Brexit’s Cautionary Tale for Democracy

I’m one of those democratic theorists who believes there are no right answers. By that I mean that there are no timeless truths that the will of the people will either grok or not. There is no epistemic gauge of whether people get it right or not. Contra Plato’s reactionary stance against democracy, I think that—under the right circumstances—people can measure and decide what ought to be done on a case by case basis. In other words, what is right is not something separate from public judgment but something that emerges from it.

But under the right circumstance—and by this I have long meant in an open and fair and inclusive process with opportunity to deliberate and consider multiple points of view. The more such conditions are in place, the better I think the outcomes are. And by “better” I mean what works best for all involved, and I mean all, not just the majority.

But with the news that 52% of the British people voted to exit the European Union, I can’t help but think they got this massively wrong. Do I think they got it wrong because their answer was wrong? According to what I said, that would be nonsense. Did they get it wrong because the opportunities for full and open deliberation were truncated? Now, there’s the rub. I don’t think so. Surely the discussion in the British media was open and robust. Surely all had an opportunity to offer their views, if not in mainstream media then surely in social media.

But I still want to say they got it wrong—simply because the results are catastrophic for Britain’s own welfare and because of the xenophobic and reactionary politics it has confirmed. So am I a Platonist after all?

I hope not!

Perhaps more needs to be added to “under the right circumstances” than the Habermasian litany of an ideal speech situation. There is also the need to deal with unconscious fears, paranoid projections, and infantile regressions that increasingly multicultural and globalized phenomena elicit. It’s no coincidence that this Brexit came on the heels of the refugee and debt crises emanating from the South. While the EU’s response to these has hardly been ideal, in fact it has been awful, but it has at least been a response rather than a complete shut down and reversal of any responsibility. Clearly the British people in the non-urban, non-Scottish, non-Northern Ireland, parts of Great Britain think even this response was too much.

So they vote to leave, complete with fantasies that now they will be stronger, that they will determine their own future, and they can take back their country from all these marauders.

What if, before the vote, there had been a way to address straight on these fears and fantasies? Imagine a series of deliberative forums for the last six months throughout the country on these issues where citizens would have to squarely face other people’s perspectives and the likely consequences of their own views. When a country is on the verge of making such a major and largely unalterable decision, that whole country should engage in some serious deliberation about its idealizations and fantasies—and the ramifications of its choices. Now they’ll have to deal with this all in real time.


By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Hi, Noelle,

    Whenever someone says they don’t believe there are ANY right answers, I ask whether that implies that they also believe there are no wrong ones, too. It’s only partly a facetious question!

    I admire your commitment to what looks like a moderately thick procedural sort of legitimation of democracies (and/or of decisions made by them)! And I agree that there’s at least a conceptual difference between, “I really, really don’t like what you decided” and “Your decision is illegitimate”. However, having paid WAY too much attention to the five-months-long campaign, and seen and heard several of the discussions and debates, I don’t really agree with your implication that the “open and robust” discussion was actually *largely accurate, truthful, and conducted in good faith*. That seems especially evident now, post-vote, from several of the responses by the leading figures in *both* campaigns (Leave and Remain). It also seems clear that even the discussion that *was* accurate and truthful didn’t succeed in informing quite a few voters, judging by the (anecdotal, but still noteworthy) numbers of people who now say that they didn’t really understand what they were voting for; what powers the EU *actually* has; etc. What do you think?

    Meanwhile, recent events notwithstanding, I hope you’re enjoying your summer!

  2. Thanks for your comment, irreleblog. My view about whether answer are right or wrong is ultimately whether they pay, in the sense that William James laid out. My guess is that the Brexit vote will not pay out well, and I mean much more than in a crass monetary way.

    I take your point about the discussion about the matter not being robust leading up to the vote. But my larger point is that, even if it had been, there are deeper issues that need to be worked out and worked through, such as matters of identity and security. No matter how many reasons are subjected to the tribunal of public judgment, there is still a need to work through these deeply affective and largely unconscious matters.

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