July 2, 2016
At the recent EU summit, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was booed by many of his colleagues. Some turned their backs on him. This reaction of anger, shock and disdain has been common among the elites- by which I mean political leaders, journalists, pundits, and the educated classes more generally- in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and this reaction showcases perfectly the arrogant and dismissive attitude that led to the success of the Leave vote in the first place. And it is the attitude that those on the center-right and center-left will have to overcome if they wish to arrest the populist sentiment that led Britain out of the EU, made Trump the GOP nominee (and the success of Bernie Sanders), and is growing increasingly influential not just in the Anglosphere, but across Europe as well.
Simply put, people are sick and tired of being treated like children by the elites. They are tired of having their concerns about trade and globalization ignored. They are sick of being dismissed as racist or xenophobic if they express concerns about immigration. The explanation the elites have given for the success of the Leave vote is that cynical politicians used lies to exploit fears of immigration to further their political careers. The levels of arrogance in this explanation are almost too numerous to name, and show how deeply the political classes have lost touch with the population.
First off, it assumes that the leaders of the Leave vote specifically and populism generally don’t actually believe in what they’re advocating, because how could any intelligent, well-informed person possibly differ from the pro-globalization, open borders orthodoxy of the elite? In fact, there are many who’ve been left behind by globalization, and turn to populism as a result of the indifference their political leaders have shown to their plight. And wherever there’s a movement, there will be leaders who genuinely believe in the cause. This isn’t to say that there are no opportunists in the Leave camp, or that career advancement is not a consideration for many, but it’s a mistake to assume that the only ones who actually believe what they’re advocating are those in the Remain camp.
Though I’ve neither the space nor inclination to go into detail about the truths, half-truths and lies told by each side in the Brexit campaign, suffice it to say that it is hardly surprising to see the elites busting out the old excuse, native to those of all political stripes (though it seems particularly rampant on the center-left) that when the other side wins, it’s only because they lie. Even more condescending is the assumption that Leave voters were exploited. The clear implication, whether intended or unintended, is that they’re too stupid to think for themselves and are little more than chumps to be manipulated by cunning but unethical politicians. If they are to regain their appeal to voters and prevent the rise of populist extremism, mainstream politicians must learn to distinguish stupidity from feelings of disenfranchisement.
Most dismissive is attributing the loss of the Remain vote to fear of immigration without actually addressing whether those fears are valid. In doing so, the elites have essentially labeled their opponents xenophobic, assuming that labeling something xenophobic or racist would end the debate then and there. We’ve seen this tactic used to stifle debate and avoid issues for years, and this time it backfired. Furthermore, it assumes that all support for the Leave vote stems from this bigotry. There’s no doubt that immigration was a major issue, but it’s one of many legitimate concerns with globalization. By responding with insults rather than answers, the elites pushed voters into the arms of those who acknowledged and shared their concerns.
For years, the attitude of the elites on globalization has been something of a ‘we know best’ kind of attitude, telling people that it was necessary and good without sufficiently explaining why or addressing the legitimate concerns of the people. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, their response has been to openly wonder how people could be so stupid. Given the disconnect between the people and their leaders, is it any surprise that the people are ignoring their party leaders in favor of more extreme voices? The populists on the hard right and hard left listen to and share their concerns; the party leaders ignore them.
This is the lesson that the center-right and center-left must learn moving forward if they are to stop the rise of populist extremism, and should advise Europe on how to proceed with the UK moving forward. Recriminations and harsh punishments will only increase the British distrust of European institutions and eliminate any chance of cooperation or reconciliation. Anger and insults will only serve to further galvanize the divide between the elites and the population and fuel the fires of populism. Above all, government officials, elected or European, must remember that, in a democratic society, they exist to serve the people, and that sometimes requires listening and responding to their concerns. In voting for Brexit, the people have spoken. Will their leaders listen?