Of course this was a momentous and consequential decision on the part of the British. The striking thing to me regarding the commentary is the absolute certitude of people on both sides of the debate, particularly on the losing side, the Remainders. Sure, there's sour grapes. They lost. And sure, this result, in the long sequence of political upsets and surprises (American elections in 2010, 2012, rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, rise of the far right in much of Europe, etc.), seems to be an endorsement of the theory that the masses are rising against the elites.
But the absolute certainty. In headlines and tweets, in hallway conversations and press conference declarations, there is the predicate assumption that anybody has clear knowledge of what this means and why it occurred. We can guess, we peer into the glass darkly. But with certainty? No one knows what is going on and what will happen and what the likely consequences will be. Could this be devastating to the position of Britain in world affairs and to their economy? Certainly. Could this be the jolt needed to revitalize the economic, political, and cultural vitality of Britain? Certainly. No one knows. We all have reasons for believing it might tilt one way or another, but no one knows. But no one seems to be speaking as if they have any self-awareness of the weakness of the epistemological foundations for their shouted convictions.
I think a rejection of the political class and their crony capitalists (as well as academia and entertainment) by the electorate is one part of the equation. But there is something deeper going on perhaps. Not just a temporal issue that will pass. For fifty years we have had increasingly centralized decision-making, in Washington and in Brussels. But that's a structural issue. I suspect the issue of greater importance is diminution of the assurance that all decisions have been made in a fashion that elicits the consent of the governed.
For Americans, that is central. It's right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.The right of the people to alter or abolish the status quo seems to me to be a pretty accurate and explicit description of what the British did (voting 52:48 to leave) and certainly the English did (70:30 if you remove the votes of Scotland and Ireland). The conversation in Europe has for the better part of three decades had some elementary concern about a "democracy deficit" when it came to the EU. But no one in the ruling elite ever did anything about it. The cosmopolitan elite in Brussels continued issuing increasingly infantile regulations in a one size fits all fashion with little solicitation or even regard for the opinion of those consenting to be governed. The democracy deficit seems to have finally manifested and the panic among the elite is that the opinions of the electorate in Britain were, based on continental surveys, less extreme than among other European nations. The loss of Britain is a misfortune for the EU but the loss of France, Netherlands and Italy would be careless, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. If all the countries who fund the EU want to leave, then the EU rump simply becomes an unsustainable deficit generator.
Regardless of which form of government is best at generating the consent of the governed, the post-Brexit commentary is focused largely on the idiocy of the voters, leaving the grotesque smell of condescension. The privileged elite, beneficiaries of crony capitalism, rent seeking, and regulatory capture, are fed up with the public and their idiotic opinions. If only they had an electorate worthy of them.
But the question remains - how do we ensure that whatever legislative actions are taken, that they are done with the consent of the governed. The crony capitalist governing elites have been ignoring the electorate for a long time but electorates everywhere seem to be taking action to ensure that their consent is obtained. No matter how much the governing elites (and media and academia) dislike it.
This video Human Dignity and the Freedom to Choose by James R. Otteson seems especially pertinent here. The right of everyone to agency and the willingness and courage to extend respect for that agency even when we disagree with a decision they might make, which we might even think is harmful to them. That respect on the part of the chattering classes is not much in evidence at the moment.
* Dick Tuck concession speech following his loss in the 1966 California State Senate election.