The Real Cause of Brexit, and Why It Threatens Us All

Losing a feeling of control over our lives is deeply threatening.

Posted Jul 07, 2016

As international markets settle down, as the global news media turn their fickle attention to other bogeymen, as Brexit Shock fades (everywhere but in the U.K. and some offices in Brussels), so does the acute concern that swept the world immediately after that stunning decision. As we always do, we pay less heed to threats that don’t seem as obvious and urgent, that are no longer on our radar screen. But we do so in this case at great peril, because the British vote has made clear a profound threat facing the fragile world in which we live.

Why did a narrow majority of Britons opt for independence from the European Union? Because “Leave” campaigners lied? Yes. Because many people are angry at government? Yes. Because people at the lower end of the economic spectrum feel threatened by immigrants? Yes. But the heart of what explains this vote was best captured by Frans Timmermans, Dutch first vice president of the European Commission, when he said that Brexit reflects “…a broad sentiment in Western societies that we have lost control of our destinies.” Loss of control. A gnawing corrosive threatening sense of powerlessness not over politics or immigration or the global economy, but over something much deeper, much more threatening. Brexit voters, like hundreds of millions of people throughout the developed world, feel they have lost control over their lives and futures. Research on the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein and many others, has found that a lack of control makes us deeply afraid, for our very safety and survival.

Control is empowering, reassuring. A lack of control makes any circumstance more frightening. Driving a car offers a convenient example. Behind the wheel, we feel safer. But move over to the passenger seat and we turn into front-seat drivers, our feet twitching at an imaginary brake or accelerator pedal, our hips and shoulders subtly shifting as if to steer, the tail lights ahead seemingly closer than they looked when we were driving…when we had control. The analogy to Brexit is apt.

Whether it’s control over something as obvious as the car we’re in, or something less obvious but vastly more important to our sense of safety and well-being – our lives, our futures, “our destinies” – the phenomenon is the same. Far more than conscious reasoning and rational evidence-based objective decision making, how we perceive the world, and how we act, and how we vote, is controlled by subjective affective instincts whose principal function is to protect us, literally to help us survive. And one of the most powerful of those subconscious instincts is the need for a sense control.

Why were “Leave” voters angry at the EU government? For taking away control over their lives as citizens not of Europe but of England and Wales. (The Scots and Northern Irish voted to “Remain”.) Why were Brexit voters fearful of immigrants? For taking away control over their economic security. And why did many “Leave” voters cast what they said was a protest vote against the establishment? They were angry at the wealthy and the political elites for using money and power to take control of society away from ‘the people’, who at least ideally in a democracy are supposed to run things. Sound familiar America? France? Austria? Greece?

In her eloquent New Statesman essay “I Want My Country Back”, Englishwoman Laurie Penny captured the profound importance of control when she noted that the “leave” vote came from “huge areas of post-industrial decline and neglect, where people are more furious than Cameron and his ilk could possibly understand”. “In depressed mountain villages and knackered seaside towns and burned-out former factory heartlands across the country, ordinary people were promised that for once, their vote would matter, that they could give the powers that be a poke in the eye.” Brexit was a vote to fight back against a world that had left millions feeling vulnerable. Voters were trying to get their hands back on the steering wheel.

Which makes its lessons ominous across the developed world. Penny’s descriptions fit so many communities in the United States, France, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Holland and elsewhere, where the same anti-immigrant, anti-government, ultra nationalist sentiments are rising, where fear mongering politicians are succeeding by offering people a renewed sense of control with slogans like “Let’s take our country back”. They are promising empowerment to the disempowered, a sense of control for those who feel they’ve lost it.

The nationalist appeal of “OUR country” also demonstrates how deeply disempowered and vulnerable people feel. We are social animals, dependent on our groups, our tribes, for our safety and well-being. Research has found that the more worried we are, the more we turn to the groups with which we most strongly identify (nationality has always been one important tribe with which we identify) for a sense of belonging and and protection. After all, together as a group we have more power and control than we do as individuals. Strident nationalism is empowering to anyone who joins that tribe by waving the flag, and it is especially appealing to those who feel vulnerable and powerless. (Ironically, the nationalism in disempowered countries that so often ripped Europe apart in the past led to the creation of the EU and the European project in the first place.)

So while the world’s attention moves on, Brexit has made us aware of profound perils we dare not ignore. The vote is already energizing the same divisive passions elsewhere; America’s Donald Trump “This won’t be the last”, France’s Marine Le Pen “The people’s spring is inevitable”, Holland’s ultra-nationalist politician Geert Wilders “Now it’s our turn.” Brexit has legitimized the anger and tribalism and racism that has been festering beneath a veneer of civility in so many places, as the increasing number of overtly racist confrontations in the U.K. attest. And it is entirely possible that the dramatic decision in the U.K. will foster international antagonisms that threaten not only global commerce, but peace itself? Russia’s Vladimir Putin celebrated the vote. Those threats are greater today than they were on June 23rd.  They are why we dare not let the lessons of Brexit fade from our attention.

At this fragile moment in history we must recognize what’s really going on - that hundreds of millions of people are so fundamentally afraid that they are losing control over their lives that they are lashing out in destructive ways. Only with that recognition can we focus on the critical challenge of restoring people’s faith in their economies, their governments - in democracy itself -  and re-establish the reassuring sense that we do have some say over our own lives and destinies.

Laurie Penny was correct when she wisely observed in her New Statesman essay, “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.” We fail to keep the lessons of Brexit top of mind, at our peril.

About the Author

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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