It is a basic principle of economics that human beings choose things that benefit them. But last week, as the results of Britain’s referendum on membership in the European Union came in, it quickly became clear that this principle was being overturned. Not only had Britain as a whole voted for a course of action that would almost certainly make it collectively worse off, but individual regions had also voted against their apparent interests.
Regions such as Wales and Cornwall, relatively cut off from the prosperity of London and the Southeast, had voted strongly to leave, even though they receive more money from E.U. development funds than any other parts of Britain. Wales, for example, was due to receive nearly $3.2 billion between 2014 and 2020. Equally odd was the finding — spotted by researchers prior to the referendum — that regions that are most dependent on trade with the E.U. are also those that are most keen to leave.
From an economist’s perspective, this level of self-harm is sheer madness. But since the vote, certain cultural and psychological factors have come into view. Apart from the role of age in influencing voting behavior — with older voters more likely to choose Leave and younger voters to choose Remain — a darker shadow has fallen over the result due to fresh polling evidence. Put bluntly, many Leave voters suffer from a desperate lack of hope.
It may be that exact lack of hope and a desire to harm the system that brought it about that caused them to vote for the referendum. Strange as it may sound, every time pro-Europeans argued that leaving Europe would be economically disastrous, this could have increased the appeal of Brexit on an unconscious level for many people. And the same thing could be at play with voters backing Donald Trump in the U.S. election.
Surveys by Michael Ashcroft of voters as they left polling places asked a series of questions about their values and sense of identity. Some of it was unsurprising (79 percent of those who describe themselves as “English not British” voted to leave). But two questions split the Leavers from the Remainers more starkly than any others.
Those supporting membership in the E.U. mostly agreed that “life in Britain is better than it was 30 years ago” and that life for children growing up in Britain today “will be better than it was for their parents.” Those rejecting Europe tended to state the opposite. The country was split down the middle by whether or not they still believed in progress.
More anecdotally, journalists have discovered that some Leave voters did not even believe that exiting the E.U. would change anything, anyway. Some simply assumed that Britain would stay in regardless: Either the Remain side would win, or the referendum result would be ignored (still a possibility) or some conspiracy would prevent its exit. In fact, on the day of the vote, a hashtag #UsePens spread across Twitter, urging people not to vote in pencil in case their ballot paper was doctored. Studies of conspiracy theories in Britain show that a majority of people don’t believe that democracy has any influence on who holds power, and that the E.U. is trying to take over all British law-making powers.
Other studies have found another distinctive characteristic among Leave voters. They share a belief in harsh and even humiliating punishment for criminals, including support for the death penalty (outlawed in Britain in 1969) and public whipping of sex offenders.
Taking all of this together, a typical Leave voter has authoritarian beliefs, yet no faith in the political system to implement authoritarian policies or to improve society some other way. Under these circumstances, individuals display what sociologists call “negative solidarity,” a feeling that if they’re to suffer, then everyone should, too. Psychologically, it is perhaps easier to experience feelings of despair and powerlessness if they are collective conditions, rather than private ones.
The apparent paradox of self-harming voting behavior has been a feature of American politics for some years, well before it showed up in Britain and shocked the establishment last week. Ever since the rise of “Reagan Democrats” (working-class white voters converting to the Republican Party in the 1980s), the GOP has strategically harnessed anger and alienation to win votes from people for whom its economic policies have little to offer. This phenomenon has survived for a number of decades, most notably explored by Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter With Kansas.”
Even against this longer-standing backdrop, however, the rise of Trump seemed to defy all rational logic. It is one thing for working class white voters to vote for “free markets,” “enterprise” and “small government” – things which may at least be appealing and plausible, even if they never quite deliver the benefits promised. It is quite another to vote for things which are either utterly implausible (a wall across the Mexican desert), catastrophically dangerous (fighting the Islamic State with nuclear weapons, and possibly in Europe) or some combination of the two.
Could it be that, as with the British movement to leave the E.U., Trump is channeling a more primal form of despair? Could the implausibility and danger associated with Trump be part of what makes him appealing, at least for people who no longer care about making realistic plans for a future they already see as beyond rescue? There is good reason to suspect this is the case.
Last September, a landmark research paper in health economics was published, which resulted in a new coinage: the Case-Deaton effect. The authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, found a startling rise in the morbidity and mortality rates of middle-aged white non-Hispanic Americans in the early 21st century.
They linked this to rising alcohol and narcotic abuse and suicides, with the highest rates among those with the least education. A rising number of Americans living with chronic pain also means rising use of opiates, frequently leading to addiction and risk of overdose. Building on this, subsequent analysis by The Washington Post found that states where middle-aged mortality rates among whites were the highest were also those with the highest levels of support for Trump.
Like Leave voters, Trump supporters also tend to display authoritarian attitudes. They particularly value obedience and retribution, and have given up trusting politicians to enforce them. Support for Trump is less a statement of policy preferences, and more an expression of some dream of vengeance toward all and sundry.
These trends threaten some basic tenets of modern representative democracy. Even if politicians are viewed as “liars” who fail to “deliver their promises,” even if “no matter who wins, the same people are in power,” democracy can still just about survive as a public discussion about how we should collectively live.
Even in an age of cynicism, the discourse of politics has remained focused on policies to some extent, even if this has become increasingly sidelined by the cultural tactics of name-checking sports teams and being seen hanging out with one’s family. It was often said in 2000 that George W. Bush held an advantage over Al Gore because people could imagine having a beer with the former (even if he didn’t drink anymore), but not the latter. Presenting candidates in terms of their lifestyles, spouses and leisure pursuits is a good way of diverting attention from their policies. Still, for the most part, voting remains a vague expression of hope for how society ought to be.
Yet when a sizeable group of voters has given up on the future altogether, and simply want a feeling of retribution right now, how does a reasonable politician present themselves? Britain’s Remain campaign assumed that with enough predictions of economic Armageddon, from a wide enough range of experts and authorities, the public would eventually swing into line behind the status quo. In the end, the result was not a reflection on which side had the most plausible plan, but which offered the most alluring fantasy.
All of this represents an almost impossible challenge for campaign managers, pollsters and political scientists. The need for candidates to seem “natural” and “normal” is as old as television. Now it seems that they also need to give voice to the private despair of voters for whom collective progress appears a thing of the past. Where no politician is deemed “trustworthy,” many voters are drawn toward the politician who makes no credible pledges in the first place. Of course government policy can continue to help people, and even to restore some sense of collective progress. But for large swaths of British and American society, it seems best not to state as much.