It would be a mistake to say that xenophobia was Brexit's only cause.

The late Justice Louis Brandeis was famously suspicious of bigness. As his biographer Jeffrey Rosen recently observed, for Justice Brandeis a truly democratic government “was only possible on a human scale.” Big, impersonal government bureaucracies, said Brandeis, tend to serve themselves rather than the people who are their titular sovereign and can be just as dangerous as the antitrust monopolies Brandeis battled in the business world.

It would appear that a majority of the British electorate agrees with Mr. Brandeis. Britain’s decision to exit the European Union is in large measure a justifiable reaction to the inhuman scale of the European project in its contemporary incarnation and to the Leviathan-like bureaucracy that has grown up to support it. As the editors observe in this issue, Brussels’s “sprawling and opaque bureaucratic institutions” have inspired a fatal distrust in the project of “ever closer union.” Brexit is also one part of a larger trend in the West away from consolidation and toward a small-is-beautiful approach to governance.

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Some of those who voted for Brexit had other motivations. As the editors also note, xenophobia, fear and nationalist fantasies played a part as well. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Brexit was driven entirely by such wayward motives. One of the more disturbing trends in contemporary politics is the persistent belief that those who disagree with me about contestable public issues are not principled and reasonable human beings who have reached different conclusions but are, rather, stupid or hateful or both.

This patronizing tendency is particularly pronounced among Western governing elites, here in New York and elsewhere, who appear unable to acknowledge that there might be a reasonable argument for Brexit that is not derived only from nationalist or xenophobic paranoia. It is also worth remembering the genetic fallacy of informal logic: You have not necessarily proven or disproven a belief simply because you have accounted for how it came to be held. Paranoid people can be victims of real conspiracies.

But the Western elites (among whom I surely count myself) would do well to look more closely at the Brexit result for another reason. It reveals the radical shift that is taking place in our politics, one we ignore at our peril.

Increasingly, our political battles are being waged not by the traditional forces of left and right but by the elites or the establishment on the one hand, and those who feel disempowered and disenfranchised on the other. “That dislocation may not lead to a repeat of Europe in the 1930s,” The New York Times recently observed, “but it has fueled a debate about global political trends. There is a tendency at times to try to fit current movements into understandable constructs,” one we should resist if we are going to accurately measure and respond to this phenomenon.

As one Wall Street Journal columnist observed, never had “there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation.” In other words, the elites went one way and the masses went the other. Members of the political classes will need to keep this shift in mind if they are going to successfully navigate the currents of our contemporary politics. The first step is to make an honest attempt to understand the real grievances that lay behind Brexit and the emerging populist movements here at home.

As Justice Brandeis once observed, “the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

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William Rydberg
2 years ago
The secularists that run post-modern bureaucracies assume that only good things will happen. That God's Grace is anachronistic, so much so, that when they inaugurated the European Constitution (that defines all Bureaucratic Behaviors) they ungenerously refused to acknowledge Europe's Christian foundation (in spite of the Pope's numerous requests). The Gospel speaks of instances where there is an outward form of God, but no substance. These new founders need a course in the Catholic teaching on Concupscience. Judging by the, in my opinion, superficial article, sadly the once great Jesuit teachers are no more evident. Let's hope that this issue comes under serious discussion at this years General Congregation... in Christ,
Carlos Orozco
2 years ago
I could not understand how that Brexit vote was even close. The global establishment threw all that it could to scare the British people, through the monolithic corporate media. But the European Union had just to many ills to hide: 1. UE military and political expansion towards the East, making war with Russia a real possibility. 2. Disastrous consequences of its imperial intervention in Libya and political maneuvering in Syria. Consequently, getting flooded by both refugees and terrorists. 3. A bankster-controlled bureaucracy that does not care about the ordinary citizen. 4. Undemocratic institutions that impose their will on the nations of the European Union. 5. A negative secular culture that wants to uproot whatever is left of Christendom. 6. Promotion of abortion and the homosexual agenda on the world stage. 7. Suicidal political correctness that despises Christianity and, at the same time, cowards on critiquing the contemporary nihilism of a sizeable segment of the "religion of peace".
Richard Booth
2 years ago
I agree with the author that there could be a myriad of reasons and/or rationalizations which influenced the Brexit vote. I would say that, on a human scale, one of our most fundamental needs is two-fold: to be seen and to be heard. We need both of these in order to develop a mature identity and we owe, due to the social contract, the same to others we encounter. "Small is beautiful" is a perfect reference made by the author (and it's a wonderful book, too) in this context. Humans tend to create things and institutions much bigger than ourselves only to discover we have been suffocated by them. It is very difficult to navigate them and their representatives are often so entrenched that they struggle to see us as people, as one of them, trying to be seen and heard. Every action calls forth a reaction. Given this axiom, we should expect revolt, alienation, and activist reactions, both good and evil. We should not be surprised; we have created massive problems we have no idea how to solve.
michael baland
2 years ago
No doubt the EU bureaucracy was an issue but every survey that I saw indicates the major issue was immigration. Or I should say a fear of immigration.

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