DEMOCRACY: The Reaction to Brexit Is The Reason Brexit Happened – by Matt Taibbi

The Reaction to Brexit Is The Reason Brexit Happened

If you believe there’s such a thing as “too much democracy,” you probably don’t believe in democracy at all

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi

– by Matt Taibbi – Rolling Stone

In 1934, at the dawn of the Stalinist Terror, the Great Russian writer Isaac Babel offered a daring quip at the International Writers Conference in Moscow:

“Everything is given to us by the party and the government. Only one right is taken away: the right to write badly.”

A onetime Soviet loyalist who was eventually shot as an enemy of the state, Babel was likely trying to say something profound: that the freedom to make mistakes is itself an essential component of freedom.   

As a rule, people resent being saved from themselves. And if you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense, you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all.

This is all relevant in the wake of the Brexit referendum, in which British citizens narrowly voted to exit the European Union.

Because the vote was viewed as having been driven by the same racist passions that are fuelling the campaign of Donald Trump, a wide swath of commentators suggested that democracy erred, and the vote should perhaps be cancelled, for the Britons’ own good.

Social media was filled with such calls. “Is it just me, or does #Brexit seem like a moment when the government should overrule a popular referendum?”wrote one typical commenter.

On op-ed pages, there was a lot of the same. Harvard economics professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff wrote a piece for the Boston Globe called “Britain’s democratic failure” in which he argued:

“This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.”

Rogoff then went on to do something that’s become popular in pundit circles these days: He pointed to the lessons of antiquity. Going back thousands of years, he said, Very Smart People have warned us about the dangers of allowing the rabble to make decisions.

“Since ancient times,” he wrote, “philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”

Presumably playing the role of one of the “informed parties” in this exercise, Rogoff went on:

“By some accounts… Athens had implemented the purest historical example of democracy,” he wrote. “Ultimately, though, after some catastrophic war decisions, Athenians saw a need to give more power to independent bodies.”

This is exactly the argument that British blogging supernova Andrew Sullivan unleashed a few months ago in his 8,000-word diatribe against Donald Trump, “Democracies end when they are too democratic.”

Like Rogoff, Sullivan argued that over-democratic societies drift into passionate excesses, and need that vanguard of Very Smart People to make sure they don’t get themselves into trouble.

“Elites matter in a democracy,” Sullivan argued, because they are the “critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.”

I would argue that voters are the critical ingredient to save elites from themselves, but Sullivan sees it the other way around, and has Plato on his side. Though some of his analysis seems based on a misread of ancient history, he’s right about Plato, the source of a lot of these “the ancients warned us about democracy” memes. He just left out the part where Plato, at least when it came to politics, was kind of a jerk.

The great philosopher despised democracy, believing it to be a system that blurred necessary social distinctions, prompting children, slaves and even animals to forget their places. He believed it a system that leads to over-permissiveness, wherein the people “drink too deeply of the strong wine of freedom.”

Too much license, Plato wrote (and Sullivan echoed), leads to a spoiled populace that will turn to a strongman for revenge if anyone gets in the way of the party. These “men of naught” will inevitably denounce as oligarchs any wise group of rulers who try to set basic/sensible rules for society.

You have to be a snob of the first order, completely high on your own gas, to try to apply these arguments to present-day politics, imagining yourself as an analog to Plato’s philosopher-kings.

And you have to have a cast-iron head to not grasp that saying stuff like this out loud is part of what inspires populations to movements like BREXIT or the Donald Trump campaign in the first place.

Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain. But it’s not hard to understand being pissed off at being subject to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Nor is it hard to imagine the post-Brexit backlash confirming every suspicion you might have about the people who run the EU.

Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted ‘Leave’? Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you “children,” and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court thatclaims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights?

The overall message in every case is the same: LET US HANDLE THINGS.

But whatever, let’s assume that the Brexit voters, like Trump voters, are wrong, ignorant, dangerous and unjustified.

