The emotional politics of the EU Referendum: Bregrexit and beyond – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

The emotional politics of the EU Referendum: Bregrexit and beyond

The EU referendum debate has encompassed a bewildering array of issues and views, with a strong emphasis on immigration, the economy and national sovereignty. More than anything, what both the Referendum campaign and its immediate aftermath have demonstrated is that Brexit has played out an emotional politics. The feelings that dominated the campaign were overwhelmingly negative, and highlight the divisive nature of the debate.

The emotional politics at the centre of the referendum cannot be ignored, and are unlikely to be overcome by reasoning and rationality. Rather, the way forward is to open a space for a positive emotional politics – built on hope, tolerance, and empathy, to mention just a few possibilities. These positive emotions may have been largely absent from the debate but they have driven change for as long as political life has been around.

Political theorists had long assumed that citizens’ electoral decision-making is based on rationality. However, over the past few decades, scholars from a variety of fields have begun to query these assumptions, on the basis of evidence which suggests an emotional engagement in politics: people participate because they care or feel passionately about an issue.

Along those lines there is now a well-established research tradition at the intersection of cognitive psychology, political science and communication studies which looks at how emotional responses interact with cognition. As Drew Westen notes in his book The Political Brain, the “political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision.” Voters, though often well-informed and politically aware, think “with their guts,” he suggests.

The ways in which the political is entwined with the emotional has been apparent in the Referendum campaign from the outset. Writing just before the campaign officially kicked off in mid-April, the BBC’s chief correspondent, Gavin Hewitt, described the debate as driven largely by emotional appeals:

“The Leave campaign has decided to base its pitch on the ideal of control, of regaining control of the British economy, of borders (although the UK is not in Schengen) and of sovereignty … It is an appeal to the gut, and the heart. The Remain campaign understands that passion as much as facts will determine the outcome.

The emotions that the campaign appealed to were overwhelmingly negative ones, with both sides were accused of widespread scaremongering.

But fear was not the only negative emotion at play in making up the minds of the voters. Analysis of the motivations of Leave voters suggested that disaffection and anger of working class and lower middle-class voters with the political establishment swung the vote. Groups who feel disenfranchised and alienated from political elites have long been the targets of populist politics. But many scholars agree that the current historical moment represents a particularly ripe one for populists. As John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker on the day of the Referendum, making comparisons between the populist successes of Nigel Farage in the UK and Donald Trump in the United States:

Lacking grounds for optimism, and feeling remote from the levers of power, the disappointed nurse their grievances—until along come politicians who tell them that they are right to be angry, that their resentments are justified, and that they should be mad not just at the winners but at immigrants, too.

As scholars have long noted, anger is a powerful political emotion, because it enables the collective expression of grievances that might otherwise remain personal and private. But it is also an emotion which has long been associated with irrationality, aggression and the potential for violence, and is therefore viewed as dangerous to democratic societies.

Once the result became apparent in the early hours of Friday, June 24, anger and fear were supplemented by a new wave of negative emotions. Remain voters went through the “Seven Stages of Brexit Grief,” seeking to bargain against the result by signing a petition for a second referendum in their millions. But the grief and anger were not contained to the losing camp. Media reported a spike in hate crimes and racist abuse across the country. Leave voters in their droves expressed regret at the outcome – a feeling so widely discussed that new phrases were coined to describe it, including “Bregret” and “Bregrexit.” High-profile Brexit supporter and former Sun Editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, came out to voice his remorse and fear for the future, stating: “I have buyer’s remorse. A sense of be careful what you wish for. To be truthful, I am fearful of what lies ahead.”

These emotions spilled over from public discourse into private lives. The vote caused bitter divisions and feelings of betrayal in families split over the decision, particularly over a generational divide in voting. Sarah Vine, the Daily Mail columnist who is the wife of Leave leader Michael Gove, wrote of how the bitter recriminations of the losing camp had devastated her family life and mental health.

How can we make sense of the outpouring of negative emotion that so dominated the EU referendum? First, it is a serious wake-up call about the depths of disaffection and division in society that will have to be addressed for constructive political debate to move forward. Secondly, the experience of the campaign has shown us that even if feeling and rationality may not be mutually exclusive, the overriding reliance on negative emotions has had a detrimental impact on political decision-making. Finally, although the Referendum outcome occasioned a range of humorous viral memes and hashtags that enabled people to laugh as well as cry, emotions continue to be raw as the gravity of the decision gradually sinks in while the political and economic instability remain. The emotional politics at the centre of the referendum cannot be ignored, and are unlikely to be overcome by reasoning and rationality. Rather, the way forward is to open a space for a positive emotional politics – built on hope, tolerance, and empathy, to mention just a few possibilities. These positive emotions may have been largely absent from the debate but they have driven change for as long as political life has been around.