democracies”.

Bonikowski, Bart, and Paul DiMaggio. In Press, 2016. “Varieties of American Popular Nationalism.” American Sociological Review 82 (5). 

Bonikowski, Bart, and Noam Gidron. 2016. “The Populist Style in American Politics: Presidential Campaign Rhetoric, 1952-1996.” Social Forces 94: 1593-621.

Bonikowski, Bart, and Noam Gidron. Working Paper, 2016. “Populism in Legislative Discourse: Evidence from the European Parliament, 1999-2004”.

Also in the seriesBackground to Brexit: One-Size-Fits-All Monetary Policy and the Eurozone Crisis and Background to Brexit: How to Leave the EU.