Even stipulating to that, the reaction to both Brexit and Trump reveals a problem potentially more serious than either Brexit or the Trump campaign. It’s become perilously fashionable all over the Western world to reach for non-democratic solutions whenever society drifts in a direction people don’t like. Here in the United States of America the problem is snowballing on both the right and the left.

Whether it’s Andrew Sullivan calling for Republican insiders to rig the nomination process to derail Trump’s candidacy, or Democratic Party lifers like Peter Orszag arguing that Republican intransigence in Congress means we should turn more power over to “depoliticized commissions,” the instinct to act by diktatsurfaces quite a lot these days.

“Too much democracy” used to be an argument we reserved for foreign peoples who tried to do things like vote to demand control over their own oil supplies.

I first heard the term in Russia in the mid-Nineties. As a young reporter based in Moscow in the years after communism fell, I spent years listening to American advisors and their cronies in the Kremlin gush over the new democratic experiment.

Then, in 1995, polls came out showing communist Gennady Zyguanov leading in the upcoming presidential race against Boris Yeltsin. In an instant, all of those onetime democratic evangelists began saying Russia was “not ready” for democracy.

Now it’s not just carpet-bagging visitors to the Third World pushing this line of thought. Just as frequently, the argument is aimed at “low-information” – uninformed, intentionally misinformed and naive – voters at home.

Maybe the slide started with 9/11, after which huge pluralities of people were suddenly OK with summary executions, torture, warrantless surveillance and the blithe disposal of concepts like habeas corpus.

A decade and a half later, we’re gripped by a broader mania for banning and censoring things that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

It seems equally to have taken over campus speech controversies (expanding the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment is suddenly a popular idea) and the immigration debate (where Trump swept to the nomination riding a bluntly unconstitutional call for a religious test for immigrants).

Democracy appears to have become so denuded and corrupted in America that a generation of people has grown up without any faith in its principles.

What’s particularly disconcerting about the reaction both to Brexit and to the rise of Trump is the way these episodes are framed as requiring exceptions to the usual democratic rule. They’re called threats so monstrous that we must abrogate the democratic process to combat them.

Forget Plato, Athens, Sparta and Rome. More recent history tells us that the descent into despotism always starts exactly this way. There is always an emergency that requires a temporary suspension of democracy.

After 9/11 we had the “ticking time bomb” metaphor to justify torture. NYU professor and self-described “prolific thought leader” Ian Bremmer just calledBrexit the “most significant political risk the world has experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” likening it to a literal end-of-humanity scenario. Sullivan justified his call for undemocratic electoral manoeuvres on the grounds that the election of Trump would be an “extinction-level event.”

I don’t buy it. My admittedly primitive understanding of democracy is that we’re supposed to move toward it, not away from it, in a moment of crisis.

It doesn’t mean much to be against torture until the moment when you’re most tempted to resort to it, or to have faith in voting until the result of a particular vote really bothers you. If you think there’s ever such a thing as “too much democracy,” you probably never believed in it in the first place. And even low-Information – uninformed and intentionally misinformed – voters can sense it.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On July 27, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    DEMOCRACY at Work …. in Philadelphia – USA

    Bernie Sanders just stood up and asked that all votes be awarded to Hillary. A truly classy and touching move.

    And five thousand throats just called for a second. The ayes have it!

    Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016 · 4:17:42 PM PDT · Mark Sumner – Daily Kos

    A week ago, we were watching the Republican National Convention roll call where the committee contrived to shove extra votes into Trump’s heap by manipulating previously unused rules.

    State after state was shocked to find that the votes they reported bore no relationship to what was announced from the podium. That process ended in protest and confusion.

    What a perfect contrast to tonight at the Democratic National Convention where every delegate had a chance to have their vote reported and recorded, and then Bernie topped it off with a wonderful gesture of unity.

