not in our stars, but in ourselves
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: democracy simply doesn’t work.”
– Kent Brockman, and at least half of the U.K.
I was nervous all day yesterday. Here in America, we’ve been about democratically stupid as it’s possible to be, and I worried that our stupidity would spread across the pond. Still, I held out hope: referenda that fundamentally change the status quo – like Scotland’s and Australia’s bids for independence – tend to have a difficult time passing. To leave the European Union and decide to start all over again, as a rather small country that would need to keep its head up in a big drowning world, seemed to be self-evidently stupid. Who would be that stupid? Not the United Kingdom, surely not.
I’m upset. I’m scared. Monumental changes like this don’t often happen in the developed world, and nothing this monumental has happened in the developed world since World War II, I don’t think. If the move to leave the E.U. had been predicated on and motivated by some sort of lefty/socialist/progressive urge, that would be one thing. Instead, it was fueled by the same kinds of stupidity that have allowed us over here to be stuck with a war criminal and Captain Queeg as our presidential candidates: the ruling classes working overtime to convince the lower classes that the reason they’re suffering is immigrants, foreigners, Others; instead of decisions that those ruling classes have made, calmly and cheerfully, to line their own pockets. And sometimes those ruling classes insist that this is just the way it has to be, and sometimes those ruling classes insist that it’s someone else’s fault, and that someone else ought to be in for a reckoning. Still the same old story, etc. We were all about due for some seismic geopolitical shakeups here in the West, I suppose; this is how it starts.
Some things that are awful: for one thing, the vast majority of people who voted to leave the E.U. were, shall we say, old. Younger voters wanted to remain. And yet, with the classic arrogance peculiar to each demographic, old voters came out in droves to enforce their opinion on people who will outlive them by several decades; and young voters were outnumbered, whether due to apathy or freak accidents or whatever. A commenter on the Financial Times article about the vote – a commenter known only as Nicholas – summarized (summarised) things very well:
A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term from the dearth of jobs and investment. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another one. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?
You said it, Nicky Boy. I hesitate to make this “about” America in any way, because it’s not – not directly, that is; we will absolutely feel the effects of this vote, though – but imagine if, say, Massachusetts held a referendum to leave the U.S. or to remain. Imagine if the “leave” votes won out. Imagine finding your dream job in California, or your dream man, or whatever, and not being able to follow it because of the new spider’s web of red tape that attends any and all attempts to settle down semi-permanently in a foreign country. You would simply accept that you were stuck where you were, save some extraordinary stroke of luck and visa magic. The rest of the states could go to and fro as they chose, moving from jobs and lovers and homes in Chicago and New Orleans and New York and San Francisco, and you’d quietly seethe at the tiny bubble in which you were suddenly imprisoned. For older people, this isn’t a problem, of course. For those of us who are young enough to want to live our best lives, as the saying goes, it is incredibly frustrating.
Additionally frustrating: the narrative taking hold is already the wrong one. I found this on Twitter, so I don’t know who this Vincent Bevins is, but this is spot-on:
Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very, wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for thirty years.
Questions such as – Who are the losers of globalization, and how can we spread the benefits to them and ease the transition? Is it fair that the rich can capture almost all the gains of open borders and trade, or should the process be more equitable? Can we really sustainably create a media structure that only hires kids from top universities (and, moreover, those prick graduates that can basically afford to work for free for the first 5-10 years) who are totally ignorant of regular people, if not outright disdainful of them? Do we actually have democracy, or do banks just decide? Immigration is good for the vast majority, but for the very small minority who see pressure on their wages, should we help them, or do they just get ignored?
Since the 1980s the elites in rich countries have overplayed their hand, taking all the gains for themselves and just covering their ears when anyone else talks, and now they are watching in horror as voters revolt. It seems in both cases (Trumpism and Brexit), many voters are motivated not so much by whether they think the projects will actually work, but more by their desire to say FUCK YOU to people like me (and probably you).
The leaders of these movements (Trumpstick, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage) have acted cynically for their own benefit. They’ve been willing to stir division and nationalism. And some of their supporters are real racists. The only solution for that small minority is to be crushed and thrown into the dustbin of history. But I refuse to believe this is the case for the larger group of supporters, that is, half of the UK or almost half of the US. They have some legitimate concerns, and the only outlet to vent they were offered was a terrible one.
If we want to move forward productively from these historical shocks (and please, let’s try to do that), rich world urban dickheads (like me) need to recognize that they are not the only people on the planet with views worth listening to.
But no, no. We won’t listen to the proles; we never do, not unless they take back power by force. Stay tuned for that.
Maybe there’s a silver lining. Maybe it won’t crater every economy in the world. Maybe it won’t lead to horrifying displays against immigrants (although I doubt it). Maybe England will find its way. Whatever happens, it seems quite likely that my Celtic cousins will split off and un-unite the United Kingdom: both Northern Ireland and Scotland are seriously considering unification and independence, according to the word on the street. We can hope. As the inimitable Dan O’Sullivan puts it: