It is beginning to seem that there is no place left to hide. Looking at COVID-19 case counts (or any other grim pandemic-related statistic) along with the already disastrous effects of climate change, a person might reasonably ask: “Is anywhere safe these days?”
Because my professional work over roughly the past decade has involved a great deal of travel abroad, I am fortunate enough to have had some opportunity to see firsthand what other relatively wealthy countries are like, which inevitably leads to late-afternoon musings over a pint of ale along the lines of: “Hmmm. Could I live here?” More to the point, however, as life in the United States becomes scarier, the question changes to: “Should I live here, instead of the US?”
Most Americans do not have a meaningful opportunity to emigrate, mostly as a financial matter but also for any number of personal reasons. I am likely to stay put as well, but I am in the fortunate group of people for whom expatriation is a real option, at least worth pondering for more than a second or two. Here, however, I will focus not on my particular situation but will instead analyze what the rest of the world looks like for any American who might be glancing nervously toward the exits.
Are there any good alternatives? Maybe not, but maybe.
The “I’m Leaving the Country if X Happens” Trope
In mid-2016, just after Donald Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, I wrote a column on Dorf on Law in which I took a first stab at the expatriation question. I noted that there had long been a strand of political conversation in the US in which people—through some mixture of exasperation, petulance, or despondence—would announce that they were “out the door” if some unacceptable political outcome came to pass.
There are few things in American politics that are truly a “both sides do it (roughly equally)” phenomenon, but this is one of them. Liberals said that they would leave the country if George W. Bush became president (or was reelected relatively legitimately), conservatives promised to decamp if Barack Obama won, and so. In the end, pretty much everyone held onto their passports and proceeded merely to grumble about their side having lost, while the other side in each case mocked their opponents with cries of “Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out!” in advance and “Weren’t you going to leave?” afterward.
In mid-2016, I was one of the only people warning (as in this Verdict column) that a Donald Trump presidency would almost surely destroy American constitutional democracy. That was categorically different from the complaints that people on either side of the political divide had had to worry about previously, because no matter what anyone thinks of any previous president’s policies or political toxicity, no one had had reason to worry about this country becoming a one-party state. Now, we do.
There is a poignance in reading those 2016 columns, given that even my supposedly alarmist view was tempered by statements that of course Trump would lose that year’s election. But beyond that, it is worth thinking not only about how much worse things are in the US compared to five-and-a-half years ago, but also what the alternatives look like now compared to then.
In a nutshell, the question is whether there are any places in the world that would seem like safe bets for someone who has given up on the United States as a place to live safely.
Guns and American Exceptionalism
Before discussing any specific countries or larger criteria, it is important to name the biggest threat to living safely in this country: guns. Other countries have had mass shootings, and terrorists and other murderers have unfortunately expanded their tactics to include things like driving vehicles into crowds of people. Last semester, I was based in Cambridge, England, and the country was rocked when a Member of Parliament was stabbed to death during a public meeting with his constituents.
So yes, there are killers everywhere. Even so, the threat of violence—especially politically motivated violence in a country where smiling White nationalists now ask, “When do we get to use the guns?” and where over thirty percent of Republicans say that political violence might be necessary to “save” the United States—is undeniably worse here. Moreover, whereas a knife-wielding maniac managed to kill one Member of Parliament, America’s domestic terrorists would never be so low-tech. Numbers matter.
Because the US truly is exceptional in its tolerance—no, make that glorification—of guns, any country to which most Americans would be likely to move would be safer by a wide margin. They would not only be safer in general because other countries’ citizens are not armed with the type and sheer numbers of weapons that lead to high rates of apolitical murder and suicide here, but also because the specter of political violence intensifies daily in the United States.
What Criteria Matter? The Difference that COVID-19 Makes
In a sense, therefore, one could cheekily (but seriously) answer the question, “Where is it safer to be than in the US?”: “Other than a literal war zone, almost anywhere!” But that is arguably overstated, and at least it begs the larger question of where to go, even if there is a great deal of truth to the claim.
