If Brexit’s critics are right, the European Union should be glad to be rid of the United Kingdom.
In the wake of the U.K.’s decision to withdraw from the EU, the anti-Brexit crowd has leaped to explain the vote in stark terms. “The force that has been driving [‘Leave’ voters] is xenophobia,” wrote Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, and at Esquire Charles Pierce explained: “Some of the Oldest and Whitest people on the planet leapt at a chance to vote against the monsters in their heads.” The Guardian’s Joseph Harker mused: “It feels like a ‘First they came for the Poles’ moment.” And blogger Anil Dash managed to squeeze all of these dismissive opinions into a single tweet: “We must learn from brexit: Elderly xenophobes will lie to pollsters to hide their racist views, then vote for destructive policies anyway.”
There was, to be sure, no absence of toxic rhetoric over the course of the U.K.’s referendum campaign. Especially in the weeks before Election Day, the cynicism of both sides was on full display. Still, the impulse to accuse 17 million people of racism seems an unhealthy one.
Alas, it’s not just the Brits. Less than 24 hours before polls closed in the U.K., President Obama responded to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the injunction against his 2014 executive amnesty by dismissing his critics as those who want “to wall [them]selves off from those who may not look like us right now, or pray like we do, or have a different last name.” He warned that America’s immigration policy does not “reflect its goodness,” and chided “spasms of politics around immigration and fear-mongering.”
The anti-Brexit crowd and the president do their critics an injustice. What is noteworthy is that they do it in the same way.
In the wake of Orlando, I noted: “The invocation of ‘hate’ has become a way of dismissing opponents by suggesting that their beliefs are beyond the reach of reason. You can’t debate someone who hates, because hatred precludes thought; it’s in the bones. If Republicans are motivated by ‘hate,’ then they are not legitimate political actors, because political life cannot be predicated on irrationality. Reason is our common ground.”
That same impulse is on display here, where “hate” has simply been replaced with some other emotion: “fear,” “xenophobia,” &c. The key is that the animating force is not thought; it’s raw, unconsidered passion.
Liberal cosmopolitanism, regnant since the end of the Cold War, has bought completely into its own rightness.
That is not true when it comes to Brexit, and it’s not true when it comes to immigration in the U.S. But the powers-that-be have lost sight of that. Both sides of the Atlantic are dominated by liberal cosmopolitans who are no longer able to acknowledge the validity of any other worldview than their own. The anti-Brexit crowd cannot acknowledge that those who voted to leave may have done so out of legitimate concerns about sovereignty or economic opportunity or security — that is, that they may have drawn rational conclusions and voted accordingly. And President Obama seems incapable of recognizing that there are reasonable, non-bigoted grounds on which to oppose his executive actions — for example, to preserve the principle of separation of powers that is a pillar of the American constitutional order.
Liberal cosmopolitanism, regnant since the end of the Cold War, has bought completely into its own rightness. It is entirely devoted to an increasingly borderless political future carefully managed by technocrats and tempered by “compassion” and “tolerance” — all of which aims at the maximal amount of material prosperity. It sees no other alternative than that we will all, eventually, be “citizens of the world,” and assumes that everyone will be happier that way.
It’s not unreasonable to think otherwise. Anti-EU movements and renewed nationalism in the United States are on the rise precisely because they offer alternatives to this self-assured order. It’s not clear whether a United Kingdom withdrawn from the EU will be better off. But it’s entirely defensible to think that it might be. Likewise, it’s not unreasonable to prefer loyalties rooted in close-knit interactions among people who share a particular space and a particular history. Or to prefer local rule to government outsourced to distant bureaucracies. Or to prefer a richer sense of belonging than interaction in a common market. There are alternatives to a transnational super-state that are not fascism.
The inability of our political leaders to envision political futures other than the one to which they are wedded has facilitated the polarization, and the unresponsiveness, of our politics. That people are now looking for alternatives is, in fact, entirely reasonable.