Understanding ‘Brexit,’ the British Exit from the EU

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By A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) caught everyone by surprise—pundits, politicians and profiteers. Part of the confusion stems from analyzing the disaffection in terms of left and right. In the mainstream analysis, xenophobic racism explained why the far right wanted separation; therefore everyone else should have united around ‘remain’, or racism would gain a toehold in European politics.

Looking more closely at the Brexit debate, one sees four distinct positions— ‘freedom’ and ‘order’ positions on both left and right. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking for the order-right, and Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn (order-left) united in favor of staying, while Boris Johnson (freedom-right) and the un-recognized freedom-left constituencies surprised observers by voting ‘Leave.’

Looked at it this way, Brexit appears as an order/freedom rather than a left/right issue. This explains why appeals framed as maintaining a unified Europe in the face of far right nationalist movements failed. The EU is fracturing because its leadership has failed to address the social, psychological, and political forces that are pushing people toward more subjectively defined identities, toward increasing demands for control of their own lives and for related decentralized political institutions.

The EU is a highly centralized enterprise animated by the ‘idealism’ of the order-left and order-right. It has failed to respond to populations animated by subjective development. Alienation is widespread and growing. We believe the ‘populism’ underlying the weakening EU is like the same forces animating the populist U.S. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Unaddressed issues tip elections.

The EU can address perceived order/freedom imbalances within the union that remains. Otherwise, it will build momentum for ‘leave’ parties—with all the pain ‘leave’ critics claim—across Europe.

A better integration of freedom strengthens effective order. Order creates the conditions for freedom, and freedom legitimizes order. The proper role of any legitimate governing body is to find the point of synergy. This will be a continuing, major theme of The Transpartisan Review.

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