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Pro-Brexit Voters Fueled by “A Destructive Urge,” Says Goldsmiths Professor

Boris Johnson Leads 48Hour Brexit Blitz Of CampaigningBoris Johnson Leads 48Hour Brexit Blitz Of Campaigning
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson has been a leader of the Leave campaign. Photograph by Christopher Furlong Getty Images

There has been no shortage of bleak analyses of Thursday’s Brexit result, with the financial and business press almost uniformly certain that the consequences will be just as economically disastrous as Friday’s global market slump suggests. But if you want to read something really depressing, try this deep dive into the psychology of Leave voters by Dr. Will Davies.

Davies, a sociologist and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths College, University of London, argues that support for Brexit was driven, not by any sense that leaving the EU would create more jobs, raise incomes, or strengthen the U.K.—but by an actual drive to self-destruction.

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“Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change,” writes Davies. “If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.” Interviews with pro-Brexit voters in Doncaster, for instance, found that they had little hope for a different future.

But Davies says this goes beyond cynicism. “I’ve long suspected that, on some unconscious level . . . the self-harm inflicted by Brexit could potentially be part of its appeal.”

“Brexit was never really articulated as a viable policy,” Davies continues, “And only ever as a destructive urge, which some [voters] no doubt now feel guilty for giving way to.” Signs of that “Regrexit” have been cropping up all weekend.

Davies cites as evidence certain voters casting ballots directly against their economic self-interest. Many of the biggest supporters of Brexit, he finds, were those most dependent on the EU, both through economic relationships and subsidies. He argues that those relationships—particularly subsidies, such as those to farmers—bred not gratitude or a sense of closeness to Europe, but actual resentment. Davies says a British culture of snobbery made things even worse, leaving voters, at least at the moment of pulling the lever, willing to abandon economic benefits in exchange for the Leave campaign’s promise that they could “take back control.”

“Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control,” Davies writes. “To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. [The Leave campaign] spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it.”

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It’s a variation on an argument familiar from U.S. politics, most pointedly crystallized in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas. Frank thought some American voters were being distracted from economic matters by cultural and religious issues—which his critics were quick to point out can legitimately outweigh pure financial calculus.

Davies, though, isn’t saying voters were distracted or duped, but instead that they were acting out of an actual sense of disgust at being the beneficiaries of economic redistribution. That’s profoundly worrisome, because redistribution schemes are being floated with increasing frequency as a solution to the seemingly intractable disparities of the globalized, tech-driven economy. And not just by the likes of Bernie Sanders—have a look at the adventurously capitalistic tech incubator Y Combinator’s pilot study of what’s known as a basic income.

Redistribution in all its forms is certainly controversial, but it’s at least a possible solution to a widely-acknowledged macroeconomic and social problem. If, as Davies argues, it breeds such a sense of alienation that it drives voters who benefit from it to dismantle the framework of global trade itself, that problem just started looking a lot more complex.