United we stand, divided we have no future

The vote for Brexit and the election of President Trump have shaken politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Mara Rudman reflects on the ‘special relationship’ and hopes for continued cooperation.

The Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ has endured through revolutions, civil, and world wars. Our relations have sometimes frayed, running at times warm and cold. As King George sings in Broadway’s Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall … we have seen each other through it all.” Despite this, on the most sensitive issues, the two countries share basic democratic values, security and intelligence. No two countries are closer: we are family.

Together we now face an unstable world. There are disruptive forces at play within our own backyards – the transatlantic tsunami of fear, anger, and frustration that swept Britain out of the European Union and Donald Trump into the White House.

Britain and America must confront some shared failures. Too many people feel left out and left behind. Too many say they have had fewer chances than their parents did to access decent education and good jobs, and that their children and grandchildren will have fewer opportunities still. Too many believe that our countries’ best decades are behind us, not ahead of us.

The Brexit Referendum and the American presidential election displayed much that divides: age, geography and our connections to power. It exposed, in stark terms, the perceived failure of the social contract between British and American citizens, and their governments. The similarity of the populist wave sweeping across Europe, much of the United Kingdom and deep into parts of the United States, is stunning. But these common components also reveal building blocks for a path forward.

Loyalty and unity across the pond will be important. The future of our countries, and our world, depends on the strength of our ability to work together. When Ben Franklin said “united we stand or divided we fall,” he could have been speaking not only of the fledging United States but of the fate of partnerships, of alliances.

At home, listening will be crucial. We need to hear the voices of working families in Lancaster, England and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when they respectively voted for Brexit and Trump.

These citizens protested a hard knot of challenges: their sense of exclusion from access to good schools, jobs, healthcare, a better tomorrow. Those with more access to these essentials tended to see the benefits of a world with greater cooperation. Those to whom the world has delivered less had far fewer reasons to value an entrenched global order that felt distant from their lives and livelihoods.

But cooperation can help individuals and countries meet personal, community, and strategic objectives, while boosting partners’ abilities to reach their own goals, too. What we must now imagine is a world in which more can experience this firsthand. Many citizens already are participating directly in their communities. We need to build and leverage understanding of the value of cooperation at a local level, and scale it to restore support for international connectivity.

What are the first steps on such a road? Why not look to American community development corporation models that have been effective. The best among them include Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Initiated by Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1966, they are run by local community members, relying on those who live in certain areas to know what they and their families need, with support from local business, government, and other private funding. It has been a model for economic revitalisation. Similar components animate the Sunflower Country Freedom Project in the Mississippi Delta, where school children’s families shape programs, and students are deeply involved in all aspects of their Delta community. British community foundations may also provide illumination.

We know from Demos’ Brexit Britain case study that the more social contacts a person has in the UK and abroad, the less likely they were to vote Leave. Contact is essential for building empathy, tolerance and to understand the value of other cultures.

We have repeatedly seen individuals and communities reach out to help those in need, even globally: the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010 raised the highest amounts of private contributions from across the globe, ever. No doubt these same donors might respond differently to an abstract polling query about the value of humanitarian assistance, than to a person in front of them who needed a hand.

So the more decision-makers there are in a community and the more connections citizens have within their area and elsewhere, the more actively they will participate, and the more we all reap the benefits within our countries and across borders and oceans.

We must look to build a movement from the ground-up – a practical and political movement. It will be of the people and for the people, structured to deliver what people want and need, and in doing so, reshape the decisions that will be made at polling stations in the years to come, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Those who wish to destabilise multilateralism will no doubt continue their efforts. But having strong positive partnerships that work for a majority of people because they have been developed, shaped, and implemented by them, is a winning formula. Those leading the movement, figuring out what they need in each community, county, state, and across borders, are also those voting.

In the words of Sen. Robert Kennedy, the creator of the Bed-Stuy community revitalisation enterprise, every time someone “acts to improve the lot of others… he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”.

British and American political leaders who are able to help deliver hope in tangible ways through such coalitions will find constituencies rallying once again to build bridges not walls.