    Democrats have the first woman nominee ever of a major political party. And the ceremony that brought that result was a celebration of both the diversity of Democratic voters and the unity of Democratic purpose. What a great moment.

    For a recap from the article:

    British blogging supernova Andrew Sullivan warned us about Donald Trump and added that “Democracies end when they are too democratic.”

    The BREXIT vote is viewed as having been driven by the same racist passions that are fuelling the campaign of Donald Trump in the USA.

    The Great Russian writer, Isaac Babel, wrote that the freedom to make mistakes is itself an essential component of freedom.

    As a rule, people resent being saved from themselves. And if you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense, you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all.

    It doesn’t mean much to be against torture until the moment when you’re most tempted to resort to it, or to have faith in voting until the result of a particular vote really bothers you.

    If you think there’s ever such a thing as “too much democracy,” you probably never believed in it in the first place. And even low-Information – uninformed and intentionally misinformed – voters can sense it.

  • Clyde Duncan  On July 27, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Lest We Forget – Let us Recapitulate What Transpired About a Week Ago:

    RNC 2016: Brexit showed Trump could win the White House, the Convention suggested he doesn’t know how

    Republicans and Remainers agree on one thing: the Leave vote looked good for Donald Trump – but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be President

    by Tim Walker – Cleveland – Independent UK

    As the Republican convention lurched between controversy and chaos here in Cleveland this week, it was accompanied by a running commentary from across the Atlantic.

    Watching in London, a friend wrote on Facebook that she was “now 100 per cent certain” Donald Trump would win the presidency in November. Another texted to say he’d been sick with the same worry, blaming his queasiness on “feeling burned by Brexit”.

    Elsewhere in this publication, Matthew Norman suggested Trump “could give his convention keynote address clad in nothing but an anaconda hanging out of his anus” and still stroll into the White House. (He wore a suit and tie.) Last month’s EU referendum, Norman wrote, “felt like a transatlantic omen.”

    Plainly, in the elite metropolitan enclaves of post-Brexit Britain, people have lost faith in the reliability of polls, the value of facts, the laws of physics. They see, in the primary successes of the Trump campaign, the same spasms of provincial anger that heralded the UK’s nervous collapse. Perhaps, from several thousand miles away, the pouting property mogul’s sheer force of personality looks sufficient to blow him clear past Hillary Clinton.

    A lot of Republicans agree. Before he was booed on Wednesday, Ted Cruz was cheered, for hailing Brexit as a sign of voters “overwhelmingly rejecting the political establishment.” Nigel Farage visited Cleveland on what seemed like a motivational speaking tour – Seven Steps to Nativist Success – hoping to satisfy what he said was a “genuine hunger” from his GOP fanboys to learn the lessons of the LEAVE campaign.

    John Burnett, a New York delegate and dedicated Trumpist, agreed that The Donald and The Nigel share a political gene pool. “They’re connected in spirit,” he said. “People everywhere are tired of government and want more control over their own destiny. [Brexiteers] had a strong sense of pride in their country.

    There’s only one candidate in the presidential race who has that same pride, and who hasn’t placed their country at risk – that’s Donald Trump.”

    Leaver and erstwhile Number 10 adviser Steve Hilton, also in town to see the Trump show, said both movements were signs of “a growing dissatisfaction with the technocratic agenda of an insular ruling elite, which is at best neglectful, and at worst dismissive, of its effect on ordinary people. In the USA and the UK, those people started to think it didn’t matter how they voted, because nothing seemed to change.”

    There are also echoes of Brexit in Trump’s non-traditional campaign methods, Hilton added. “The Remain campaign was a slick, co-ordinated, classic campaign fighting against something much more idiosyncratic. It’s a challenge to the sort of professional politics we’ve seen in both countries since the early 1990s.”

    Brexit helps to explain Trump’s rise, but it doesn’t mean that he’s going to win.

    What Leavers voted for was an abstract, choose-your-own-adventure vision of a future outside the EU.

