Referenda are terrible mechanisms of democracy. As a case in point, the recent British referendum over the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU was a reckless gamble that took a very real issue—the need for more open and legitimate contestation in the EU—and turned it into a political grotesquerie of shamelessly opportunistic political elites. The raucous debate over the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the EU was riven with lies and misrepresentations, some of which are now being explicitly rolled back by Brexit advocates; even the British press rues its bombastic support for the Leave side. Unfortunately, many British voters appear not to have known exactly what the EU is, validating other recent research demonstrating a lack of factual knowledge about the union.
Observers of the referendum should therefore be wary about drawing conclusions about broader globalization efforts, the Western order, the inevitability of the rise of populist anti-immigration parties, or the viability of the EU project overall. The answer to the breathless question posed in the New York Times on Sunday—“Is the post-1945 order imposed on the world by the United States and its allies unraveling, too?”—is simple. No, it is not. And yet the emotions and cultural chasms brought to bear in the Brexit vote cannot and should not be ignored.
Brexit’s real lesson is that there is a consequential divide between cosmopolitans who view the future with hope and those who have been left behind and have seen their economic situations and ways of life deteriorate. The same story may well play out in the United States and elsewhere, with important electoral effects. But the Brexit story also speaks to the uniqueness of the EU as a new kind of polity with a profound impact on the lives of all within it. History has shown that the development of new political formulations rarely goes smoothly. The divisions between those who can imagine a better life in the new system and those drive politics in the EU and elsewhere for years to come.
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