The shockwaves of the British public’s narrow 2016 vote to leave the European Union continue to roil the United Kingdom, with fraught negotiations seeming to go nowhere in advance of the hard deadline in late March for the country to make its exit. In the worst case, where leaders of the UK and the EU cannot agree on a plan for a smooth transition, no one has any clear idea of what might happen, with major economic and social disruptions (e.g., empty store shelves, border chaos) looming as very real possibilities.
I am currently in England as a visiting scholar, and I will be here when the exit deadline arrives. Although the very latest news suggests that this could all be kicked down the road until 2021, nothing is certain. In any case, the possible worst-case scenarios are very troubling and very real and, because of my current location, of more than academic concern to me.
Even so, I have limited knowledge of British politics and have no way of changing the outcome, so I am simply in a wait-and-see mode along with everyone else. What I do find interesting is the comparison between the British voters who chose “Leave” and the American voters who voted “Trump” later that same year.
This comparison is rather obvious, of course, and Donald Trump himself drew the comparison in the months between the Brexit vote and our 2016 election, hoping to encourage his supporters to defy the odds in the same way that Leave voters had shocked the UK. Even though this is well worn ground, however, I recently found myself in a conversation with some people here in the UK who wanted to draw the Brexit/Trump parallel, which has inspired me to return to the issue with the benefit of more than two years of subsequent experience and evidence.
These people insisted that it is essential to “honor democracy” by not judging the choices of the voters, which is a laudable instinct but actually raises more questions than it answers. Here, I want to explain why—given what we now know—it is no longer enough to say that the motives of Leave/Trump voters are “understandable” and must be honored and respected even by those of us who think that they voted the “wrong” way.
That is, especially now that more than two years have passed since both fateful votes, we can stop saying, “Well, they voted their pocketbooks and their fears, and there is nothing wrong with that.” If that justification was ever true, it certainly no longer works—on either side of the Atlantic. These voters were wrong in 2016, and what we have learned since then suggests that sympathetic attempts to justify their bad decisions are—ironically, given that such sympathy is often motivated by self-doubting elites’ desire not to be too harsh in judging “regular people”—actually condescending in the extreme. We do no one any favors by refusing to face reality.
The Case for Sympathy by Intellectuals Toward “the People”
My conversation was with an Australian academic who is based in England and who has spent significant parts of her career in both the US and the UK, along with two Cambridge graduates who are in the midst of successful, high-powered careers. As we all agreed, we are in our own very fortunate circumstances, and we should be careful not to engage in subconscious elitism when talking about Leave/Trump voters.
So far, so good; but what does it mean not to condescend to such voters? The three others in the conversation all agreed that “we need to take democracy seriously, and that means respecting the voters’ wishes, even if we disagree with their decisions.” In other words, it would simply be wrong to say, “Oh, those low-information voters just don’t understand, and it would be better if the system could be protected from their unfortunate choices.”
This means, in particular, that if British voters wanted to leave the EU because they were scared of social changes that disrupt their lives, and because they cannot see how globalization has helped them—indeed, that their economic lives seem to have become ever more precarious over the past generation of increasing international connectedness—then we need to understand that they made a rational decision, even if we think they were wrong.
Similarly, the now mythic working-class Trump voters who abandoned the Democrats and thus narrowly flipped to Trump the post-industrial states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (guaranteeing his win in the Electoral College) have become a source of fascination and have inspired a palpable guilt complex among Democrats and journalists.
If one were to say that those voters were “wrong” to feel the way that they felt (and may continue to feel), that would seem at best uncharitable and at worst highly disrespectful. But the question is whether the now-conventional wisdom that Leave/Trump voters were simply well-meaning people who responded to economic fears is an accurate picture of what happened (and is still happening, based on opinion polling that keeps Trump locked within a point or two of 40 percent approval ratings and Brexit somewhere in the mid-40 percent range).
The Reality of the Leave/Trump Voters’ Attitudes
Even at the time of the two votes in 2016, it was extraordinarily difficult to square the sympathetic view of Leave/Trump voters with the facts. The Brexit campaign was led by openly racist political hacks like Nigel Farage, and Trump was simply Trump. It took an extremely blinkered view of reality to say that the blatant bigotry that we were seeing in both campaigns was somehow not what truly mattered.
Nonetheless, it is always good not to assume the worst about people’s motives, and many of us bent over backward to say that maybe some/many of these voters were simply desperate and thus willing to tolerate the racism all about them, even though they themselves had non-hate-filled reasons to vote as they did.
I continue to believe that this was true of some slice of those voters, but as I noted, it was difficult even at the time to make this case based on what we—and they—could see and hear.
Even so, it is true that there is plenty of reason for people to feel economically at risk. My Australian interlocutor noted as one small example that, when she was working in the US, she was shocked to discover that her secretary was subject to at-will employment, which allows employers to fire employees for any reason or no reason at all at any time.
That is, indeed, a truly bad aspect of US law, but using that to excuse a vote for—to say nothing of continued support of—Trump simply does not make sense. The Republican Party is famously hostile to labor rights, and they had recently pushed through “right to work” laws (a misnomer if ever there was one) in states including Wisconsin and Michigan.
