I retain my respect for James O’Brien even though he continues to insult me. The talk show host has consistently alleged that as a leaver voter I was tricked into voting against my own interests by the conmen in the Vote Leave campaign.
The ‘false consciousness’ theory of voting has long been espoused by progressive campaigners frustrated that their conservative opponents prove more persuasive to the disadvantaged in society. The idea allows people to maintain their sense of righteousness, while also undermining the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints.
While O’Brien hews to the line that Brexit voters were tricked, he claims to be more understanding of his opponents than in the past. Following the success of How To Be Right, he has a follow-up titled How Not To Be Wrong, with the intriguing subtitle of The Art Of Changing Your Mind.
O’Brien is a talented interviewer, despite being as apologetic and wet as you’d expect from a straight, white, privately-educated progressive man. He earned his stripes on Newsnight where he was even touted as a replacement for Jeremy Paxman, but more recently you can hear him in his Full Disclosure podcast.
Much of the love from progressives is however based on his take-downs of thick Brexit voters, destroying them with facts and logic, as the Internet would say. Many of these are hilarious, but they do remind me of Jeremy Kyle’s approach to his own hapless guests on the now defunct talk show.
It has not escaped O’Brien’s notice that the less educated were likelier to vote for Brexit. However, guesting on the excellent Talking Politics podcast recently, he warned against equating education with knowledge:
I think we make a mistake when we talk about education of thinking that it equates to knowledge. When you say someone is less educated then you, you imply that they know less than you, which isn’t actually the case. Go back to the Latin and the literal translation of the word and it’s more about how you think, how you approach knowledge.
O’Brien then raised the cliche of somebody shouting fire in a crowded theatre, which is usually deployed to justify censorship. The metaphor “explains Brexit”, O’Brien argues, since only the more educated would check for smoke if an alarm was raised. “Someone shouted fire, 52% of the country ran for the door.”
Given that the original case involved the prosecution of those opposing drafting in the First World War, it’s not the soundest to use in any context. And in this case I don’t think the metaphor explains a great deal beyond describing O’Brien’s self-satisfied view of himself as a smartypants in a land of dum-dums.
Does anyone think most remainers studied the specifics of the European question before casting their vote? Most of the millennial grads I know who voted remain wouldn’t be able to name a single piece of European legislation without googling it, to reverse O’Brien’s test for leavers.
More broadly, O’Brien’s hypothesis doesn’t chime with much of what we know about voting behaviour, to say nothing of cognitive biases like motivated reasoning, tribal affiliations and so on. People voted in that referendum for a range of reasons, most of which can be described as some general sense that the union was good or bad.
Remainers’ attempts to position the referendum as a contest between good and evil, or at least the smart and the thick, has permanently stained their cause. Perhaps they should consider that others simply have other priorities, as well as other values and judgements on how the future should look. In other words, they disagree.