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Week In Politics: Brexit, House Democrats' Sit-In Over Gun Control


What's next after Brexit? Well, political uncertainty, to start. And it's not just about the logistics of the divorce the British are said to initiate with the European Union. Brexit supporters have sent a loud message to the world, according to British author Frederick Forsyth, a prominent voice on the leave side.


FREDERICK FORSYTH: This is a peasant's revolt. This is the people of the country saying, hey, we are sick and tired of being talked down to all the time. We're sick and tired of the arrogance and the incompetence of our surrogate government in Brussels, to whom we should have never been sold, bound hand and foot. We want our freedom back. We want our country back. We want our sovereignty back. By God, we're going to have it.

CORNISH: That's Forsyth speaking on Morning Edition. Here now for some perspective on the politics of this and more, our regular Friday commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E J DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And, David, you lived in Brussels during the Thatcher years - years when the British Eurosceptic wing really kind of got organized. And now it seems like this nationalist, maybe anti-Europe side has essentially prevailed. What's your reaction?

BROOKS: Yeah, my mega-story for what's going on is from 1945 to 1995. Basically, the world was integrating on - you had trade agreements. You had all the post-war institutions. You had the Maastricht Treaty, the fall of Berlin Wall. But then, around '95, you began to have the Serbian and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. And suddenly, you began to see this rise of nationalism. And ever since then, we've seen segmentation and clustering along class lines, ideological lines, ethnic lines. And now we see a rise of ethnic nationalism. And this, what happened in Britain, is just one step in the rise of ethnic nationalism. Donald Trump is another step. And there are going to a lot of steps to come. And somehow we need a better nationalism that's not so parochial.

CORNISH: Well, we're going to dig into that more. But first, E.J., you have this unique perspective of having worked on the Labor Party campaign to win the 75 referendum to stay in the Common Market, which was what the European block was then known as. What's surprising to you about this Brexit vote?

DIONNE: Right. I've been thinking a lot about that. I worked for the polling firm that was doing work for Labor in Britain. And they're - they are quite. The one thing they have in common is that in both elections on the whole, upscale people were more pro-Europe than downscale people. But it was a lot more united then. Yes won by a big vote. The Conservative Party was more united. Their - the leader of the anti-Europe forces was Enoch Powell, a fascinating man. He was extremely learned. He was upper-class. He was also racist, and he was very anti-immigration.

But the really strong Eurosceptic wing of the party, as David said, wasn't organized then. And the divisions then were still very much left versus right, whereas, in this referendum, it was the periphery against the center. It was rich cities against struggling working-class towns. It was young versus old, college-educated versus those with less schooling. And then you also have Scotland standing out as pro-EU. Scotland was very much part of the whole country then. And you're really looking at the breakup of Britain. We talk about this as nationalism. It's really not U.K. nationalism, despite all those flags. This is really English nationalism that you saw yesterday. And so you could not only have decomposition in Europe, but you could have the U.K. breaking up.

CORNISH: You know, David brought up Donald Trump. Lots of people have today because, of course, he was in Scotland, ostensibly to check on his golf courses, but, of course, was available to comment. Here's what he had to say about the results of the referendum vote.


DONALD TRUMP: I really do see a parallel between what's happening in the United States and what what's happening here. People want to see borders. They don't necessarily want people pouring into their country that they don't know who they are and where they come from. They have no idea. And I think, you know, it - not only did it win, but it won by a much bigger margin than people thought it would happen.

CORNISH: People have been making this analogy all day. Are we reading too much into the parallel - the idea of, like, Trump supporter and Brexit supporter. David?

BROOKS: Well, I don't think because Brexit wins Trump wins. I think that - that is reading too much. But clearly it's a similar impulse. If you look at Trump voters, they think we are too ethnically cosmopolitan. There are too many foreigners. There are too many foreign languages. There's hostility to white people. There's - there's - immigration is hurting them economically, culturally, taking away the country. And that was - that's certainly played a role in the Brexit campaign. So again, this rise of ethnic desire among some people who are losing in the modern economy for a more ethnic, cohesive, national culture I do think is a core impulse behind - on both sides of the Atlantic.

DIONNE: I don't get to say this very often - Donald Trump was on to something. What he was on to is that a lot of the leave vote was driven by the immigration issue. There has been a substantial increase in immigration in Britain. The share of the country that is made up - the share of the population made up of immigrants has gone up. And I think that is probably what tipped the balance from remain to leave, was the immigration issue. But I think it's a big mistake to read too much into this in terms of our election. Brexit is not a person. Brexit had supporters who said some things, but Brexit itself didn't say anything. And people could read whatever they wanted into that.


DIONNE: To vote for that, you're voting for hope. To vote for Trump, you're actually voting for a human being who is turning a lot of people off.

CORNISH: Now, before I let you go, one bit of domestic politics I'd like to get your opinion on - the House Democrats' sit-in protest on gun control. A lead voice in this protest was Congressman John Lewis, who had this to say.


JOHN LEWIS: The fight is not over. This is just one step. But when we come back here on July the 5, we're going to continue to push, to pull, to stand up, and, if necessary, to sit down.


CORNISH: So, guys, this bit of political theater came just before the GOP essentially steamrolled them, right, and left for recess. David, do you see this conversation about gun legislation actually changing over the next couple of weeks? Was this a moment to think about?

BROOKS: Well, it's a sign of how dysfunctional our Congress is that, you know, we don't pass legislation anymore. We have either government shutdowns or sit-downs or whatever it is, but it's not legislating. Second, it does keep the gun issue on the agenda, and I suppose that's a good thing. Politically I'm, a little skeptical. Just speaking on raw, political terms whether it's a good thing for the Democratic Party, it has been historically true that people who vote on gun issues vote on the NRA side of the issue. And people who support gun control and things like that just are not voting on that issue, and so it's tended to be a political loser for the Democratic Party. That's probably less true than it used to be, but I still think it's foundationally true.

CORNISH: E.J., you had Paul Ryan calling this a publicity stunt. He was waving the fund raising notices in the air about the sit-in protest. What's your response to this?

DIONNE: Well, I don't think he looked great when he was trying to put down a rebellion against the House's loyalty to the lobbyists from the NRA by trying to pass a bill to help the lobbyists for the financial industry that night. That was the vote he called up. And Elizabeth Warren, of course, sent out a very interesting tweet on that. I think that this marks a big change in - of the gun issue into an issue that Democrats are willing to run on and think they can actually gain votes from.

And you could have had no better moral spokesman than John Lewis. You couldn't do a sit-down of this sort - a sit-down protest on any other issue. But guns, after the killings in Orlando and after the long set of killings we've had so far, this is a different kind of issue. And I thought - you've seen both in the Senate with Senator Murphy and in the House now a kind of frustration on the gun-control side that you've never seen before. So I think this might be the election where the gun issue switches sides and becomes effective for Democrats and is a problem for Republicans.

CORNISH: Well, we have many more weeks to come where, I'm sure, this will come back to us. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.