Over the past generation, Democrats have been shamefully weak in their defense of labor unions and workers’ rights (with some Democrats actually acting like Republicans on those issues), but Republicans are and always have been actively hostile to workers’ concerns about pay, job security, benefits, and so on. There is simply no comparison between the parties, and anyone who was motivated by the sense that their working life was too tenuous had every reason to vote for Democrats. Democrats have been too timid about protecting workers, but it is Republicans who are the active threat to people who work for a living.
In addition, other than claiming to be a disruptive force, Trump gave voters no reason at all to think that he was different from establishment Republicans. His economic proposals were absolutely orthodox conservative elitism, with plans for regressive tax cuts (soon to be brought to fruition) and an anti-regulatory agenda that is now making life more dangerous for workers, consumers, and people who breathe.
But, the others in my conversation insisted, saying that those voters “didn’t understand” is somehow failing to honor their distress. Even if we disagree, how can we say that they are wrong?
The answer is that, especially with the passage of time, it is becoming ever more obvious that such voters are simply refusing to confront the reality that they misunderstood the situation. Yes, I am saying that they misunderstood, and there is nothing condescending about this. I am saying that people cannot simultaneously claim that their votes are motivated by economic concerns while ignoring the evidence that those economic concerns are exacerbated by the choices that they made and continue to make. That is, they cannot say those contradictory things without being illogical or ignoring evidence (or both).
Every day brings new evidence that something other than economic anxiety motivated these voters. How do we know this? Even being confronted with evidence that their lives are becoming (in the US) or will soon become (in the UK) much worse economically, Trump’s base and (I am told) the Leave voters are largely standing pat.
Again, it would be one thing if, notwithstanding all of the evidence that was available during the respective campaigns, Leave/Trump voters said, “Oh hell, nothing else has worked. Let’s take a shot!” But Leave voters—who were sold a story about how easy it would be to exit from the EU, and that the UK would save a bunch of money and not lose any of its economic ties to the Continent—now know that those were all lies.
At least, they have every reason to know, if they care to. Similarly, Trump voters can now look at the egregious Trump/Republican tax bill and the lack of any actions that are actually likely to address middle-class (and formerly middle-class) Americans’ very real economic anxieties. If they are sticking with Trump, it is not because he solves—or even bothers to address—their pocketbook issues.
The Possibility That Some Voters Are Beyond Reach
The generous and sympathetic attitude of the people I spoke with toward Leave/Trump voters is especially understandable because it feels so uncomfortable to face the implications of rejecting the story that “they were just scared.”
What are those implications? Either we have to say that the voters who passed Brexit and elected Trump have to be courted on their own ugly terms, or we must say that their wishes should be ignored going forward. The former is unconscionable, while the latter feels like an abandonment of small-d democratic ideals.
Think of people whose views line up with, say, hardline bigots like Steve Bannon or Steven Miller (Trump’s former and current anti-immigration whisperers, respectively). Will “taking their fears seriously” lead them to see that bigotry is wrong? Hardly. If at least some fraction of Trump voters—and again, I have reluctantly but inescapably concluded that the fraction is quite large—sincerely (but horribly) harbor those attitudes, then there is nothing that Democrats can do to change their minds.
I continue to be fully on board with people who say that we should always reach out to any reachable voters, but it is time to stop being Pollyannaish. As I suggested above, in our efforts not to be condescending to Leave/Trump voters, many self-doubting liberals (especially those who fear that we really are living in “elite bubbles”) are in fact guilty of even greater condescension: “Those voters must not believe what the evidence says that they believe, because I refuse to believe that they can think that way.”
But what if they can, and do? At some point, respecting democracy means accepting the simple fact that some voters will be unhappy with the outcomes of elections. Polling suggests that something like 60 percent of likely voters have decided that they cannot imagine voting for Donald Trump. Some percentage in the low thirties will vote for him no matter what. That latter group will, one hopes, be very disappointed in November 2020.
Interestingly, my conversation partners told me that even if there were a second Brexit vote this month, the outcome would again be something like 51-49, although no one knows which way it would go.
American liberals and their British counterparts are admirably uncomfortable with the idea of imposing their will on others, because we like to think that self-determination is part of what makes democracy worth protecting. That means that we feel uncomfortable saying, “Hey Trump voters, you’re just going to have to live with a government that you don’t like.”
Similarly, asking British voters, “Now that we know more about the realities of Brexit, are you sure we should really do this?” might feel somehow unfair, because the people who voted to Leave might not in the end get their way.
But as Republicans are fond of saying, elections have consequences. Accepting that some voters are resistant to evidence and logic (for whatever reasons) is simply a necessary part of embracing democracy. Only self-flagellating liberals could convince themselves that it is somehow not “respectful” to believe what Leave/Trump voters have revealed about themselves. Continuing to cling to the fantasy that voters cannot vote for harmful outcomes for malign reasons only empowers the cynics who exploit such romanticism.