British Exit from the European Union and the Perceptual Divide

The parallel between the perceptual divide over politics in the U.S. and the divide that yielded the British vote to exit the European Union has been a theme of this blog.


As in the U.S. in the wake of the last presidential election, we have mounting evidence in the UK of the costly consequences of the collective decision reached in 2016.

And what we learn by examining the case of British exit from the European Union is that citizens reach opposite conclusions from the same body of evidence. This confirms the finding established by social psychologists: when views are central to a person’s identity, they revise their justifications for holding those views much more readily than they revise the views themselves.

Ultimately, in the face of contradictory evidence, people find psychological value in adopting justifications for their views that are based on faith and simply cannot be falsified.

Following from the inherent ambiguity of the June 2016 referendum on EU membership, the British government has been unable to determine how it wants to leave the European Union. Negotiations with the EU have not gone well for the British. Essentially every claim of the “Brexiters” about the ability of the UK to determine the outcome of negotiations has been proven false.

With the treaty process limiting negotiations to 24 months unless all parties agree to extend the deadline, time is running short. Allowing time for the required approval of a British exit deal by both the British parliament and the European Parliament, negotiations must wrap up within the next couple of months.

And yet the British government continues to fight with itself about what it wants.

Most recently, Theresa May, after locking in the members of her senior leadership at Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s country retreat, announced the outlines of a British plan. Within days, the plan was dead, rejected by members of her own Conservative party and the European Union alike.

There is now mounting attention to the prospect of Britain leaving without any sort of deal. This would mean that World Trade Organization rules would apply to British economic ties with European Union countries. There would be two sources of disruption: tariffs of varying levels on goods and customs inspections at the border as goods cross between the UK and the EU and from the EU into the UK.

Is this a big deal? Yes. An enormous deal.

With the UK’s current membership in the European Union’s customs union and single market, goods move across borders unhindered. Businesses have as a result developed supply chains in which inputs are sourced from across Europe, moving seamlessly and swiftly across borders. But now there would need to be inspections that would disrupt these flows. Recent reporting by Stephen Castle in the New York Times points to mounting concerns about miles-long backups of supply trucks at the Dover port of entry, potentially resulting in shortages of food (about 40% of the UK’s food is imported from the EU or through EU trade agreements with other countries) and medicines. Stockpiling is not an option due to both the absence of warehousing space and the limited shelf-life of the foodstuffs in question.

In a recently released study on food security after Brexit, the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London warns of the dangers of a “careless” Brexit. The study suggests that border inspections of trucks of only a few minutes each could lead to backups of supply trucks of up to 29 miles.

The alternative – to simply abandon inspections at the border in order to keep supplies moving – would not amount to the “taking back control” promised by Brexiters, but would instead mean “abandoning it,” as the study’s authors assert. Furthermore, eliminating controls could lead to a complete suspension of agricultural exports from the UK to an EU wary of accepting products from a country with no food inspection regime.

With much publicity focused both on the divisive and shambolic performance of the British government and the potential disruption to supplies of foods, medicines and other products, what has been the response in the British electorate? Has there been a convergence of perceptions around the notion that British exit from the European Union may not be in the best interest of the country, and that the decision to leave was perhaps a mistake?

Not quite.

The YouGov survey has tracked leave and remain voters over time. The most recent survey – from September 4 and 5 – shows that 46% of respondents believe it was the wrong decision to leave the EU, while 43% believe the decision was correct. The shift from earlier results is a marginal tilt toward “wrong decision.”

Stunningly, though, while 87% of “remain” voters believe the decision to exit was wrong (and only 7% now believe it was right for the UK to decide to leave), 84% of “leave” voters continue to believe exit was the right decision (with 7% considering it the wrong decision to exit).

The perceptual divide, in other words, remains entirely intact despite the evidence cited above.

What is fascinating is that there is broad agreement on several aspects of Brexit dynamics. First, 80% of “remain” voters and 71% of “leave” voters believe negotiations are going badly for the government, and precisely 58% percent of each group believe the EU has the upper hand in negotiations (hardly what politicians advocating for Brexit promised during the referendum campaign). And majorities of both remain (70%) and leave (59%) voters think it is unlikely that the British government and the EU will reach a deal in time for the scheduled date of British exit (March 29, 2019).

