After Brexit, a Plea for Pluralism

For all of its intricacies, the Brexit vote has fascinated Americans, perhaps because of what it could mean for our own political context. Comparisons between British and American voters abound in think pieces and on Twitter. Nearly all of the alleged similarities, however, ripple out of a single unspoken assumption: In both the US and UK, current political attitudes inevitably produce bitter divisions that undermine pluralism.

Pluralism, of course, is supposed to be one of democracy’s greatest boasts. First Amendment scholar John Inazu, who has written thoughtfully about “confident pluralism,” observes that “the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions while also making room for others to disagree.” Government “of the people, by the people, for the people” only works if those same people choose to actively live together in peace despite deep differences.

Thanks to the size of our population and number of competing interests, compromise is necessary in the US even when there is a clear majority. (This is equally true in parliamentary democracies, where coalitions are always forming and re-forming). Campaigns, while contentious, must target people of all stripes. Indeed, a successful campaign tends to align unexpected interests.

The lead-in to Brexit, however, exemplified an unfortunate truism about modern Western civics: never campaign for something when you can campaign against something else. British citizens were asked to think in terms of loss aversion, determining which option would hurt the least. While “Leave” inevitably made its case by talking about the consequences of remaining in the EU, “Remain” (or “Project Fear,” as some referred to it) educated Brits in how much worse things would be “for them and future generations” without the EU. It was not too different from America’s on-going presidential campaign, where both candidates seem bound and determined to win by default after portraying the other as “disqualified” from office.

On the surface, this strategy has some utility. Feelings of opposition may better motivate a voter who feels no affinity towards one position or the other. But no democracy can long survive on appeals to swing voters alone. There must be some potential for unity throughout the nation – if not about policy, then about national character or ideals.

Our tendency towards slash-and-burn campaigns leaves no room for such potential. Like the “Remain” campaign, which some observers perceived as “alienat[ing] many voters who had legitimate concerns about the E.U.,” our negative style of politics isolates people further within their own partisan ranks and entrenches them more deeply. Each attack is like a nail on the chalkboard, a screeching signal to people that they are ignored and misunderstood.

One recurring and particularly venomous result of this kind of entrenchment threatens to stamp out pluralism even more thoroughly: a false division between the head and the heart. An allegiance to intellect alone is no safer than fidelity to feelings, and both inhibit the cause of diversity.

Here, too, the Brexit fight erected a wall. Where “Leave” appealed to the emotions of people concerned by immigration and an outsourcing of legislation to the EU, “Remain” zeroed in on economic ramifications and the facts and figures of the status quo. Instead of trying to persuade each side on its own terms, the campaigns doubled down their language. Leavers were disenchanted by the other side’s inability to address their day-to-day anxieties. Remainers were offended by the other side’s truth-bending and disdain for scholarship. (Michael Gove, a leader of the “Leave” coalition and one-time candidate for Prime Minister, even refused to identify economists who are sympathetic to leaving the EU and said Britain has “had enough of experts”).

When we don’t take reality and each other equally seriously, both sides devolve to the lowest common denominator of exclusion and insularity.

This is no different than the common critique in American politics that Republican wonkishness and Democratic compassion cannot speak each other’s language but revel in talking past each other. In the never-ending quest to fight against positions instead of for them, intellectual and emotional dichotomies become terms of war rather than tools of battle. 

This is bad news for a society aspiring to diversity. When we don’t take reality and each other equally seriously, both sides devolve to the lowest common denominator of exclusion and insularity.

The United States aspires to the high democratic ideal of e pluribus unum – “out of many, one.” Free societies on either side of the Atlantic cannot long endure without occasionally reconciling differences. Locking a society’s head and heart in a power struggle instead of freeing them to work together strikes a severe blow to peaceable coexistence.

This is symptomatic of a larger ailment, though, because politics that are primarily aimed against things inevitably throw out the good with the bad. The leviathan of self-interest eventually swallows whatever it sees, including the mechanisms needed to maintain a pluralistic society in the first place.

If we grow accustomed to politics as opposition, it is no coincidence when other societal fissures widen. If issues regarding religion, race and sexuality are impacted by our policies, they are also impacted by our politics. How else could we arrive at the absurdity of viewing #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter as competing priorities instead of legitimate expressions of pain that deserve dignity?

There are ways forward, but we must first realize that pluralism is not a passive goal. When campaigns for referendums or elected leaders gain their ground by characterizing opposing groups, we must ask whether those groups would characterize themselves the same way. Unless we are also willing to listen to people explain themselves on their own terms, shrewd politicians will continue to manipulate us with caricatures based in fear and hostility.

Dignifying another person by seeking to understand her experiences and opinions should not require anyone laying down their convictions. There is no moral sacrifice involved in active listening (although pride may be sacrificed along the way).

At the most personal level, then, humility is a necessary part of solution. Humility empathizes with the struggles of others, seeks the facts even to the point of being proven wrong, and opposes a perspective on the merits of one’s own viewpoint instead of one’s hostility towards the other side.

It starts in families and workplaces. If we adopt humility in our daily relationships, we begin to create a new norm in our immediate communities. As the benefits of mutual respect and patience settle in, others in our communities may seek to model the same approach. Soon, we will find ourselves welcoming strangers in our churches and resolving conflicts with our town zoning boards.

When we define our own communities by a desire to share one space in spite of our legitimate differences, we are creating pluralism in the very spaces that most affect our lives – the same spaces that combine to form the patchwork society that looks hopelessly divided for now. Our ability to impact national policy may be limited, but our ability to build up our communities is not.

- Philip Kline is co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at Wheaton College, where he is a senior completing a political science degree.