Why Political Disagreement is so Hard to Settle
by Benjamin Studebaker
Last week, I went to one of the debates at the Cambridge Union about whether or not Britain ought to have a second referendum on Brexit. It struck me that the way this argument works is very misleading. The two sides pretend to be arguing about whether it would be democratic to have another referendum, and frame their arguments around procedural fairness and democratic legitimacy. But that isn’t really what the argument is about. There’s a much deeper disagreement, about whether Brexit is an acceptable outcome in the first place–if it’s the kind of result which, by its very nature, invalidates the process which led up to it.
When I teach my students Hobbes’ Leviathan, I sometimes make a point to show them that there is some situation where they might support a direct political intervention by the Queen–that there is some situation in which the monarchy’s latent powers could trigger a genuine political crisis in the UK. I do this by asking them to imagine some scenario in which a majority government, elected through first-past-the-post with just 35% of the vote, passes transparently racist legislation which calls for the revocation of the citizenship of black and minority ethnic British people. If parliament passed such a law, and the Queen refused to give royal assent, would they support the Queen against the parliament? Many students would, despite their democratic commitments. Why? Because procedural commitments only go so far–sometimes in politics we feel that an outcome has been produced that is so outrageous that it delegitimates whatever institutional process produced it.
If the government votes to have you jump into a lava pit, it doesn’t matter how fairly or democratically the decision was made. It’s a lava pit. You aren’t going to want to jump in, and you’re going to look for any means to stay out. It doesn’t matter how many times the government reassures you that the lava pit is really a hot tub. If you think it’s a lava pit, you will fight to stay out of that pit with whatever political means are at your disposal.
Brexit is a little bit like this. Those who support a second referendum and those who do not have fundamentally different notions of whether Brexit is something that can be done in an acceptable way. So when the leavers got on that debate stage and said Britain shouldn’t have a second referendum because this prolongs uncertainty, or because it would be better to seek a compromise, I kept thinking:
You don’t understand what Brexit means to remainers. It’s a lava pit. It doesn’t matter if you ask someone to do a cannon-ball into a lava pit or to just stick a toe in, they’re going to resist you. If you tell them they should get in the lava pit to end the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not they are going to get in, they will look at you like you’re crazy. The kind of Brexit remainers might accept would be a Brexit in name only, of no interest to the leave side. For remainers, all politically realistic Brexits end in disaster, whatever their form.
Supporters of a second referendum just want to find some way, any way, out of Brexit, because to them Brexit is unacceptable. If a second referendum is the way to build the legitimacy necessary to avoid it, they’ll take it. But many of them think that referendums are an entirely sordid political process, because they’ve seen a referendum deliver a result they consider unacceptable. There is no deep procedural confidence in referendums, or any respect for their results, because as far as remainers are concerned, referendums cannot be relied upon to deliver acceptable outcomes. The only reason they’re supporting a second referendum is that this seems to be the only politically realistic way to stop Brexit from happening.
The thing is, the same is absolutely true for the leavers, but in reverse. One of the things the leave side argued in the debate is that if Brexit doesn’t happen, the leavers will start generating civil unrest. They wouldn’t respect the results of a second referendum. They claim that this is because they think a second referendum is undemocratic, but that’s not the real reason. The real reason is that many leavers now believe that to stay in the EU is to go back to a lava pit from which they thought they had escaped. Leavers think that if Britain is in the EU, the British are a subject people with no freedom or sovereignty. So for them, remain is unacceptable, and they will do anything they can to avoid that outcome, including putting the May Deal to an unlimited number of parliamentary votes, or demanding that Britain do a no-deal Brexit without considering the possibility of reversing course.
Both sides recognise that the only way to legitimate what they wish to do is to frame what they wish to do in terms of democracy, but neither side actually cares about democracy. There is a deep substantive division here, and regardless of whether Britain stays or goes in the end, a significant chunk of people are going to feel something totally unacceptable and delegitimating has occurred.
So many people in politics are committed to the idea that political disagreement is bridgeable through discussion and compromise. Robert O’Rourke, the recently declared Democratic presidential candidate in the states, constantly promises to resolve deep disagreements with charisma and compromise. On multiple occasions, he has said:
I’m born to try to help bring people together.
If I bring something to this, I think it is my ability to listen to people, to help bring people together to do something that is thought to be impossible.
This kind of language presumes that we have agreement that the pools our political adversaries want us to jump into are not filled with lava, that there are parts of the opposing proposals which are acceptable, or which aim at values which we share. This is not always the case in politics–sometimes our disagreements are much sharper, because we have entirely different notions of what the policies in question do, because of fundamental conflicts of interest, or because our substantive values really are that different from the other side’s. Sometimes the other side is trying to take away the resources you need to survive or to fully participate in public life. Sometimes politics actually matters.
When political disagreement is that sharp, you can’t just talk across it–you have to find a way to beat the other side politically, to produce new states of affairs in which the other side will view what you’re doing differently. When Franklin Roosevelt faced opposition from Republicans to the New Deal, he didn’t compromise with them. He went out and got enough Democrats elected to impose his policies on his opponents, showed voters that the policies helped them, earned their loyalty, and forced his Republican adversaries to change their positions to compete politically. By the time Dwight Eisenhower was elected, the bulk of Roosevelt’s agenda had been incorporated into the Republican Party platform. The same thing occurred in the UK–there was no possibility of undoing the NHS once Clement Attlee created it. The Conservative Party simply had to accept it as a brute political fact.
It is very likely that however this Brexit thing shakes out, some number of people will be out in the street fighting with police and feeling the political system has failed them. The courageous thing, the necessary thing, is for the political class to act anyway and take the heat when it comes. Sometimes you don’t get to just talk your way into peace, love, and dope. Sometimes one person’s lava pit is another’s hot tub, and vice versa, and you’ve got to make someone get in kicking and screaming before they’ll admit it’s not so bad after all…and hope you’re right: