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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  • herlindafrodriguez

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  • Democracy also requires a free and competent press, one that values truth over ratings and clicks.

  • Brexit was a stunt that backfired. Johnson now admits that he lied to sell this thing which he didn’t think would pass. Now he doesn’t even want to be PM because he knows what a mess he’s created. This was supposed to fail but give him and other far right nuts something to run on to appease the anti-immigration crowd. And here we are. So let this be a warning for Americans who want to throw a hissy fit in November.

  • JaneE

    The failure of the elites. Okay. It wasn’t a failure of the elites. It was a deliberate decision by some to destroy the economy to provide a benefit for the few. It wasn’t a failure to recognize the problem, it was a deliberate decision to ignore the problem and ridicule anyone who tried to make people realize the problem. Ignoring, ridiculing, outright lying in order to gain political power and money – and successful at achieving their aims, for the most part. The fact that the rest of us need to live in the ruins is our problem, not theirs.

  • Badgerite

    The Congress supported it because the people supported it. It would not be the first time that a majority of a population supported something that was based on complete hogwash. And it will not be the last. For my money, it is ridiculous to try to over think this or to raise the ‘Leave’ voters to some kind of level of prescient understanding that the “Remain’ voters simply don’t grasp. Myself, I think the age breakdown in the vote is rather telling. Like the age breakdown in those who support or are against marriage equality for same sex people. The world changes. Some people can accept that. Some people look forward to that. And some people can’t and won’t accept that.
    They don’t want the changes that are coming and are oft time inevitable to their world.

  • Another piece that blames the people, not the government. There should have been no referendum – they were playing a dangerous game. People are largely untrustworthy of their government because their governments have proven to be untrustworthy. When a government breeds intolerance and fear, it extends to the people.

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  • Hue-Man

    With 9/11 still uppermost in the world’s mind, Cheney and Bush could have bullied Congress into invading Mars! “Are you with me or do you support the terrorists?” “Mushroom clouds” etc.

    I remember expressing my skepticism about the Iraq rhetoric to (well-educated) American friends before the invasion; they were less than receptive mainly because there was so little opposition within the American establishment.

  • goulo

    The president is part of that government, and the Congress which so naively/willingly believed the blatant lies is part of that government. Seems like a clear government failure to me. (Certainly influenced by militaristic neocon lobbying, but ultimately the government pulled the trigger.)

  • emjayay

    “the government’s false claims of WMDs in Iraq” was not a government failure. It was the delusional ideology fueled belief of a willfully ignorant president and a cabal of neocons who all sold it to the public and Congress with an organized advertising campaign like a new laundry detergent.

  • The problem with democracy, is that it first requires an educated and interested populace. One that actually has some basic understanding of the issues for which they are asked to vote. When the government, and its opponents, do everything they can to treat the voters like mushrooms, you get results like this referendum… and we’ll get President Trump, if reasonable people don’t get off their ass, suck up their selfish pride, and vote.

  • RepubAnon

    In other words, the prevalence of “experts” whose opinions are based on their paychecks rather than the data caused people to lose faith in those opinions. Once this happens, why should anyone be surprised when people ignored the expert’s warnings, thinking them yet another paid-for lie?

    Reputation is key – and the decision of so many economists to base their advice on the highest bidder gave the profession a bad name. It’s not just economists, either; how many corporate-funded studies turn out to have ignored inconvenient data in order to return the funders’ desired results?

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