What has changed in the time since I first wrote down my ruminations about these issues in 2016? The COVID-19 global pandemic, of course. Whereas at that time it was possible to think about moving very long distances with only minor logistical concerns, considerations are now very different. For one thing, we have recently gone through times when getting on an airplane was simply not possible (or was at least very ill-advised). So, for example, a person who might have said, “Well, it’s a long haul from Tokyo to visit my family in Denver, but I’ll still be able to get there in case of a funeral, childbirth, or other major event,” now has to think that just maybe she will not be able to get home for even the most important reasons.
Moreover, the pandemic has changed the way we think about the most far-flung places in the world. Many Americans, myself included, have for years spoken idly but fondly of living in New Zealand or Australia, which are literally on the other side of the world. Again, the travel times are intimidating, and the expense of travel would for most people mean that even annual visits home would be a stretch. Now, however, we know that it is possible to be literally prevented from leaving a country.
One of my colleagues who teaches at Cambridge, for example, is Australian and was back in Sydney visiting family and friends in early 2020. He has still not returned to the United Kingdom, however, because Australia’s lockdown requirements were initiated while he was inside the borders of his country of birth. Welcome home!
Beyond that enormous difference in the situation today compared to 2016, most of the other considerations are otherwise unchanged. For those of us who are not bilingual (and who worry that becoming bilingual on the fly would be a nearly insurmountable challenge), for example, the map seems to shrink to former parts of the British Empire.
That is not entirely true, however, because it turns out that it is possible—even easy—to get by in many countries on English alone. Especially in northern Europe, and even more easily in the cities, I have direct experience with the reality that there is no language barrier for people like me.
That could be different for those who want to live in another country longer term, because there is a difference between dealing with restaurant servers and hotel concierges as opposed to landlords and health clinics. Even that, however, strikes me as not especially daunting, because there is such a large number of people in places like Berlin, Vienna, and Brussels whose English is perfect. Language might occasionally be an inconvenience, but it could never be a true barrier to living in those places.
Culture is a different issue. A few years ago in Stockholm, I ran into an American woman who told me that she married a Swede, became fluent (without an accent) in Swedish, and had Swedish children, but she nonetheless was still treated as an outsider even after being there for fifteen years. That, of course, could happen even in countries where language is not an issue. I suspect, for example, that people in Dublin or Edinburgh would forever think of me as “the American,” no matter how long I might live there.
What About the Special Relationship?
As I explained above, having an ocean between oneself and the United States is riskier than it used to be. There is only one country that fits the other criteria that I have described here and that is accessible by car: Canada. In a companion column to be published later today on Dorf on Law, I will discuss that country’s unique situation at length. Here, however, I will focus on one of the countries that is separated from the US by a large body of water.
And the most important body of water, many argue, is The Pond. Given that travel between the US and the UK is about as easy as transoceanic travel could be, and because of the so-called Special Relationship between the two countries, could the country from which we inherited and adapted our legal system be the right place to go for an American who wants to bug out?
Again, if the threat of (political or other) violence alone is the criterion, then any country is a step up from ours these days. Beyond that, however, my larger concern—and what I mean when I talk about Trumpism’s threat to end constitutional democracy in the United States—has to do with whether this will continue to be a country with a robust liberal democracy that respects the rule of law. If one thinks, as I do, that those days will soon be over, it would make sense to pick a new home where that danger is not similarly on the horizon.
Is the UK such a place? Back in 2016, it was reasonable to be quite worried about Britain’s political situation, because the Brexit vote preceded Trump’s minoritarian win by a few months. Brexit was, moreover, fairly obviously an Old Country variant on the ugliness that Trump represented. Even though some Brits might reasonably have been ambivalent about the pros and cons of membership in the European Union, and even though one could have had non-bigoted reasons to vote Leave, the movement undergirding Brexit was openly nationalistic, chauvinistic, and racist.
