Post-Brexit representative democracy ‘an endangered species’?



“The British vote against the European Union represented the revolt of the poor against the rich, the provinces against the metropolis, the losers of globalization against the elite.” I’m sure you’ve heard some version of that general analysis of last week’s Brexit vote, notes  Anne Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“It’s a fine-sounding cliché. But before it hardens into conventional wisdom, please remember that, like so many of the facts sold to the public during this referendum campaign, it isn’t entirely true,” she writes for The Washington Post:

Yes, the voting statistics do say that the supporters of “leave” were, by and large, poorer and less educated. They also show that support for “remain” was highest in cities, and especially high around universities. But the statistics don’t tell you everything. They don’t tell you, for example, that the intellectual and financial architects of the Brexit campaign were, in fact, fully paid-up members of the metropolitan elite.

The New Class deludes itself when it blames the revolt on economic inequality, argues Josef Joffe, a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. If so, why has it erupted in egalitarian Scandinavia, in full-employment Germany, Britain and America? he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

This class war isn’t about income, but culture. It’s about the civic faith. Liberals should listen for their own sake. The middle is not the mob. Ceding the forgotten to the Mussolinis of the 21st century will speed the victory of illiberalism, the common enemy of us all, and a tragedy worse than Brexit.

While it may be far-fetched to suggest that the Brexit vote renders representative democracy an endangered species, it has certainly given succor to authoritarians and illiberals of varying ideological hues.

The leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, expresses her hope that Brexit presages a People’s Spring, writing in The New York Times:

The European Union has become a prison of peoples. Each of the 28 countries that constitute it has slowly lost its democratic prerogatives to commissions and councils with no popular mandate. Every nation in the union has had to apply laws it did not want for itself. Member nations no longer determine their own budgets. They are called upon to open their borders against their will.

Countries in the eurozone face an even less enviable situation. In the name of ideology, different economies are forced to adopt the same currency, even if doing so bleeds them dry.

Left-wing analyst Chantal Mouffe hopes that Brexit “will be a salutary shock for Europe” and generate greater demand for a democratic refoundation of Europe.

European politicians should not shy away from putting fundamental questions on the table, writes Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton and a fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna.

Hunkering down or redoubling efforts to deepen integration without looking left or right will only confirm the clichéd reading that “elites aren’t listening.” But when they address the very basics of European integration, politicians must have the courage and convictions that the likes of Cameron and Corbyn have so spectacularly lacked. Populism and identity politics are not somehow destined to win every battle over the meaning of European integration. It’s a question of how others confront them.

Müller’s book “What Is Populism?” will be published in September:

Müller argues that at populism’s core is rejection of pluralism and a willingness to use state power to drive out dissent. It is therefore a form of authoritarianism—albeit one that justifies the populist leader’s power grab by claiming to discern and embody the true interests of “the people,” while excluding from this privileged group anyone who refuses to defer to the leader’s actions.

And in Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama offers an explanation of populist fervor for Mr. Trump in the United States that might also apply quite well to supporters of a Brexit, The New York Times adds. The fortunes of the white working class, he explains, are stagnating; their prospects are declining. But that’s just the backdrop. The current populist moment is a failure of politics.

Post-factual democracy?

Claims that the Brexit vote indicates that we live in a “post-factual democracy” suggests there was a golden era when politics was based on facts, Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan pointed out.

“I don’t think that time ever existed,” Nyhan added. “Partisanship and ideology haven’t just become more polarized but also better sorted,” he said.

There’s nothing new about swings in political ideology but there is something different about the way these debates are playing out across the world, notes analyst Jerry Daykin. While social media channels were hailed as great unifiers that would connect and bring people together, now they seem to be making us more divisive than ever before, he writes in The Guardian:

Thousands of years of democracy have been marked by striking changes in the dominant political opinion – driven by economics, immigration, charismatic leaders, emergency crises, other hot issues and at times even good marketing. The majorities commanded by many modern governments don’t equate to a true majority of the popular vote but, for better or worse, the system seems to have held together far longer than its Greek creators would ever have expected. Yet in the aftermath of Britain’s own Brexit vote, and as the US gears up for a debate just as divisive, the strength of opinions on all sides of the argument seems to be being hugely amplified.

If we say someone votes with emotion, the assessment is often understood as a pejorative, implying that the voter is irrational. But when it comes to matters of justice and national sovereignty, emotion can assume a particular depth, a STRATFOR analysis suggests:

When people feel that they have fallen behind economically and that it will take too long to catch up in a globalized world; that leaving domestic decisions to foreign leaders with completely different priorities, customs and interests is unfair; that national culture is being eroded by outsiders; that the will of the ordinary should prevail over that of a privileged elite — these are all valid, deep-seated “emotions” that easily transcend demographic divides. Emotion, in other words, becomes synonymous with nationalism, and some level of nationalism resides in every one of us.

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