In the days since 52 percent of voters in the United Kingdom took the seemingly unimaginable step of committing economic hari-kari by voting to leave the European Union, the search has been on to figure out who is responsible. Is it Prime Minister David Cameron’s fault for proposing an ill-advised referendum in the first place? Or is it Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to campaign with Cameron in support of remaining in the European Union?
How about the pro-EU elites who have pushed for European integration without considering the impact on working class people? What about the pro-austerity politicians in Brussels? Maybe it’s President Barack Obama for failing to resolve the war in Syria, which increased the flow of refugees to Europe and thus spurred nativist concerns over immigration?
This search for blame has been mimicked on this side of the Atlantic in explaining the rise of Donald Trump — is it the fault of the media, the Republican Party leadership, economic elites who supported free trade agreements, or Obama?
In both locales, however, it seems precious few have placed responsibility on a more direct source — actual voters.
The first rule of political punditry is never cast an accusatory gaze toward the electorate, but it’s worth asking: how many catastrophically bad decisions do voters in Western democracies have to make before we conclude that maybe they should be held responsible for their voting decisions?
This does not excuse political leaders in the UK who rather ostentatiously misled voters about the consequences of leading the EU. It doesn’t give them a pass for relying on deep reservoirs of nativism and racism, combined with economic anxiety to convince UK voters that leaving the European Union was in their interest, even though from any reasonable criteria Brexit is a disaster — particularly for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Indeed, one of the most striking outcomes of the Brexit vote is the growing evidence that many Leave voters didn’t really want to leave the European Union and instead wanted to send a message to the country’s political leaders. The fact that one of the most searched terms on Google after the vote was “what is the EU” is a telling indication that many British voters had not clearly thought through the implications of exit.
This also doesn’t excuse Trump’s reliance on deep reservoirs of nativism, racism and economic anxiety within the Republican Party to spur his political rise. And it certainly doesn’t excuse the Republican politicians who did the same, though more often with a wink and nod than as directly as Trump.
But let us not forget: those who voted to Leave and those who voted for Trump have agency. No one forced voters in either country to vote for a disastrous policy of leaving the EU or a clownish, utterly unqualified presidential candidate.
At what point do we stop searching for other excuses to explain a ballot for Leave or a vote for Trump, particularly if we have pretty clear evidence that these decisions were informed, in strong measure, by parochialism, selfishness, xenophobia, and racism. We know, for example, based on exit polling in the UK that that those who think multiculturalism and immigration “is a force for ill” supported Leave by a 4-to-1 margin and that Leave voters agreed, overwhelmingly, that the environmental movement, social liberalism, feminism, and even the Internet have had a detrimental effect on the country.
We also know in the United States that Trump voters are far more likely to support a ban on Muslims entering the country and, in general, hold views that are more intolerant toward minorities, immigrants, and social change in general. With evidence like this it becomes increasingly hard to argue that those who cast a ballot for Leave and Trump have done so with their eyes closed — or were somehow oblivious to the retrograde and illiberal political movements they are supporting. Many people may be offended by these voters, but rather than looking for others to hold responsible, it’s worth giving Leave and Trump voters their due. They knew exactly what they were doing — even if the Leave voters had to look up what the European Union actually does.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.