In other words, leave voters observe the same evidence as remain voters: the British government is faring poorly in negotiations; the EU has a much stronger bargaining position; time is running out for the UK to reach a deal.

But on the basis of this shared body of evidence, the two groups reach entirely different conclusions. What seems to change as evidence mounts is not the conclusions different groups of citizens reach, but their justifications for those decisions.

All of this casts doubt on the efficacy of fact-checking campaigns such as Gina Miller’s Dover-based “End the Chaos” project. The worthy goal is to provide straightforward, honest information in order to reduce the bitter divisiveness wrought by the Brexit decision. Sadly, it is not at all clear that good information can lead citizens to revise their positions.

For those interested in a short podcast on this topic, please listen to the forthcoming episode of the World Views podcast produced by the David L. Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?

The Folly of Brexit Reveals the Folly of “America First”

I have written in past weeks about the ways in which the current U.S. administration is investing in societal division as a political strategy.

Aluminum and steel tariffs are a prime example, for tariffs unleash a zero-sum dynamic both within U.S. society and between the U.S. and its global partners. This stands in contrast to the sort of positive-sum process potentially generated by investment in job training and apprenticeships.  This will be the subject of next week’s post.

But first, I want to consider a prior point about deep divisions in contemporary society and the paths by which capitalist democracies can – and should not — navigate these tensions. Recent analyses of divisions in capitalist democracies emphasize the tension between those who’ve gained most and those who’ve been hurt by the advance of globalization.

There is substantial evidence for this cleavage in the U.S. as well as in the UK, where characteristics of those supporting a British exit from the European Union — who tend to be older, less educated and more opposed to immigration and multiculturalism than those who voted to remain in the EU — overlap in significant ways with supporters of the current occupant of the White House.

The “country name first” response to globalization (as in “America first” or “Britain first”), while politically expedient, is both socially divisive and ultimately damaging to national prosperity. Exit from the EU has taken the UK down such a path, and the contradictions of Brexit become more evident over time as the British government struggles to control the damage.

British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a major policy speech last week outlining Britain’s conception of its future economic relationship with the European Union. What the speech ironically revealed is that British exit – much like the implementation of tariffs in the U.S. – is a narrow political project that can only bring damage to the national economy and the country’s place in the world.

In her speech, Theresa May valiantly endeavored to reconcile a “people’s exit” with a prosperous and globally engaged future for the UK. Unfortunately, the speech revealed all too starkly that these ends are entirely irreconcilable.


Image result for BRexit take back control images

May began her speech with a nod to populism: the entire project is about the British people, not the “privileged few.” The implication, of course, is that European integration is an elite project whose benefits accrue to a narrow element of society.


There are elements of truth to this claim. The tragedy is that British policy makers, rather than tackling issues of inequality, have pursued a path of division and destruction in exit from the EU. Without doubt, the country will be considerably worse off following exit, and of course poorer, more vulnerable segments of the population will bear the costs of reduced economic opportunity and sharply reduced fiscal resources.

The same is unquestionably true in the U.S., where an “America first” policy course can only redound to the detriment of the very people those who hew this path cynically claim to defend.


What also became evident in Theresa May’s “Mansion House” speech is the deep contradiction between the UK’s struggle to extricate itself from the EU with minimal economic damage and the objective of a post-exit UK that is “modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant . . .”

May advances proposals that commit the UK to essentially identical regulations to the EU in order to minimize barriers between the British and EU markets – while maintaining the fiction that the UK will nonetheless be sovereign in devising its own regulatory environment.

At one point that should embarrass the politicians responsible for Brexit, the Prime Minister notes that “businesses who export to the EU tell us that it is strongly in their interest to have a single set of regulatory standards that mean they can sell into the UK and EU markets.” This statement of a reality well understood by proponents of integration unwittingly gives the lie to longstanding propaganda that “barmy Brussels bureaucrats” are responsible for excessive EU regulation imposed on UK markets.

The unfolding process of British exit from the EU illuminates the folly of a hollow strategy of “taking back control” in a globalized world more clearly each day. The folly and danger of “America First” grows equally more apparent.