Brexit: The triumph of passion over reason

Brexit. All signs pointed to “Remain.” While one side argued that it would be a domestic economic catastrophe if the United Kingdom were to leave the European Union (EU), the other stoked populist (racist) concerns about the necessity of closing the UK borders to EU migrants.

In the end, swathes of voters from across the political spectrum voted last Thursday to leave the EU — created as a successor to the post-World War II European Economic Community — and in doing so, rejected its single market and open borders.

Why did the Brexit voters defy the experts?

The question remains: Why?

Why, when a bevy of international experts expressed their fears of a possible Brexit, over half of Britons didn’t listen? Why, despite the “leave” camp having its best arguments repeatedly debunked, would anyone fail to deduce the benefits of EU membership?

LONDON, UK - JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

LONDON, UK – JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

Seduced by their self-proclaimed dominion over the realm of reason, pro-integrationists (the “remain” camp) neglected the historical importance of passion. Passion and reason are as diametrically opposed as the chaos and order they birth. Democratic governance draws its legitimacy from its supposed rationality; the Age of Enlightenment from which modern democracy developed is often dubbed the Age of Reason. Yet democracy, by virtue of its populist nature, makes the state in turbulent times little more than a mechanism for manifesting public passion. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10, “the instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”  The Founding Fathers, well aware of the democratic capacity for facilitating base urges, constructed the American republic so as to reduce public influence on the political process.

Does Brexit prove that democracy is a danger to the republic?

In calling for a Brexit referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron introduced the disease of “democracy” into the otherwise aristocratic field of international organizations. Much has been made of the anti-intellectual, anti-internationalist forces at play in the “Leave” camp. Griff Witte in the Washington Post describes the Brexit vote as “a referendum on whether Britain still trusts the people who supposedly know the most about economics, international relations and global security.” Witte cites several instances of elite failure in recent years: the government’s false claims of WMDs in Iraq, the academy’s total failure to predict the global recession, and the media’s inability to recognize the looming threat of the Trump and Brexit campaigns until they had already grown uncontrollable.

LONDON, UK - JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

LONDON, UK – JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

With such empirical failure, how can one trust economists’ predictions of calamity when the last calamity went unpredicted? How can one put faith in promises made by the same breed of politician — professional, articulate, made-for-TV — as those who lied the nation into crisis after crisis, decade after decade? The caricature of the “Leave” voter bears a strong resemblance to the caricature of the Trump voter; old, white, stubborn and angry. We are led to believe that the only difference between the malcontents and the rest of us “normal folks” is that they have abandoned reason and empirical fact in favor of delusion. But have they?

Were it the case that over fifty percent of the British population was hopelessly unreasonable, it would be foolish to assume the division between the rational and irrational broke down squarely along Brexit lines. Any attempt to understand “Leave” voters must begin by taking them at their word. Their slogan was, in fact, “Vote Leave. Take Control.” It was a testament to the value of brevity. This simple motto reveals the motive underlying every argument in support of leaving the EU.

National sovereignty under assault by continental bureaucrats? Take control.

Shrinking job prospects due to mass migration? Take control.

Feeling betrayed by the institutions of civil religion? Take control.

The Brexperts have been wrong before, and the people know it

Nearly four decades of neoliberal policies — wealth transferred from poor to rich, slashed social programs, privatized public services — served to instill a learned helplessness in entire populations who now saw themselves as rugged individualists struggling to survive by virtue of their own failures.

LONDON, UK - JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

LONDON, UK – JUNE 28, 2016 British citizens protest in Trafalgar Square against the referendum results the UK leaving the EU. melis / Shutterstock.com

But then came the economic crash of 2008, and its subsequent revelations. The bankers responsible not only went unprosecuted, but were bailed out with public money. This proved a watershed moment in the public perception of government. Governance legitimized by reason — in the form of facts and statistics and expert opinions — cannot coexist with the oligarchy that representative democracy breeds. There comes a point when experts must either defy the elites, or manipulate their discipline to justify elite goals. And in field after field, none more so than mainstream economics, the experts have sided with the elites.

Thus in the eyes of the malcontent, expert opinion is merely a vanguard for elite interests. And in an age of dark money as the lifeblood of politics, media consolidation by multibillion dollar corporations, and strict scrutiny for dissident research agendas, the malcontent are right. Blame for the displacement of reason in contemporary political rationality can be laid largely on the backs of the very same academics and journalists who now disparage the unenlightened passion of the Brexiteers.

This fiery desire to seize from experts and elites the control promised them by democracy is what led “Leave” voters to victory. Lambasted though they are for their abandonment of reason, there is a logic which governs the leavers indisputably illogical choice. And with all the facts and figures on their side, still the “Stay” supporters lost. This is less a repudiation of their stance than it is proof their methods have failed. Reasoned discourse may still have its place, but in aiming to change minds the secular universalists have surrendered to zealots and nationalists in the battle for the people’s hearts.

What remains for the integrationists, for those who still dream of a unified Europe or even a unified world, is to formulate an argument that demands no recourse to external fact. Only when integration, liberation, and equality are pursued not as a rational economic agenda but rather a passionate political ideal can the forces of tolerance and togetherness truly triumph in the battle against bigotry and greed.

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Raghav Sharma
Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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