    Prospective Trumpists must attach their fears and frustrations to one man. Their vision is non-negotiable – it’s Donald Trump with the nuclear codes.

    A convention is an expression of a candidate, and this convention further exposed Trump as a fact-allergic, attention-deficient reality TV star with the intellectual curiosity of a Twitter bot.

    The plagiarism. The Cruz boos. The shambolic schedule. The obvious reluctance of many professional Republicans to even utter their nominee’s name on the convention stage. These aren’t harbingers of victory; they’re symptoms of a fiasco.

    It’s right to be fearful. A Trump presidency threatens not just the USA, but Europe and the wider world. If he loses, he has already uncorked dark forces that make him worthy of qualified comparison to despots. Even Farage, the man who unveiled the “Breaking Point” billboard, said Trump’s campaign style made him wince.

    But to be a winning presidential candidate, let alone a successful dictator, you really ought to be good at organising things. The Nuremberg vibes of Trump’s interminable Thursday night speech notwithstanding, the RNC felt less like North Korean mass games, and more like a charity celebrity football match. Although that’s not entirely reassuring when you’re in a 20,000-seat arena full of white people screeching “Build The Wall!”

    Whipping up racial resentments over immigration may have worked for Ukip in Britain, where the electorate is more than 90 per cent white.

    In the USA, almost a third of voters are people of colour. There aren’t enough angry white blokes to elect Trump on their own, particularly given the outsized animosity he inspires in almost every other demographic.

    A recent poll put his support among black voters right here in Ohio, a crucial swing state, at ZERO PER CENT.

    “The Leave side benefited from the fact that every vote in the referendum had equal value,” said Hilton. “In a USA election, you have to win states, not votes.”

    Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, while Republican candidates start the race with a slight structural disadvantage in the Electoral College. It’s a structure that Trump has so far made little effort to understand, least of all to re-engineer.

    Of course, none of that means the Democrats can write him off. And after watching Brexit beat the odds, neither can those quaking Remainers.

  • Clyde Duncan  On July 27, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Hillary Clinton Is Imperfect. That’s OK. We’re Nominating a President, Not a Messiah

    It’s a messy, loud, contentious Democratic convention, where Bernie Sanders supporters’ sad and infuriating intensity is evident. But I feel a real unity between the two campaigns is emerging.

    Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum – Haaretz

    I am so moved to be at the Democratic National Convention in this most critical and terrifying of election years.

    I am on the Credentials Committee, which met on Sunday – the day before the convention opened. We debated various issues related to accepting the credentials of those proposed to be delegates from the Hillary and Bernie campaigns. And then a delegate from the Bernie campaign stood and said: In the spirit of unity we move to accept all the recommendations; we move to unify and work to elect Hillary Rodham Clinton as our next President. The room erupted in thunderous applause and a standing ovation. And then another delegate stood up and said she objected to our referring to HRC as the nominee; she was only the presumptive nominee.

    And that was a harbinger of what was to come. The intensity of those who are here as delegates for Bernie is well documented. In the hall, I find it sad and sometimes infuriating.

    When an African-American woman pastor opened the proceedings with a prayer that mentioned Hillary by name, the Bernie delegates shouted her down with chants and boos. It continued through the night in a similar way. Bernie delegates took signs that read: “Stronger together” and changed the lettering so it read “Stop Her”.

    They chanted, “Lock her up” at demonstrations and wore T-shirts that said, “Hillary for Jail”.

    By the end of the evening, there was a deep sense of possibilities of real unity between these two campaigns, backed by the publication of recent poll showing that 90% of Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for Hillary Clinton.

    And I am so moved to be here. When political debates throughout the world are resolved with violence and executions, I am so moved that this messy, loud, contentious convention will nominate a superb woman to be the next President of the United States of America tonight.

    The process is not perfect and she is not perfect, but as a rabbi, as a Jew, I believe in the spirituality and politics of imperfection. We are nominating a president, not a messiah.