Indeed, pro-Leave provocateur Nigel Farage was invited to speak at Trump rallies in the United States in the Fall of 2016, sounding many of the same themes that had made Trump’s emergence so worrying. Again, not every pro-Leave voter was a fan of Farage, just as (at least in 2016) not every Trump voter could reasonably be presumed to be aware of and at least tolerate Trump’s bigotry, but Farage and his political movement were anything but subtle in their stoking of hatred.
In the time since then, Farage has faded from view (essentially becoming a troll at the EU’s parliamentary meetings, before finally retiring), and his party is no longer on the political map. On the other hand, Farage’s enthusiastic partner, Boris Johnson, soon ascended to become the Prime Minister of the country. His Conservative Party has in many important ways mutated into an amalgam of its old Tory self and something like Farage’s White nationalist malignancy.
But am I overstating how bad it is? Perhaps. Last October, an English colleague made an important point. Johnson, he said, would leave office after losing an election. Without question. Even in late 2021, and even with all of the worrisome changes that Johnson had made (or that coincided with his rise), the UK was still a country in which there was little or no doubt that the transfer of power would continue to be peaceful. Despite Johnson’s genesis as a populist insurgent, there is no reason to think that he could provoke a crowd to storm the Houses of Parliament to prevent his successor from being named PM.
How low have we fallen, to find something so minimal to be a source of reassurance? “Your democratic country has leaders who will accept losing without stoking violence? I’m in!!”
The problem is that this might be less reassuring than it seems, as low as that bar is. Johnson might, in fact, not even last until the next election, because he is currently enduring a fully deserved storm of criticism for several terrible political decisions. But is that not even better news? After all, Trump gave his party plenty of reasons to dump him and move on, but the Republicans fell back in line every time (even after an attempted coup and a violent insurrection.)
This suggests that Johnson, unlike Trump, has not succeeded in creating a cult of personality with himself at the center. Although that is undeniably a good thing, if the Tories dump Johnson, that might merely mean that he has become expendable, while his current compatriots who might push him out the door would retain power and be just as damaging to their country’s political system as Johnson has been.
To put it differently, because Johnson might merely have been a useful tool for the people who elevated him, he might be more like Newt Gingrich than he is like Donald Trump. Even after Republicans unceremoniously dumped Gingrich in 1998, they continued down the path that Gingrich had laid out, from George W. Bush’s presidency through the Tea Party movement and finally to Trumpism.
At least one informed commentator does believe that the UK is already following the US down the path of democratic end-times. In a column earlier this week in The New York Times, the British journalist Moya Lothian-McLean lays bare the policies that her country’s Tories are already enacting to turn their country into a shell of its former self.
Much of this agenda strongly resembles what Republicans in the various US states have enacted. I had heard, for example, that Johnson has been keen to suppress the youth vote in the UK. As in this country, Britain’s young people tend to be anti-conservative (small-c and large-C), meaning that the Conservatives can go a long way toward securing their own power by keeping younger citizens out of the voting booth.
Lothian-McLean points out, however, that the voter suppression efforts by Johnson and his party are much broader, including restrictive voter ID requirements and other efforts that would affect up to two million voters (in a country of only 68 million people).
Worse, and going beyond anything seen (thus far) in the US, the Tories have introduced “the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a draconian and broad piece of legislation that effectively bans protest in England and Wales[, under which t]he police would be equipped to shut down demonstrations that create ‘serious disruption.’” No danger of abuse there!
Of particular interest to my hypothetical expatriation-leaning Americans, Lothian-McLean warns that “[a] provision slipped into the bill in November by its architect, the home secretary, Priti Patel, would endow the government with the power to remove British citizenship from dual nationals without notice.”
This is not a slam-dunk case against the UK, of course. They do seem not to be as far along the road to autocracy as we are, and their political system might be more resilient than ours has proven to be. My point is that the virulent ugliness that has emerged in the United States is being mirrored to a concerning degree in the country that considers itself to be the very model of a liberal democracy. This is important not only in a broader policy sense but for anyone who hopes that there will be havens from the political extremism that threatens all of us.