A Populist Reaction to Brexit

This is an open letter to Americans who may be seeing the beginning of the end for the European Union, and likely the United Kingdom, and do not know how to interpret it. This is an open letter to American voters who have an important choice to make this November on the direction of the country. This is an open letter to the candidates running in November, as well as to Congress, which has failed to accomplish anything substantive for America in nearly six years.

Like most Americans, I subscribe to our shared ideology of freedom, equality, and the positive influences of democratic expression. I recognize that not everyone enjoys the benefits of these tenets, and that as a country, there is much work to be done to address the economic, legal, and social inequalities suffered by many.

We believe that American democracy provides the blueprint to make those changes happen. We believe that within our populist system are mechanisms to bring about positive transformation, even if hard-fought. We believe in the importance of elevating the voices of the many and increasing popular influence over policy-making, both in terms of process and outcomes.

But faith in the ideal form of democracy is starting to crumble with the outcome of the Brexit referendum, which resulted in a narrow decision for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union despite clear indications of economic turmoil.

It made me ask what kind of damage could be done if such issues were left to the American public to decide.

It should make us pause and ask, with all the important policy decisions that need to be made, whether America as a collective could make rationally informed decisions in our interests. Or will we simply give in to fear, disinformation, and sensationalism for the sake of protest.

It made me question the long-term effectiveness of democracy altogether. Until I realized, we don’t live in a democracy.

America is a democratic republic

We don’t often have popular votes on major policy issues for the precise reason that the general public is ill-suited to make an informed, rational decision. It’s not because we’re entirely incapable. It’s because we often lack the nuanced understanding of the economic and social implications of the options. Or we are so susceptible to fear and identity politics that we make choices against our interests.

"Referendums should not determine the rights of other people, or the fate of a younger generation that will bear the consequences, or undermine that ability of America to engage productively with the rest of the world."

This is why we elect and hire people across government who spend all of their time thinking about these problems. Who can grasp the world of options outside their own circumstances. Who can enter a dialogue with opposing viewpoints and negotiate a compromise.

This is how the framers of the Constitution wanted it. They were educated, albeit wealthy, white men, who understood the history and potential of democracy. They saw that nothing stopped the masses in a true democracy from rising up and taking all the property of the wealthy. While obviously a callous hypothetical, it revealed an understanding of human nature, particularly in mobs. It acknowledges how such a system is susceptible to class warfare, especially when it could empower a single person to lead everyone, and replace democracy with a king again.

Just like our system has checks and balances between the branches of the government, and the bill of rights to set checks between the government and the people, the representational form of government set out in the Constitution was designed as a check on the people. The Senate, formerly selected by state legislatures, was a check on the popularly-elected House. The electoral college is a check on the people. Even political parties and the primary system are a check on the people, something coming into great light this presidential cycle.

It took the Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality and give all adults the right to marry whomever, because states had decided to restrict homosexuality through referendum.
It took a President to burn most of his political capital to pass the best healthcare reform he could, because if it had gone to referendum, it would have failed.
It took a different Supreme Court to end racial segregation, because if it had gone to referendum, the South would still be segregated.
If it were up to public referendum, we would be teaching a form of creationism instead of evolution in school.
If it were up to public referendum, we would be exploiting all of America’s fossil resources instead of dealing with the realities of climate change.
If it were up to public referendum, women would lose the right to make important medical decisions about their bodies.
If it were up to public referendum, we would ban large demographics of immigrants from entering the country.
If it were up to public referendum, we would suspend the rights of suspected terrorists even if they are American citizens.

These measures and countless others have come up in our past, and may come up again, and we have to live with the shame of those choices.

I Get It

I get that we don’t like the idea of a system designed to put checks on the will of the people. It feels like we lack control over our own democracy. It sounds counter-intuitive to the principles of democratic self-rule, freedom, and equality that we cherish in America.

I get that we fear terrorism.

I get that we fear for our jobs and the future of our children.

I get that there is inequality and poverty.

I get that there is corruption and injustice.

I get that gun violence is scary.

I get that globalization is scary.

And I get that Congress is incredibly incapable of solving any of these problems anytime soon, and that we’re willing to grab on to extreme solutions and leaders to solve them.

But we must remember that we are not a democracy, we are a democratic republic, and we are better that way.

It implies that we are in this together. It implies that we do not give in to an individualistic mentality. It implies that the majority should not oppress the minority. It implies that we trust a government to make important decisions for us, even if we don’t entirely understand or agree. And it implies that a single charismatic leader cannot be imbued with all the will of the people.

There are times when we need a referendum to decide between policy alternatives. But those occasions should not determine the rights of other people, or the fate of a younger generation that will bear the consequences, or undermine that ability of America to engage productively with the rest of the world.

We are not perfect; there is a lot of work to be done in American governance and the economy. It is still up to us to elect the right people to spend our collective resources solving these problems within the system we set up for them.

But we need not pull back from the world or ourselves. We need not take the reigns back into the hands of the populace. Rather, we need to assess the reasons why the system is failing and what we do to make it work better. We need to spend time understanding each other on both side of the issue, rather than retreating into our politically-homogeneous camps. We need ways to harness the collective will of the people, but in ways that do not so easily give in to fear or change the course of the country and the world.

Let Brexit be a lesson to America, not just for this November, or the next four or eight years. It is a lesson that the real consequences of economic collapse are much worse than the fear of immigration and globalization. It tells us that consequences of isolationism are worse than taking an active part in the global community. And it is a lesson that if you tear yourself away from the rest of world, you might just tear yourself apart from the inside.

I know what we’re capable of in America, and that simultaneously inspires me and scares the hell out of me.