Elesa Zehndorfer Ph.D.

Political Animals and Animal Spirits

Brexit: From Boom to Bust

How a 585-page draft deal squashed a charisma-fueled, populist dream.

Posted Nov 16, 2018

Elesa Zehndorfer
Churchhill EU flag
Source: Elesa Zehndorfer

November 15th was the day that Theresa May faced an impossible task—taking the fantasy that was the pro-Brexit Referendum campaign and presiding over the painful stripping away of every iota of its seductive power—a charisma-imbued dream that had, in effect, to be squashed, in order to produce this week's highly unpopular 585-page-long Brexit deal report. It would never have succeeded at the polls, but then again, we now know that the pro-Brexit campaigns consisted largely of overwhelming, fine-invoking lies. Unsurprisingly, we are now hearing a crescendo of demands for a second referendum.

Thursday’s events provide an eloquent example of sociologist Max Weber’s famous characterization of charismatic authority. Following the sparkling rise of a charismatic revolutionary, that revolutionary hero or movement loses its power the moment that it gains its legitimate seat of authority. Juxtaposing economic theory (in this case, the boom, euphoria, profit taking and panic phases of Minsky’s Credit Cycle) onto Weber’s theory offers us an excellent means of tracking Brexit’s campaign from the apparent boom (2016) to bust (present day). There is an academic precedent to use Minsky’s work in such a way: “There is nothing that restricts the application of Minsky’s insight to the pecuniary realm. It is therefore astonishing how little has been done to extend the basic conceptual framework to other areas of social science.”

 Why do Populists Win?' (Routledge).
Minsky/Weber Life Cycle of Charisma
Source: Zehndorfer. E (In Press). 'Evolution, Politics & Charisma: Why do Populists Win?' (Routledge).

In the early days of the Brexit Referendum campaign, the pro-Brexit star burned brightly, ascending quickly and powerfully through the boom and euphoria stages. Micro-targeted social media campaigns successfully re-packaged politics as entertainment, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change history. Why wouldn’t one vote to leave the EU, after all, if a free-trade deal was "the easiest thing in human history," with the bonus of £350 million per week provided for the NHS? Dopamine-spiking, inspiring appeals engaged voters, whilst fights against ‘Remoaners’ recast the campaign as a kind of testosterone-fuelling sport. Who cares if reality figured little in these discussions? Jo Johnson, recently resigning as the Transport Secretary, was one of many who did care, stating as he resigned that Brexit had been a ‘con’.

"Shame on You, Boris"

Elesa Zehndorfer
All I want
Source: Elesa Zehndorfer

As soon as the Brexit dream gained legitimate power—the day pro-Brexiters ‘won’ the Referendum, in other words—key leave architects immediately resigned, as did the architect of the referendum itself, David Cameron. The charismatic power of the movement fell away astoundingly quickly; as Boris Johnson (brother of former Transport Secretary Jo) addressed crowds in what should have been a jubilant moment, he instead faced calls of ‘Shame on you, Boris’. He did not, confoundingly, appear to possess the jubilant face of a victor.

As per Weber’s and Minsky’s observations of the emergence of fraud and malfeasance, we can recall that the £350m NHS figure was outed as a lie the very day that the Referendum result was announced. Hate crimes immediately spiked. Former commodities broker and face of the Leave Campaign Nigel Farage soon faced questions relating to his possible role in a potential market manipulation relating to the outcome of the Referendum. The National Crime Agency (NCA) quickly launched an investigation into key pro-Brexit campaign organizations (Leave.EU and Better for the Country) and whistleblower Shahmir Sanni was fired by the pro-Brexit Taxpayers Alliance for revealing allegations of unlawful electoral spending by Vote Leave and Be Leave campaigns. Vote Leave was fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaching electoral law, whilst a cross-party group of 77 parliamentarians, including the former attorney general, recently contacted the Metropolitan Police citing concerns that the government had asked for the Vote Leave investigation to be ‘soft-pedalled’.

Will of the People?

The Brexit campaign has now entered the panic stage; Prime Minister May’s flat-out refusal to acknowledge the demands of the recent 700,000-strong People’s March for the Future or the one million-strong petition for a second referendum reflects her apparent desperate desire to hold onto the early, dopamine-infused, heady days of the pro-Brexit campaign that promised so much in such an effusive way. In those days, citing "the will of the people" worked as well as it did in any populist campaign, piggy-backing off the powerfully euphoric endocrinal and hormonal drivers that propels all charismatic messages.

Those days are long gone.

Elesa Zehndorfer
Stop Brexit
Source: Elesa Zehndorfer

Today, those heady dopamine-infused days have been replaced by the cortisol-inducing fear of a 585-page policy document that reflects reality but pleases nobody. Every survey going reflects the Great British desire to abandon or re-think Brexit entirely; for example, a recent Eurobarometer survey voting to remain in the EU by 54 percent. An Independent survey found 59 percent of voters to be in favor of a second referendum. A YouGov survey reported a 54 percent majority wish to remain in the EU. An Evening Standard survey recorded 54 percent of votes in favor of remaining in the EU. A reported 2.8 million voters who chose to Leave in 2016 have now changed their mind.

Time to Panic

Prime Minister May is currently hemorrhaging support from her own Cabinet, with calls for a leadership challenge growing louder by the hour. The panic is not limited to the Tory party; financial markets exhibited the same panic with a 1 percent drop in the value of sterling the day the report was published (Moody’s had already re-classified the UK’s outlook from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’).

Elesa Zehndorfer
Source: Elesa Zehndorfer

A Resurgence of Charisma?

The current stage in Weber & Minsky’s theories—panic and capitulation—generally precede the rise of another charismatic revolutionary voice that fills the void, again ramping up dopamine to provide renewed hope for the future. Jo Johnson claimed that resigning was a revolutionary act, but perhaps the most revolutionary act of all might be a second referendum—this time run on a campaign of transparency, and honesty—so that the will of the British people is genuinely respected.