When United Kingdom voters last week narrowly approved a referendum to leave the European Union, they underscored again how an era of unrelenting economic and demographic change is shifting the axis of politics across much of the industrialized world from class to culture.
Contrary to much initial speculation, the victory for the U.K. leave campaign didn’t point toward victory in the U.S. presidential election for Donald Trump, who is voicing very similar arguments against globalization and immigration; The British results, in fact, underscored the obstacles facing his agenda of defensive nationalism in the vastly more diverse U.S. electorate.
But the Brexit referendum did crystallize deepening cultural fault lines in U.K. politics that are also likely to shape the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In that way, the results prefigure both a continuing long-term realignment in the electoral base of each American party—and a possible near-term reshuffle of the tipping-point states in presidential politics.
Both geographically and demographically, the British referendum split the U.K. along lines familiar in America. An extensive election-day survey by Lord Michael Ashcroft, a British pollster, found that the leave campaign carried over three-fifths of those without four-year college degrees, a comparable number of seniors, and a narrow majority of all whites. Election results showed the leave campaign amassing big margins outside of major cities. The campaign to remain won over two-thirds of non-whites, about three-fifths of college graduates, and big majorities among younger and urban voters. In London, which recently elected one of the western world’s first Muslim mayors, 60 percent voted to stay.