The British people’s decision to leave the European Union is the country’s single biggest democratic act in modern times, notes commentator Andrew Marr – and one of the elite’s most significant blunders.
Today’s crisis in liberalism—in the free-market, British sense—was born in 1989, out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. At the time the thinker Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, the moment when no ideology was left to challenge democracy, markets and global co-operation as a way of organising society. It was liberalism’s greatest triumph, but it also engendered a narrow, technocratic politics obsessed by process….
Liberalism has been challenged before. At the end of the 19th century, liberals embraced a broader role for the state, realising that political and economic freedoms are diminished if basic human needs are unmet. In the 1970s liberals concluded that the embrace of the state had become smothering and oppressive. That rekindled an interest in markets.
According to Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, “Brexit is a momentous event in the history of Europe and from now on the narrative will be one of disintegration, not integration.”
“Brexit is German re-unification in reverse,” Ivan Krastev (right) of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, told POLITICO Europe.
“A period in European history that started in 1945 has ended today,” said Krastev, a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
Although elections have been described as referendums on candidates or parties, particularly when incumbents run for reelection, there’s a key difference, notes Turkuler Isiksel, Assistant Professor in Columbia University’s Department of Political Science. Electoral hopefuls may promise certain substantive outcomes, but nevertheless retain significant room to maneuver once they are in power, she writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:
Democratic theorists from Edmund Burke to John Stuart Mill have argued that the discretion retained by elected officials in addressing their constituents’ demands is a key virtue of representative democracy. Furthermore, there are institutional constraints on this discretion. Most notably, incumbents must answer for their accomplishments at the end of their period in office.
But if democracy is about giving citizens control over political decisions, a referendum is not nearly as effective a democratic mechanism as many tend to assume, adds Isiksel, author of Europe’s Functional Constitution: A theory of constitutionalism beyond the state:
In fact, easy resort to a referendum can make political decision-making less democratic. In this case, honoring the referendum outcome will lead to costly choices that citizens neither intend nor prefer. Ignoring it will deepen the popular sense of disaffection with the democratic process.
For Henry Kissinger, the Brexit vote was evidence that the European vision had developed a “sclerotic character”.
Political scientists in general have long been sceptical about excessive reliance on direct democracy, where individual voters can decide on narrowly defined single questions, notes Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics at Harvard University. But not everyone agrees that referendums are destabilizing, he writes for The Financial Times:
Several leading Swiss political theorists would beg to differ. Professor Bruno Frey, for example, argues that the threat of referendums helps break up coalitions of entrenched politicians engaged in monopoly behaviour inimical to public interests. He also argues that referendums produce healthy debate and a more informed electorate. But Switzerland has very different traditions from the UK’s and long familiarity with the referendum process. The Swiss votes of recent years — say, the 2014 referendum on whether the central bank should hold more of its reserves in gold — have been clinical and easily reversible compared with the Brexit mess.
Far from being about UK exceptionalism, Brexit is the first serious rebellion in a broader electoral uprising against this relentless Brussels power-grab, one observer suggests:
Some 73 per cent of voters in Holland oppose ‘ever closer union’, says the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, and 85 per cent in Sweden — hardly illiberal, reactionary countries. In Greece, it’s 86 per cent — I can’t think why. Even in core EU member states like Germany, Italy and France, no fewer than 68, 65 and 60 per cent of voters, respectively, reject Brussels-driven empire building.
Brexit has ‘unleashed’ a new crisis, said financier and philanthropist George Soros. But the EU should not penalize British voters while ignoring their legitimate concerns about the deficiencies of the European Union, he told the European Parliament.
“European leaders should recognize their own mistakes and acknowledge the democratic deficit in the current institutional arrangements. Rather than seeing Brexit as the negotiation of a divorce, they should seize it as an opportunity to fundamentally reform the EU,” he added. “Their goal should be the creation of a reinvented EU that the UK and other countries at risk of exit would want to join.”
“A nation state is not the only frame for a democracy,” argues Ulrike Guérot, founder and director of the European Democracy Lab and author of Why Europe Must Become a Republic. A Political Utopia. The treaties of the Levellers and the Putney Debates of 1647 elaborated on the concept of equal liberty, insisting that, within a political entity, all citizens must be treated equally in front of the law. The EU does not offer this, she writes for The Guardian:
The next European project must make a compelling offer to all European citizens, one that goes beyond nation-state affiliation. It must be based on the principle that all European citizens have political equality: in elections, before the law and in taxes. Cicero called this ius aequum. A government for the people and by the people.
Studies of conspiracy theories in Britain show that a majority of people don’t believe that democracy has any influence on who holds power, and that the E.U. is trying to take over all British law-making powers, notes William Davies, co-director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. Other studies have found another distinctive characteristic among Leave voters, he writes for The Washington Post:
They share a belief in harsh and even humiliating punishment for criminals, including support for the death penalty (outlawed in Britain in 1969) and public whipping of sex offenders. Taking all of this together, a typical Leave voter has authoritarian beliefs, yet no faith in the political system to implement authoritarian policies or to improve society some other way. Under these circumstances, individuals display what sociologists call “negative solidarity,” a feeling that if they’re to suffer, then everyone should, too.
At the core of the issue is the sense of “us.” What does it mean to be a member of the EU, Nigeria, Iraq, Turkey, Switzerland, or any other political entity? argues Ricardo Hausmann, Professor of the Practice of Economic Development at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International Development.
The sense of us is a subroutine of the brain based on the sense of self, which is one of our brain’s many creations: a sensation of being an ongoing entity that experiences things, remembers its history, can act, and has feelings and goals – what the eminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls an autobiographical self. Our brain is also acutely aware of the existence of other selves, with their feelings and intentions, and it is particularly good at reading what others are thinking, feeling, and planning.
In the absence of a common language and religion, the EU’s sense of “us” must be based on shared values and culture, born of centuries of interaction, he writes for Project Syndicate.