In the wake of the UK’s Brexit vote, it is easy to forget that democracy in Europe is a relatively recent development, notes Barnard College professor Sheri Berman. Up through the middle of the 20th century, Europe was the most turbulent region on Earth, convulsed by wars, economic crises and sociopolitical conflicts. To prevent a recurrence of these patterns after 1945, European leaders thought that a transformation at the domestic, international and regional levels was necessary, she writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:
Domestically, Europeans built a new type of political economy designed to ensure economic growth while also protecting societies from capitalism’s most destructive and destabilizing tendencies. They rejected the argument that government influence over economic life ought to be held in check and declined to simply leave markets to their own devices on the assumption that they could govern themselves. Instead, states took on a mandate to protect social stability and, with it, democracy.
Although the Brexit referendum was a highly imperfect form of democratic representation, the emotions voiced by Leave voters were very real, notes Kathleen R. McNamara, a Professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union. They echo important and valid feelings of other populations across the Western democracies, she writes for Foreign Affairs:
There are two worlds of people, as analysis of Brexit voting patterns clearly indicated, that are divided in their experiences and their visions of the future. Educational attainment, age, and national identity decisively determined the vote. Younger voters of all economic backgrounds and those with a university education voted overwhelmingly in favor of Remain. Older voters, the unemployed, and those with a strong sense of English national identity sought to leave.
This is a very alarming time for students of European history and democracy. After 1945, the transformation of Europe’s domestic, international and regional arrangements brought prosperity, peace and political stability to the continent for the first time, adds Berman, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy:
Europe’s version of social democracy has been under pressure since the 1970s. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union shifted the United States’ attention from Europe to other parts of the world. Now, European integration has faltered and Brexit threatens to set it back even further. The question the world now confronts is whether prosperity, peace and political stability can once be again reconstructed in Europe but without the three pillars they have rested on since 1945.