Social scientists need to learn from their Brexit blunder, so we can learn from them

They had a poor understanding of why the people wanted what they wanted.
They had a poor understanding of why the people wanted what they wanted.
Image: Reuters/Reinhard Krause
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The worst thing about Brexit is a key reason Brexit gained so much support: opposition to immigration. Advocates for the UK leaving the European Union were not shy about pointing to opposition to immigration as a key to their success. Nigel Farage captured some of that spirit by declaring “This is a victory for ordinary people, for good people, for decent people.”

The rise in inequality and serious monetary policy mistakes—including the eurozone’s requiring many disparate economies to share monetary policy with Germany—may have set the stage for rebellion against the status quo. But Donald Trump’s “I love to see people take their country back” expresses the nationalism behind the direction of rebellion implicit in Brexit.

One of the most revealing pieces of data on the Brexit vote is Eric Kaufmann’s analysis of Brexit support among the over 24,000 survey respondents in the British Election Study. Support for Brexit was much higher among those who supported capital punishment and support for the EU was much lower among respondents who supported the public whipping of sex offenders. That is, “hardliners” were much more likely to support Brexit.

I have written the above as if we know what happened with Brexit. And although I think I have the general drift of things right, one of the big messages of Brexit in the UK and of the rise of Donald Trump in the US is that social scientists need to up their game dramatically in understanding what people want and how they think. For some time, social scientists have made a special effort to understand ethnic and sexual minorities. But given how different hardliners are from the people many academic social scientists usually hang out with, and how many hardliners there are, social scientists need to spend a lot more time studying this group. (Though marred by condescension toward “conservatives,” George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics is an excellent place for academics to start in an effort to understand the hardliner worldview.)

In order to give non-pejorative labels to both sides, let me call those who, like me, favor more open immigration “Cosmopolitans” and those who favor more restrictive immigration (and other policies in the same spirit) “Nationalists.” As a Cosmopolitan, what I most want to know from social science is what interventions can help make people more accepting of foreigners. Somewhat controversially, it is now common in the US for elementary school teachers to make efforts to instill pro-environmental attitudes in schoolchildren. Whether or not those efforts make a difference to children’s attitudes, are there interventions or lessons that can make schoolchildren and the adults they grow up to be likely to feel more positive about the foreign-born in their midst? For example, having had a very good experience learning foreign languages on my commute by listening to Pimsleur CDs in my car, I wonder whether dramatically more effective Spanish language instruction for school children following those principles of audio- and recall-based learning with repetition at carefully graded intervals might make a difference in attitudes toward Hispanic culture and toward Hispanics themselves in the US.

Although it is the province of social scientists to test interventions intended to improve attitudes toward the foreign-born, many of the best interventions will be created by writers, artists, script-writers, directors, and others in the humanities. There are also many other marginalized groups in society, but the strength of anti-foreigner attitudes suggests the need for imaginative entertainment and cultural events to help people identify with human beings who were born in other countries.

It is obvious to anyone except those with their head in the sand that Brexit in the UK and the rise of Donald Trump in the US are a wake-up call to the relatively Cosmopolitan elites who have been running those countries. But that doesn’t mean the Cosmopolitan faction among the elites must surrender to the Nationalists. Cosmopolitan elites are powerful, and shouldn’t go down without a fight.

What is clear is that the strategy of shaming Nationalists and ethnocentrists who say negative things about other groups has its limitations. My grandmother used to quote Dale Carnegie’s now politically incorrect couplet:

A man convinced against his will,

Is of the same opinion still.

Shaming may work to a point, but what is needed now is genuine persuasion about the humanity that we all share, regardless of where on earth we are born.

In addition to such gentle efforts to help people become more accepting of the foreign-born, there is also, in the US, the possibility of an immigrant-voter “nuclear option” for cementing a Cosmopolitan victory—one that works only if Donald Trump goes down in flames and takes the Republican Senate and House majorities down with him. In that situation the Democrats (perhaps with the help of the filibuster-busting “nuclear option”)–could force through a true “amnesty” bill for illegal immigrants, including full naturalization. This would bring millions of additional immigrants onto the voting rolls—the latest in many historical expansions of the franchise.

Back in 1996, historians William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted in The Fourth Turning that the first two decades of the 21st century would bring a political crisis when the senescence of earlier generations finally deprived polarized Baby Boomers of effective adult guidance. Whatever one’s judgment about the overall merits of the Strauss-Howe generational theory, this particular prediction has come true. In such a crisis, it really matters how things get resolved. History is written, by and large, by the victors, so whichever side comes out on top—Nationalists or Cosmopolitans—will look good in the history books.