The Other Side of Populism

This is truly the most bizarre thing we’re seeing from the Brexit vote yesterday.

The whole world is reeling after a milestone referendum in Britain to leave the European Union. And although leaders of the campaign to exit Europe are crowing over their victory, it seems many Britons may not even know what they had actually voted for…

“Even though I voted to leave, this morning I woke up and I just — the reality did actually hit me,” one woman told the news channel ITV News. “If I’d had the opportunity to vote again, it would be to stay.”

That confusion over what Brexit might mean for the country’s economy appears to have been reflected across the United Kingdom on Thursday. Google reported sharp upticks in searches not only related to the ballot measure but also about basic questions concerning the implications of the vote. At about 1 a.m. Eastern time, about eight hours after the polls closed, Google reported that searches for “what happens if we leave the EU” had more than tripled.

I can’t speak for what is going on in Britain, but in this country there are the usual arguments over whether the vote to leave the EU was motivated by economic concerns or nativist reactions to immigration. Sound familiar? We can argue that one forever because it is more likely to be a both/and rather than an either/or.

What the reaction by many Britons today is telling us is that, regardless of the motivations, the vote to leave was based more on emotion (anger/fear) than it was on facts. It is a classic case of what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 thinking blocking out System 2 thinking – at least until its too late.

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

A British commenter at FT summed it up perfectly this morning.

…we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel.

Over the last few months there have been some interesting discussions about what we mean by “populism.” I don’t see any need for a descent into a disagreement over linguistics, but to the extent that populist movements are rooted in or fueled by emotion, this is a perfect example of how they can be dangerous.

There are elements in our culture and politics today suggesting that an appeal to System 2 thinking (which, as the definition above says, is effortful and calculating) is outdated and/or elitist. We just saw the results of that dismissiveness in Britain. As an alternative, I recall a simple affirmation I learned while teaching a parenting class back in the 1980’s. It says, “You can think and feel at the same time.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.