A Second ‘Brexit’ Referendum Is a Suicide Wish for Liberal Democracy

by Alex Knepper

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union is disastrous, and one can’t help but wonder if, as they have done in the past, the British saw a gathering storm of ideological extremism, political and economic instability, and days of reckoning approaching their shores — and decided they’d like to opt out of the whole situation and retreat into their island-shell, thank-you-very-much. The UK also has an uncanny knack for mirroring the politics of the USA (or vice-versa), for better and for worse, and our president, the self-declared “Mr. Brexit,” certainly perceives that. But as disastrous as leaving will be for the UK, Europe, and the world, failing to leave would be a calamity, and possibly a death-blow to the legitimacy of the oligarchy-stained liberal democracy that currently reigns in Britain. If it is revealed to the majority of the electorate that it, in fact, does not have a choice; that voting and campaigning and all that is mere pageantry, with the only acceptable, implementable outcome being to rubber-stamp what the ruling class has already decided ought to happen, anyway — then people will freely turn to fascist and fascist-lite alternatives, both in the mainstream parties, and outside of them.

The rhetoric and arguments of those supporting a second Brexit referendum would be a whole lot more convincing if it weren’t so manifestly obvious that, had Remain won, they would be dismissing identical rhetoric coming from the mouths of Leave proponents as illegitimate, foolish, and dangerous. In fact, before the vote, most people figured Remain would win; Remain was excited to take this gambit because it was looking forward to having officially-declared majority-support for the European Union to wave in the faces of Leave for the next decade. The referendum was presented to the public as decisive: parliament was hopelessly divided, so the people should decide. Well, the people decided. Now it turns out that Remain’s true position all along was that there is no possible way for Leave to be legitimate; that Remain supported the referendum as a piece of pageantry only, and that the people do not, in fact, have a choice. Remain, in this view, is simply upset that the majority spoiled the illusion of choice. Nobody should have any doubt that, had the referendum gone the other way, Remain would not be referring to the technically-advisory role of referenda, but rather be elevating, even sanctifying the will of the people in defense of their ends.

Far be it from me to defend simple majority-rule, or the wisdom of referenda. I’ve spent my entire adult life arguing that unchecked democracy is dangerous; this whole episode is playing out like a giant I-told-you-so to my eyes. But I will certainly insist on everyone following the rules — both formal and informal — that they agreed to in advance. The Electoral College is not a majority-vote system, for instance; it’s also a foolish system in many ways. But it’s what our candidates abide by — everyone knows the rules in advance, and everyone follows the outcome. Moreover, the fact that re-votes can be legitimate at some point in the future — look at the Scottish independence question — doesn’t absolve us of our duty to implement the results of the original vote. If the UK wants to re-vote after the will of the majority on the initial referendum — which is: for the UK to leave the European Union — is implemented, that would not be illegitimate. But it can’t be legitimate to say that a frustrated minority can simply obstruct and kick the can down the road in the hopes of forcing a re-vote before the original will can be implemented. When Scottish independence proponents lost two rounds ago, they were made to wait another decade for a re-vote. Democracy can’t consist of just voting and re-voting until the oligarchs obtain the ‘correct’ result. If we are going to be liberal democrats, then we should make a good-faith attempt to do justice to the system — including recognizing that it will frequently produce undesirable, even noxious results, and that tolerating and implementing them is the price of having this system. If we want a system in which only the ‘correct’ result is acceptable and implementable, then we should do what much of the world is doing right now and abandon liberal democracy for some form of autocracy. Is that what people want, instead? It is usually the right-populists — supporters of the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump — who are accused of this, but it seems to be infecting our entire polity, as evidenced by the ruling class’s appetite for voting and re-voting until it gets the result it wants.

Remain likes to remind us that the high court has ruled that referenda are not legally binding. But when Remain lost, it was getting ready to enshrine the result as proof-positive of the illegitimacy of the Brexit cause. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that, had the result gone the other way, Remain proponents would be dismissing identical arguments coming from the mouths of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and others as dangerous and illegitimate and anti-democratic — and they would be right. Democracy cannot just consist in voting and re-voting until a defined group of people gets the result it wants. The winners of an election or referendum must have the opportunity to see their will implemented before we can talk again of voting on change. This is simply at the heart of liberal democracy.

Simply put: there is no substantive difference between what the radical Remainers advocate today and how Mitch McConnell operated toward Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland: Don’t like the result of an election? Just obstruct and kick the can down the road long enough to force a re-vote.

The ‘bargaining’ — in the psychological sense — going on among proponents of a second referendum — or, let’s be clear: simply ignoring the first referendum — reminds me of my interior dialogue on the day after Hillary Clinton lost: “Wait, that’s it? We just take one vote and it’s settled. Even though Hillary won millions more votes? Even though Trump only won in the decisive states by 70,000 votes, all by under 1%? Even though Trump blatantly lied throughout the entire campaign? Even with this foreign interference? Shit, I wanted Trump to get the nomination! I was so sure he would lose and we’d be able to shove this in the faces of Republicans for an entire generation. Curse the day I ever wished for this match! This is it? We’re just going to let this guy have the presidency? Even though we know that if everyone knew he might actually win, lots of people who supported Hillary over Trump wouldn’t have stayed home because they thought she didn’t need them? We’re stuck with this guy for four years? God, somebody help us. Somebody turn back time!”

It was rough. But in a liberal democracy, it’s all baked into the cake: people might tell lies, but we trust that the people will be able to do a good enough job of sorting out lies from truths. There might be foreign interference and injustice occurring throughout the process — but we still vote once and only once, and the winner is elevated to the presidency based on the outcome in the Electoral College. They’re the rules we agreed to in advance. And even though it felt like a knife being shoved into my gut, I knew that I would have to accept the results as legitimate, too — and in the days and weeks following the election, I exhorted fellow Clinton supporters to stop disputing the legitimacy of the results. “Reporters’ Russia Remorse Rings Hollow,” read a headline I wrote in late November 2016: “Nobody…can guarantee that the timing of events and fortune will always be simply fair to the nominees…[Clinton’s] frustration is palpable. But if the so-called mainstream…is feeling a bit of remorse, they should blame themselves twice for every time they blame [others].” And such is the case for Remain. Proponents got what they wanted — and when it blew up in their faces, they weren’t happy.

Brexit is tragic. And it is doubly tragic because it now has to occur — owing to the titanic hubris of liberals who were certain that a risky gambit would resolve in their favor. Britain no longer has any viable options before it that aren’t disastrous. At this point, it’s best to just get it over with.

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