Much has been said about the generational divide in the results of the Brexit vote—the tendency of Remain supporters to be in their twenties and thirties, and those voting Leave to be fifty-five or older. Online especially, the young are shouting at the old for condemning them to a future that Leave voters will not have to witness, for sacrificing the stability and cosmopolitanism of the European Union to their racist parochialism. A scroll through my Facebook feed reveals frustration, shock, and despair among my fellow millennials. Buzzfeed, that vanguard of the young, distractible, and vaguely liberal, produces punchy listicles such as “19 Times Tumblr Absolutely Nailed Brexit,” “27 Brexit Tweets Guaranteed to Make You Laugh, Cry, or Probably Both,” and “If the Media Said What anti-Brexit Voters Really Feel,” and they are widely shared among my friends and acquaintances. Also given much attention was the segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, in which Oliver wonders a little too earnestly, “If leaving is so universally seen as a bad idea, then who the f**k is in favor of it?”
If you asked anyone belonging to the demographic matching my age (mid-twenties), class (middle), education level (advanced degree), and place of origin (urban Northeast), the only possible response to the Brexit vote is incredulity. How could so many people vote so stupidly when everyone knows the right answer is to stay in the EU? Why would so many Britons want to leave an international organization when everyone recognizes it benefits them and the rest of our world?
The genius of sites like Buzzfeed and programs like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is that they encourage their audience to believe that everyone agrees with him or her—everyone, at least, worth agreeing with. They isolate consumers of these media along fault lines of disagreements, but while giving the illusion that they speak for everyone. They assume that they are merely speaking “common sense,” and that anyone who disagrees must be disqualified from discussion as bigoted or irrational. These organizing fault lines are sometimes ones that consumers themselves have drawn, based, for example, on party affiliation or taste in media, but more often, they are enforced by a host of other factors that we do not recognize or do not acknowledge (and which, of course, in part determine party affiliation and taste in media).
One of these, as has been thoroughly noted in Brexit coverage, is age disparity. Another is social class. It is significant that the City of London overwhelmingly voted to Remain while the poorer non-urban areas of England and Wales elected to leave. Those who have acknowledged this divide have dodged it with insinuations of racism and nativism supposedly inherent in the worldviews of the less educated. On my social media feeds, dominated by well-off, well-educated, and well-informed people (like me), all I have seen is condescension, often toward people of a different class, whose motives we have demonized. We liberals tend to have faith in the globalizing future, one in which all power and authority converge toward the center in order to facilitate the freer movement of people, goods, and ideas. This system, often called neoliberalism, has tended to benefit us so far—we get cheap goods, study-abroad experiences, Belgian beer, quinoa, K-Pop. But this system looks very different to a struggling family in the Welsh highlands with minimal job prospects and whose taxes are going to support an invisible bureaucracy in Brussels. Even if Brexit is a bad decision, it is unfair, and indeed counterproductive, to fault people for responding to turmoil in their lives that leads them to think it could be a good one. Neither Conservatives nor Labour has done much to ameliorate their lot—and these voters have rightly called out a systemic fissure between rhetoric and results.
This is not to say that racism and xenophobia did not figure in the Leave vote, or that that should be overlooked as we continue to dissect the implications. But envisioning a world different from what liberal city elites might advocate is neither irrational nor stupid. John Oliver betrays himself when he has to ask, astonished, who these people are who would disagree with him and his cohort. Clearly he can’t be too well acquainted with any of them.