The rude power of the vote: Brexit

morning-after-brexit

A popular vote to decide the UK’s place in the world: In retrospect, David Cameron’s idea of putting the question to the people appears more and more extraordinary.  This is not how countries (at least representative democracies) are normally led.  Normally, populations delegate power to political leaders, trusting in their competence and relying on their superior agency and expertise.

The US has never held a national referendum.  Here, referenda are technical measures.  They are used at the state and local level, to amend constitutions or see if a policy innovation is agreeable to the people.  Our national votes are reserved solely for filling the presidency.  The Brexit vote represents a high-water mark of democracy that one hopes the US will never reach.

Presidential elections are often described as referenda, but this is usually hyperbole.  The motives that determine the citizens’ choice between two candidates can seldom be reduced to a vote for or against a single policy.  One exception is the election of 1860, when the ensuing breakdown of the Union justifies our concluding that voters saw Abraham Lincoln’s victory as determining the future of slavery.  They were so sure his election spelled the end of it that they didn’t even wait for him to take power: secession conventions formed and slave-holding states began to leave.  Then, as with Brexit, the losers doubted the outcome’s legitimacy.  A minority with a lot to lose discovered a majority it couldn’t bear.

Inspiration in a deep-dish pizza

Writing in Slate, Osita Nwanevu argues convincingly that Cameron came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating a Chicago deep-dish pizza at O’Hare.  He was heading back to London from the 2012 NATO summit, which Chicago hosted that year.  While waiting for his flight, he and British foreign secretary William Hague reportedly went into a classic Chicago eatery and came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating local food and rubbing elbows with a bunch of ‘nobodies.’

The summit itself crystallized globalism’s discontents.  Its massing of elite power drew thousands of ‘pro-democracy’ protesters to Chicago, along with a few would-be terrorist bombers.  While the leaders of the western world met to chart the future of democracy, massive crowds clogged the streets, charging NATO leaders with betrayal and insisting that their governance ignored the people’s urgent needs.  Did Cameron metaphorically ingest some of the democratic forces assailing him from all sides?  Certainly, his belief that the UK’s internal divisions could be reconciled through a popular vote represented a conversion to democratic faith.  He expected, however, that the people would ultimately strengthen the leading class’s hand.

The transcendent power of a multi-national economy

In the 1990s, I attended a forward-looking talk given by the late Harold Perkin, a historian who studied long-term class developments in England society.  His subject was the powerlessness of nation-states relative to multinational corporations.  Already, he argued, capital flows and the far-flung operations of such businesses were eroding and transcending the bonds that had previously constrained and united inhabitants of geographically defined countries.  Whereas previously the upper, middle, and lower classes in a country like Britain had been bound together legally and economically, those interdependent ties were weakening.  Increasingly, the economic elite were creating a world with rules that they, as capitalists and corporate titans, were entitled to define.  Since then, the trend that Perkins so presciently defined has grown more pronounced.  Now the professional classes are used to this world, and they don’t think the lower classes should be allowed to curb it, certainly not with the rude club that the right to vote furnishes.

The problem afflicts the US as much as the UK.  In the States, growing economic inequality has gone hand-in-hand with geographic and social changes whose tendency is to limit ordinary connections between Americans of different classes.  Increasingly, well-educated and well-off Americans raise their children within ‘bubble-worlds’ populated with others of their type.  This is very different from the earlier hierarchical class structure of American communities, where the right of an elite to exercise leadership was still connected to their position within a locality.  This vanishing social structure promoted empathy and upward mobility, while rooting elite influence in something like popular sanction.  Whether in religion, neighborhoods, or the economy, there are few traces of these old face-to-face relationships, which fed a spirit of interdependence and reciprocal obligation.

Meanwhile political leaders cede their power to ‘the people.’

Paradoxically, American politics has at the same time become increasingly democratized, with leaders instigating changes designed to give ‘the people’ more sway.   It’s a trend that’s been underway for at least a century, since the Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of US Senators, giving citizens a power previously seated in state legislatures.   Candidates for national office make their appeals directly to the people, for, with enough popular support, they can thumb their noses at the other pols whose help they once needed.  Likewise, the nominating conventions, where delegates were empowered to attain consensus authentically, are increasingly lifeless affairs, determined solely by rules and by votes the people cast in the primaries.

As the people’s rage rattles the laissez-faire globalism that an elite indifferent to their sufferings universally favors, the elite may well begin to ask, Too much democracy?

Political Affections

Robert Cruikshank watercolor of crowds attending Andrew Jackson's inaugural reception in 1829 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary.  Why do we care?  Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?

In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation.  With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately.  I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity.  Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.

Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated.  We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines.  It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country?  That’s alien.

Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem.  Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.

Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country.  Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person.  To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a hat adorned with flowers

Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy.  Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty.  All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation.  It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.

In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.

Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign.  On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties.  At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.

When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty.  What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony?  What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?

Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency.  The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.”  Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind.  In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.

Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily.  In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.

As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.

Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.

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