by Ben Cohen
As a big fan of Matt Taibbi's excellent journalism over the years, I was dismayed to read his latest Rolling Stone column on the Brexit debacle in Europe that was, quite frankly, shockingly ignorant.
Taibbi's piece, sardonically titled "The Reaction to Brexit is The Reason Brexit Happened" is a lengthly screed against snooty liberals dismayed by the outcome of the referendum who are now suggesting the vote should be ignored because the people who voted for it aren't very bright. He writes:
Imagine having pundits and professors suggest you should have your voting rights curtailed because you voted Leave. Now imagine these same people are calling voters like you "children," and castigating you for being insufficiently appreciative of, say, the joys of submitting to a European Supreme Court that claims primacy over the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
The overall message in every case is the same: Let us handle things.
Taibbi equates this lack of respect for true democracy with, wait for it, Stalinism. Yes, he actually went there.
Quoting Russian writer Isaac Babel who was executed by the Soviet government in 1940 for alleged spying, Taibbi writes:
A onetime Soviet loyalist who was eventually shot as an enemy of the state, Babel was likely trying to say something profound: that the freedom to make mistakes is itself an essential component of freedom.
As a rule, people resent being saved from themselves. And if you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense, you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all.
While the thrust of Taibbi's piece isn't completely wrong, there are some glaring deficiencies in his argument, some bizarre analogies (see above) and a worrying lack of context.
Firstly, Britain's relationship with the EU has been hugely distorted by pro Brexiters, so much so that many people voting for it genuinely didn't appear to understand it at all. This isn't elitist -- it's a verifiable fact.
Hours after the results came out, there was a massive upsurge in British people googling "What is the E.U.?" and "What does it mean to leave the E.U?" -- questions that should have been asked before the actual vote. Survey after survey showed conclusively that the major issue for those wanting to leave the E.U was immigration, and the pro-Brexit politicians made this the centerpiece of their campaigns. The anti-immigration arguments were, unsurprisingly, completely fact free, with reputable studies showing that immigrants were a) not stealing British jobs, b) not increasing crime and c) not straining public services given they were making a significant contribution to the economy.
But facts be damned, UKIP leader Nigel Farage and conservative Boris Johnson riled up anti-immigrant anger and convinced much of the public that it was the E.U's policies making their lives miserable.
Furthermore, Taibbi's assertion that British voters were protesting the E.U's lack of democracy is again based on the myth that the E.U isn't democratic. It is, and always has been. As the author of Access to European Union law, economics, policies prof. Nicholas Moussis writes:
European citizens already have almost the same influence on the shaping of European law as they have on the shaping of national law. They indirectly influence it through the choice of the political parties, which make up the national governments and which therefore are involved in all European decisions adopted by the Council of Ministers. In addition, citizens have a direct say in the election of the members of the European Parliament, which has an important participation in the legislative process, thanks to improvements brought by successive European Treaties
Seen in this light, it is entirely understandable that those who wanted to stay in the E.U are angry, particularly when the politicians who urged the public to vote 'leave' quickly reneged on all their key policy promises. The E.U is not perfect by any means, but the portrayal of it by right wing politicians was a far, far cry from reality. While Taibbi might see the educated 'elites' who saw this coming as wine drinking snobs furious about their summer holidays in Provence, they were in fact, completely correct about the catastrophe it would trigger if the UK decided to leave the union.
Taibbi also draws a parallel between British liberal reactions to the Brexit and American liberal reactions to the rise of Donald Trump. He writes:
What's particularly concerning about the reaction both to Brexit and to the rise of Trump is the way these episodes are framed as requiring exceptions to the usual democratic rule. They're called threats so monstrous that we must abrogate the democratic process to combat them.
Forget Plato, Athens, Sparta and Rome. More recent history tells us that the descent into despotism always starts in this exact same way. There is always an emergency that requires a temporary suspension of democracy.
After 9/11 we had the "ticking time bomb" metaphor to justify torture. NYU professor and self-described "prolific thought leader" Ian Bremmer just called Brexit the "most significant political risk the world has experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis," likening it to a literal end-of-humanity scenario. Sullivan justified his call for undemocratic electoral maneuvers on the grounds that the election of Trump would be an "extinction-level event."
I don't buy it. My admittedly primitive understanding of democracy is that we're supposed to move toward it, not away from it, in a moment of crisis.
This position is, to be frank, utterly ridiculous. To lump those concerned about rising fascism and extreme xenophobia in Britain and America with pro-torture neo cons and soviet style authoritarianism is not only historically wrong, but the mother of all cheap shots. Firstly, the EU referendum was not legally binding, so ignoring it isn't technically 'anti democratic'. It has to be passed by Parliament by elected members, as is the case in most representative democracies. Not that I am particularly fond of the Republican Party, but the mechanisms it has in place for preventing those who would threaten its very existence are also completely understandable. Many Republicans are also genuinely appalled at Trump's racism and have every right to use procedural means to stop him.
Limiting the "Tyranny of the Majority" as James Madison wrote, is the staple of successful democracies -- and for good reason. While Taibbi seems to think we should be moving towards the will of the majority, it is worth remembering that most of the civil rights extended to minorities in America have been forced through against the will of the people. Take gay marriage -- an issue taken out of the hands of the public and sent all the way up to the Supreme Court. Had Missouri residents had their way, gays would be banned from marrying each other and treated as second class citizens, along with every other conservative state in America.
And if we're going to use extreme historical analogies here, it is also worth mentioning the Nazi party -- a single political movement that was responsible for the deaths of 80 million people -- was democratically elected by the German people and broadly supported until its destruction in 1945.
As a Brit, I was deeply dismayed by the referendum result, and support at the very least a second referendum where voters are presented with the actual facts -- facts that have now been made clear after the the pound collapsed, pro Brexit politicians gave up on their original promises, and the massive overnight increase in racist attacks.
"It doesn't mean much to be against torture until the moment when you're most tempted to resort to it, or to have faith in voting until the result of a particular vote really bothers you," writes Taibbi.
"If you think there's ever such a thing as "too much democracy," you probably never believed in it in the first place," he continues. "And even low-Information voters can sense it."
Given the majority of Americans support the use of torture, I wonder whether Taibbi would support a legally binding referendum on whether their government can use it.
I'm guessing not, because contrary to Taibbi's bizarre assertions, despotism doesn't start when elites try to protect minority rights, it starts when the public starts voting against them.