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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Brexit holds lessons for the American middle class

The British nationals flag flies in front of

The British nationals flag flies in front of the Big Ben clock tower on June 24, 2016 in London. Photo Credit: TNS / Michael Kappeler/DPA

The vote in Great Britain to abandon the European Union is still reverberating.

People in other European nations who also are frustrated — about the economy, immigration, education, economic inequality, politicians, low wages, etc. — are contemplating their own exits from the EU.

It’s a similar vein of anger that has underscored our own presidential election, most notably the campaigns of billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The presumptive Republican nominee and the erstwhile Democratic contender have tapped into a populist resentment and rage stemming from the belief that our country is broken, that institutions no longer work for the 99 percent. We hear this expressed in different ways.

I don’t recognize this country anymore. It’s no longer ours.

We’ve lost control of our destiny. We need to take our country back.

The frustration is understandable. The conditions that gave it rise are real. But the control is illusory. And the refusal to confront that honestly will bar us from ever finding solutions.

The truth is that the middle class never truly controlled its fate. In its American heyday — let’s say from the 1950s through the 1980s — the middle class benefited from a set of economic conditions and reality over which it exercised no real control. The world was smaller, automation was decades away, corporate titans located their manufacturing plants here in America, and jobs were plentiful. Life, indeed, was good.

Then things began to change, as they always do. The factory that provided generations of good-paying jobs suddenly left town for Mexico or somewhere else where labor was cheaper. Others began installing new machines to do what people once did. And those left behind lamented their powerlessness to stop the change — without also acknowledging that they had exercised no power in the original factory owner’s decision to locate the plant in their town and construct it with the machines of the day. They were beneficiaries, and then they were victims. And they had no control over either.

Trump and Sanders understand the anger that has been building for years, and astutely used it to fuel their campaigns, just as advocates for Brexit did in Great Britain. But they aren’t being honest about the forces buffeting the middle and working classes.

It’s only partly trade deals. Does anyone really think those factories are going to return if we rip up our agreements? And it’s hardly immigration. How many “Americans” do you know who would rush out to bus tables or cut grass or clean houses if immigrants suddenly were deported and those jobs were available?

The biggest factors are technology and automation, but our political candidates and leaders are not talking about that. Because addressing that is not easy, and it’s not quick. It means making our schools better for those not yet in the workforce, and retraining those who are of age but unemployed or underemployed, so both groups are ready for the jobs that new technology will create.

Instead of lamenting and fighting change, we must accept it as inevitable and embrace technology as the job creator and economic mover it always turns out to be.

Brexit was a working-class scream, an opportunity for people who’ve been ignored to have their voices heard. But voicing one’s anger is vastly different from producing a salve for it.

Take our country back? That country isn’t coming back. Nor should it.

But if that’s the only thing we hear in the cries for help both here and abroad, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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