    Hillary’s language at AIPAC supporting a two-state solution and the rights and dignity for Palestinians has been lost in the charges that she has not expressed deep concern for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice.

    This is what she actually said: “Israelis deserve a secure homeland for the Jewish people. Palestinians should be able to govern themselves in their own state in peace and dignity and only a negotiated two-state agreement can provide those outcomes.”

    I believe she is the best candidate to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace and justice for all.

    Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City since 1992, has led CBST to become a powerful voice for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. Rabbi Kleinbaum has worked for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians for over 30 years. Follow her on Twitter: @SKleinbaum

    Again:
    When political debates throughout the world are resolved with violence and executions, I am so moved that this messy, loud, contentious convention will nominate a superb woman to be the next President of the United States of America tonight.

    This is About DEMOCRACY

  • Gigi  On July 28, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    My very own personal two cents on Matt’s article. It is refreshing to see Matt writing against the democrat apparatchik flagrant denunciations of the democratic process. Does this mean there is a party name change in the works for the (un)democratic party? Or is democracy now officially understood to be co-opted into the language of American newspeak/doublespeak?

    The similarities between the Brexit voters and Trump voters are that both groups are representative of the greater taxpaying base who know they are being shafted and squeezed to support both the rich and poor freeloaders who feed off the taxpaying base. When the taxpayers complain, the rich unleash their paid shills to attack. Accusing them of hating on poor people as a effective means of shutting them down. This is also used to pit the poor against the very taxpayers they are dependent on for their existence. So you have both these parasitic classes ganging up on and attacking their prey. The rich also pays these very same poor to protest at events and create chaos and distraction, including both the Sanders and Trump campaign events. They also fund start-up movements, like the Soros backed BLM campaign.

    Both the Brexit supporters and Trump supporters are labeled as low income/low information voters, but the age group of the voters disprove this statement. Both groups are made up of the older generation are they are the ones with greater income than younger generation. The older generation was also exposed to a better quality of education – before education was dumb down to produce “low-information” citizens – and have a better grasp of political and social issues. This is glaringly evident even to the curious observer. But “low-information” voters are too lazy to be bothered. They lack the desire to get past their kindergarten years of cutting and pasting. It is much easier than having to think for yourself. Right Clive Duncan?

    Democrats claim that republican voters are dumb. Democrats also claim that they, democrats, are the party of the poor. Since dumb and poor go hand-in-hand, then it stands to reason that democrat voters are the dumb ones since their supporters are mostly the poor. These are the oxymoronic statements that brainwashed SJW incubated in the party hatchery regurgitate and spew without thinking. On the one hand, they want their “safe spaces” when it suits them and on the other hand, they are the very ones who are quick to get in your face screaming and spewing hate speech at the top of their voices. This is also what Trump supporters are fed-up with. This one sided democracy that only benefits the other side. And definitely not the “low-information” voters brainwashed into spewing it. Buy, of course, they are too dumb to figure out that they are also being screwed.

    “Were I British, I’d probably have voted to Remain.” Well, Matt, I see you still feel you have to hedge your position even though you’re not British and despite the fact that it is over. This too points to another reason why people voted for Brexit. And why people of similar mindsets in America are supporting Trump.

  • Clyde Duncan  On July 29, 2016 at 12:19 am

    If you are following Nate Silver Forecasting:

    This should shake up the Hillary Supporters in our midst – in a bad way!!

    According to Nate Silver, if an election were held today – Trump is the Favourite

    Without adjusting the convention bounce, however, the election is a dead heat.

    Our polls-only forecast, which doesn’t account for the convention bounce, gives
    Clinton just a 53 percent chance of winning, and our now-cast — which is more
    aggressive than the polls-only forecast, and estimates what would happen in a
    hypothetical election held today — has Trump as a 55 percent FAVOURITE.

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