I, like many of you, was disgusted to hear that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States, and almost as disgusted by Britain’s decision to leave the EU, but I was also disgusted by my own reaction and the reactions of many of those with similar views to my own. Yes it’s true that, to us, the decision that the majority of people (or the majority people lucky enough to live in states whose vote actually matters in the case of the US) was awful, but that did not excuse how many of us reacted.
In a remarkable feat of embittered anger, we turned our backs on our principles in the days and weeks following these two divisive votes. I’ll say it again, this is not an attack on people – I was just as guilty of this as any other liberal or leftist was – but it is an attack on our attitudes, which were simply abhorrent. Maybe Donald Trump and Brexit do represent triumphs of authoritarian (at least in Trump’s case) and racist tendencies over liberty and tolerance, but does that excuse how we all reacted?
For those who don’t know what went on in liberal and left wing circles (and those of right wing centrists who supported Remain), allow me to explain. Following these votes, we suddenly abandoned some of the principles which we had thought defined us – we abandoned the notion of a liberal democracy in favour of things going our way. This strange, dark, impulse reared its ugly head, with many of us questioning why the people should be allowed to make decisions, why should we accept what the people want if it isn’t what we think is right? We veered dangerously from democracy and towards a kind of technocratic world order, where everything went exactly as the “educated” liberal, white middle class wanted it to.
I do agree that we should never have had a referendum; referenda are not part of the tradition of British constitutional law or democratic decision making, and are dangerously susceptible to populist outbursts. Nevertheless I am not demanding that the referendum is overturned by another, called only in the hope of preventing the British people’s decision from being acted upon. Even in my darker moments I never did that, and I hope I never will do. It is undemocratic to demand that people keep on voting until they vote “correctly”, even if it is backed up by unreliable polls which claim the result would now be in your favour (may I remind you that the polls said the same thing right before the referendum was actually held). You would not have done so if the referendum had gone your way, even if afterwards people had regretted their vote – it is the antithesis of democracy, masking itself as allowing the people to keep having a say.
Many of us also had an immediate, far, far more sinister reaction that was to say “Maybe we shouldn’t let the people make decisions anymore”. This, I eventually came to realise, was a terrifying reaction to not getting what we wanted. Far from acting gracefully, we decided to throw a tantrum and throw the toys out of the pram like we had so smugly predicted our opponents would in the case that they lost. We spent whole campaigns painting our opponents as tyrants and demagogues waiting in the wings then, when the alleged tyrants won out, we began to doubt that the “plebs” should be allowed to make decisions for themselves. Some of it was joking, but under the joke was a dark undercurrent of bitterness and resentment.
We ascribed to ourselves a kind of moral superiority more expected of Jesuit missionaries than of liberals; we painted ourselves as superior people more capable of making decisions than everyone around us. This is the kind of patronising “we know better” behaviour that is normally seen in certain extremists on the “Patrician” right (such figures include the likes of now deceased former Conservative Minister Alan Clark) or the moralisers of the religious right in the US. It is totally counter to values of egalitarianism and liberal democracy… it was a betrayal of our principles, a total and utter rejection of everything that we had positioned ourselves as fighting to preserve.
The least of all criticisms is that it is simply untrue that the “ignorant” working class caused both of these events. True, the working class did vote for Brexit, but so did 55% of homeowners, as well as 55% of those with mortgages or renting in the private sector – this was not a purely working class revolt. Similarly, across the Atlantic, Clinton actually won the working class vote, whilst Trump (although capturing disaffected white voters in a number of key swing states) also swept the affluent middle class. It is all too easy to create a narrative in which the ignorant white working class voted in this way because of ill-conceived racial biases and a dissatisfaction with the results of neoliberalism, but this is disingenuous and does not tell the full story. Even if it were true, would it not be the height of foolishness to berate the victims of a problematic economic model for trying to secure a better life for themselves when we have provided no solutions to the very real problems that they face every day?
It is this smugness, this sense of superiority, which is creating such a stark divide in both British and American society; the educated and the elite see those “below” them as crazy fanatics and racists, whilst the working class (particularly the white working class – Blue Collar voters to Americans) see the “elite” as smug and effete, mocking them whilst providing no solutions. Those in positions of power and influence (and thus responsibility) mock those who dare to think differently from them, calling them “deplorables” and casting them as one step away from marching down the streets in jackboots and brown shirts. They do not work to find solutions that work for everyone, but instead focus on a narrow constituency of educated and liberal middle class voters who have profited from globalisation, driving the working class and disaffected Conservative members of the middle class into the hands of proto-demagogues and petty tyrants like Donald Trump and his increasingly irrelevant lackey Nigel Farage.
This polarisation has the potential to have disastrous consequences if we do not act quickly – the people do not truly want the solutions that Trump suggests, they want security both financially and geopolitically, but right now only the far-right seems to offer this to them. They believe themselves to be under attack from hostile enemies. It’s an increasingly cliched line, but we really do need to supplant this politics of fear with a politics of hope, but we also need to recognise why people are so despairing and have to accept that globalisation has produced just as many losers as it has winners, if not more.
Ultimately this is not a time for us to pit ourselves against one another, it is a time for everyone to unite despite barriers of social and financial class, education, upbringing, gender or even political opinions and try and strive together to build a world that will work for everyone. If those like myself who did not want either of these events to come to pass (and I still deeply regret that either did) continue to pit ourselves against an “enemy” that should in fact be our ally then we will damage both of our causes. It is societal division on which extremists feed, by pitting people against – real or imagined – and by uniting the working people against an out of touch elite. Our reaction to Brexit and Trump was not only morally wrong, it was also dangerous.