Bigotry! Nativism! Racism! That’s what elites in Britain, Europe and here have been howling, explanations for why 52 percent of a higher-than-general-election turnout of British voters voted for their nation to leave the European Union.
But there is plenty of bigotry, condescension and snobbery in the accusations and the people making them. And it’s incoherent to claim, as some do, that it’s undemocratic for voters to decide. That amounts to saying that ordinary people should be content to be ruled by their betters.
It’s true that college graduates tended to vote “Remain” and less-educated people of England and Wales tended to vote “Leave.” Both the posh precincts and immigrant quarters of Inner London voted 70-plus percent “Remain,” as did Oxford and Cambridge. But the rest of England and Wales, including Labour factory towns and Conservative countryside, voted 55 percent “Leave.”
They did so despite major party leaders, the Bank of England and City of London financiers and CEOs counseling them that “Leave” would cost them money. Financial markets (which, like the betting markets, underestimated the “Leave” vote) fell sharply at first, and Britain’s robust economic growth may stall.
But “Leave” voters may have remembered that many elite experts predicted that the euro would be a great success. Very few of them predicted the financial crisis of 2008. The record of transnational elites is not one that inspires confidence or commands deference.
Especially since voters often value some things more than money.
Lord Ashcroft’s post-Brexit poll found that most “Leavers” were motivated by “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” Concerns about immigration came in a fairly distant second.
This should not be unfamiliar to Americans. The Founding Fathers pledged their fortunes as well as their lives and sacred honor in declaring independence, and economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson conclude that American incomes fell more than 20 percent between 1774 and the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton’s financial system kicked in. That’s much worse than anything in the last century.
Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, accused modest-income conservatives of behaving irrationally for voting against candidates who promised more benefits because of their liberal cultural stands. But for them, like the author’s gentry liberal friends who vote for cultural liberals who would raise their taxes, some things are more important than short-term economic gain.
For instance, nationalism. To many, not just elites, this has a nasty sound: It sounds like Nazism. But there’s also a healthy nationalism, a belief in one’s country and the good things in its heritage and a willingness to defend them if attacked.
Winston Churchill was such a nationalist, in that “finest hour” when Britain stood alone against Hitler. Franklin Roosevelt was a nationalist, too. The biggest applause to his speech to Congress the day after Pearl Harbor was when he said, “the American people” — not the government, not the military, but the people — “in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” And 45 months later, they did.
Each nationalism is different, drawing on countries’ histories, traditions, mores. In vetoing Britain’s application to the Common Market in 1963, Charles de Gaulle (who had lived in England and spoke English) said that Britain had “in all her doings very marked and very original habits and traditions.” England with its common law allowed what was not regulated; Continental Europe with its Napoleonic Code allowed nothing until it was regulated. They always were a bad fit.
Nationalism sits ill with transnational elites confident that the “arc of history,” as Barack Obama says, bends toward greater submergence of national identities to international control: Centralizing power in the hands of well-educated liberal-minded experts is the wave of the future.
But this is a 20th-century, and increasingly obsolete, view. In the industrial age, with its massive factories and masses of workers, centralization seemed inevitable and beneficial. In the information age, when your small phone contains more information than a Carnegie library and performs more functions than a Cold War UNIVAC, centralization blocks creative innovation and adaptive flexibility.
Transnational institutions have plainly failed to inspire the fellow feeling and genuine enthusiasm that nations inspire in most people. The EU long since achieved its initial purpose of preventing another European war. But even with an anthem by Beethoven it has failed to match the feelings of passionate attachment symbolized by the Union Jack or the French tricolor.
The elites’ howls of bigotry and racism aren’t accurate descriptions of those who failed to follow their lead. They’re laments of their own failure to persuade them to do so.