How 'Brexit' would inflame populism abroad — and here in the US

The 'Brexit' tide at last seems to have hit the sturdy seawall of British common sense. Heading into today's national referendum, polls show rising support for staying in the European Union.

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True, the contest remains a dead heat and could go either way. But the momentum apparently shifted after last week's shocking murder of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox by a man spouting ultra-nationalist slogans. It's also possible that the impending vote has concentrated U.K. voters' minds on the sheer implausibility of going it alone in today's interconnected world.

There's little doubt where global markets stand on the question. Stocks surged everywhere early this week and the British pound rose as word of the new polls spread. That reaction can only reinforce the "Remain" camp's argument that detaching from Europe would, on balance, weaken Britain's economy.

In truth, however, economics is not the heart of the matter. What's really at stake is Britain's identity and its outward projection of ideas about political and economic liberty, tolerance and representative government that have evolved over a millennium. In a sense, Thursday's vote is also a referendum on the populist challenge to these liberal ideas spreading across Europe and now, via presumptive GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE, the United States.

Many of the new populists nakedly embrace nativism and bigotry over open borders and civic inclusion, protectionism over free trade — a concept given its most coherent expression in Britain by Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithSenate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget Back to '70s inflation? How Biden's spending spree will hurt your wallet Military braces for sea change on justice reform MORE — and a return to 19th-century style völkisch nationalism over the liberal internationalism championed by Britain, the United States and other democracies in the 20th century.

To be sure, the Brexit forces, led by London's colorful ex-mayor, Boris Johnson, have some legitimate beefs with Europe. Britain has surrendered a non-trivial measure of its sovereignty to the increasingly imperious and overreaching bureaucracy in Brussels. (In fact, as a spate of recent regulatory machinations by the European Commission against U.S. companies shows, Congress ought to be paying more attention too.) And Europe's open border policy does attenuate the U.K.'s ability to control migration.

Beseiged on the right by the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), the ruling Tories are deeply split on the question. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose campaign promise to hold the referendum now looks rash, warns that leaving the vast EU market would maroon Britain's economy and threaten London's status as Europe's chief financial hub.

Labour, the main opposition party, opposes Brexit (though its throwback socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems lukewarm on the subject.) Restive Scotland is strongly pro-Europe, and Britain's departure would likely strengthen separatism there and possibly in other parts of the "Celtic fringe," namely Wales and Northern Ireland. The Brexit campaign is driven mainly by sentiments of English nationalism and insularity, chiefly among older and blue-collar voters concentrated in England's Midlands and north.

Why should Americans care about any of this? One reason: The diminution of Great Britain into "little England" would deprive the United States of its most effective international partner. Fused together by ethnic and cultural ties and a common inheritance of liberal ideas and institutions, America and Britain have stood together through world wars, the Cold War, the unifying of Europe and Germany, the spread of free institutions and markets and, now, what promises to be a long, difficult struggle against Islamist fanaticism.

Post-imperial Britain has been a staunch proponent of liberal democratic values in the world, including open trade and competitive markets — the main force in lifting global living standards and dramatically reducing poverty over the past half-century. One of the few NATO allies to meet the alliance's defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, Britain has an expeditionary tradition and the responsibility for collective security that comes with its U.N. Security Council seat. A decision to quit the EU would subtract substantially from Europe's ability to muster coherent and credible responses to global crises.

It would also deprive the EU of the world's fifth largest economy, one that is arguably its most innovative and dynamic. As my Progressive Policy Institute colleague Michael Mandel has shown, London has emerged since the recession and financial crisis as by far Europe's leading "tech city." Britain's absence would further unbalance the EU economically, cementing Germany's increasing dominance and removing a major counterweight to Brussels's growing tendency to trespass on national prerogatives and micro-regulate economic life.

Amid rising xenophobia and Euroskepticism in other countries — France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Poland and even Sweden — Brexit could pull the thread that unravels the whole European fabric. No doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin would welcome the disintegration of Europe, but it would be an economic and political catastrophe for the United States.

Even if that doesn't happen, a victory for Brexit would be a setback for liberal and progressive values now under attack across Europe and the United States. We would see an intensification of an ugly and retrograde politics that seeks to build walls to keep out people "not like us"; replace liberal concepts of individual rights and dignity with ethnic and religious identity politics; roll back globalization and freeze technological change, protecting existing jobs at the expense of new ones; and turn our backs on terror and oppression abroad.

Let's hope British voters seize the opportunity Thursday to reject this poisonous populism — and that U.S. voters follow suit in November.

Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.