In America, Donald Trump — who many of the experts thought had no chance — is dominating the polls. In Britain, meanwhile, much of the public seems to be mobilizing in favor of exiting the troubled European Union — a British Exit, or Brexit.
Writing in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill puts this down to a class revolt on both sides of the Atlantic. And he’s
right as far as he goes, but I think there’s more than just a class revolt. I think there’s also a developing preference cascade. O’Neill writes: “In both Middle America and Middle England, among both rednecks and chavs, voters who have had more than they can stomach of being patronised, nudged, nagged and basically treated as diseased bodies to be corrected rather than lively minds to be engaged are now putting their hope into a different kind of politics. And the entitled Third Way brigade, schooled to rule, believing themselves possessed of a technocratic expertise that trumps the little people’s vulgar political convictions, are not happy. Not one bit.”
Well, that’s certainly true. Both America and Britain have developed a ruling class that is increasingly insular and removed from — and contemptuous of — the people it deigns to rule. The ruled are now returning the contempt.
But while there’s a class component here, it’s not as strong as some might suggest. Trump does well among college and post-college educated voters, too, and the Brexit is suddenly developing support from the sort of political class leaders who used to be pro-Europe. The difference is that the upper-class types have been less willing to show it.
In both cases, it may be that the lower classes are expressing their views more openly because they have less to lose. Express the “wrong” opinions in British or American politics or academia and it’s the (figurative) gulag for you; if you work at a fast-food place, the consequences are generally less steep. But when enough ordinary voters express an opinion, the elites may feel safer, too.
This can produce rapid change: In totalitarian societies like the old Soviet Union, the police and propaganda organizations do their best to enforce preference falsification. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it — but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers — or even to the citizens themselves. Kuran calls this sudden change a “preference cascade,” and I wonder if that’s not what’s happening here.