A confession: I've missed out on a lot of winter this year. No, not to lie on a beach, nice as that sounds.
I've teamed up with a colleague to talk with bankers and other big shots in London, New York and Washington, D.C., over the past few months. And I quickly realized that my interviews put me in the vortex of huge historical events — the British decision to exit the European Union, known as Brexit, and President Donald Trump's toppling of longstanding U.S. policies on free trade and immigration.
I'm living in a "Forrest Gump" moment, and I've been party to startling conversations:
• "We are on the cusp of the worst mistake since Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler." That's how a prominent and normally unflappable Oxford political observer sized up the harm that could be inflicted on England by Brexit — a move akin to Trump's wall except that it aims to keep out Europeans.
Chamberlain's ill-fated campaign to make peace with Nazi Germany nearly cost England its independence. Winston Churchill and the brave men and women of England and the U.S. were needed to correct Chamberlain's blunder.
But some believe America, today, is making comparable errors. A Republican of towering significance in Washington shook his head over Trump's reversal of free trade policy. He quietly confided that he thinks we've reached the "outer edge of human capability." That's a bit obtuse, but here's the meaning: Washington leaders have gone insane — Trump's policies will bring great harm.
• "I'm starting to see the advantages of a Chinese autocracy." This startling comment came from a powerful figure in American finance who has worked for Democratic Party officials. It captures a common sentiment among American and British elites: Voters are to blame.
The bastions of high finance in London, Washington and New York are awash in pessimism about the judgment of voters, who financiers blame for the economic damage of Brexit and Trump's trade wars, especially with China.
It was at about this point, in one interview after another, that I began to squirm in my seat. Do the elites in power bear no responsibility for selling Brexit with happy talk about better times? Didn't the Republican Party and many of its leaders embrace Trump and stand by as he promised better times from a trade war that is responsible for mountains of unsold soybeans in Minnesota?
Besides, many voters had reservations: Brexit barely passed, and a majority of voters cast ballots for someone other than Trump.
Quick news update: The Conservative Party, which controls the British government and is doing its best to sell Brexit as a great opportunity, just released a bracing report. The U.K. economy could shrink by 9 percent if Britain abruptly leaves the European Union in a "hard Brexit." That's a huge hit — about a third more severe than the Great Recession that walloped America in late 2008 following the financial crisis.
Back to my squirming. As I regained composure, I looked around the opulent offices of the bankers in front of me. We were all wearing suits, but here was the difference: Mine was from the Mall of America; theirs shimmered with wealth. Armani suits, Hamilton monographed shirts, Azuro watches. (And, no, I didn't know these brands until I looked them up.)
After seeing and listening to American and British power brokers, the populism that is sweeping their countries made more sense to me.
The elites are clueless.
They are utterly unaware of the intense disenchantment of many everyday people with their stalled prospects for a better life as they watch wealth accumulate.
Also unrecognized in these rarefied realms is the anxiety that pockets of Americans and Brits harbor toward influxes of people of color from around the world — their uneasiness about what these changes may mean to their lives and communities.
I find this nativist anxiety unnerving. But my stronger reaction is frustration with the folks in high positions who have so failed to anticipate and meaningfully respond to building popular resentment. Perhaps they were too enamored of the Armani suits and Azuro watches.
Who are the leaders of a more hopeful future?
"Mugs games" is how a Brit put the long odds of choosing among the new leaders emerging from our current quagmires.
American and U.K. elites and voters agree on one thing: The current lot in power are unimpressive and possibly negligent.
In an unusual revolt, about a dozen members of Parliament quit the Labor Party because it had been "hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left" after advocating for nationalizing railroads and energy and becoming "institutionally anti-Semitic" after Jewish lawmakers were hounded and the party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, turned a blind eye to this hateful scourge.
Meanwhile, the Conservative leadership on Brexit has been widely panned, provoking a shocking development — the party's legislators reached across the aisle to support a workable withdrawal agreement that the leadership opposed.
Here's the unimaginable equivalent for us: Republicans concerned about President Trump's emergency declaration to bypass Congress bolting in large numbers to join Democrats in charting a new direction.
One more thing: Labor and Conservative lawmakers in Britain who have bucked their party may well lose their seats. This is something I'm unaccustomed to seeing in the U.S. — a group of elected officials (who will almost certainly lose their seats and their salaries) putting the national interest ahead of their personal interest in keeping their hold on power.
Americans are seduced by the practical-sounding news reports about what Democrats or Republicans absolutely cannot pursue because "their base" opposes it.
I now wonder: Is this logic and our sheepish acceptance of it a symptom of our withered political culture?
Here in the states, breathless reporting is starting to gin up our quadrennial spectacle of presidential campaigning. The competition among Democrats skirts the epic issues facing our country in favor a competition for social-media attention and winning celebrity status. Republican challengers to Trump's renomination are lurking on the perimeter but are mostly holding back until their pollsters and consultants approve.
The short supply of courage and principle today struck me recently when I came across a memoriam for a prominent leader at Oxford during the First World War:
"He brought to the service of his age, a rare passion for virtue, knowledge, and truth."
Where are those values today among our economic titans and high-officeholders?
Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale chair for political studies and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. He is a visiting member of Nuffield College at Oxford University.