“The liberal elite are in shock; they fall upon the notion of the victors’ regret as a palliative for their mental distress…”

In the aftermath of their victory, the winners are markedly unmagnanimous. They brand those who voted the other way as a liberal elite, patronizing, self-interested, out of touch with real life. The liberal elite are characterized as bad losers, as though the vote were a football match. When they protest against or complain about the result and its consequences, they are immediately belittled and shouted down. In the weeks before the vote, the eventual victors’ own handling of language resembled a small child’s handling of an explosive device: They appeared to have no idea of its dangers or power. They used phrases like “We want our country back” and “Take back control” that were open to any and every interpretation. Now they complain that they have been misrepresented as racist, xenophobic, ignorant. They are keen to end the argument, to quit the field of language where only the headachy prospect of detailed analysis remains, to take their dubious verbal victory and run for the hills. They have a blunt phrase they use in the hope of its being the last word, and it is characteristically rude: “You lost. Get over it.”

The liberal elite, meanwhile, have evolved a theory: It is their belief that many of the people who voted to leave the European Union now regret their decision. There is no more tenuous comfort than that which rests on the possibility of another’s remorse. In psychoanalysis, events are reconstructed in the knowledge of their outcome: The therapeutic properties of narrative lie in its capacity to ascribe meaning to sufferings that at the time seemed to have no purpose. The liberal elite are in shock; they fall upon the notion of the victors’ regret as a palliative for their mental distress, but because the referendum result is irreversible, this narrative must adopt the form of tragedy.

Unlike the victors, the losers are loquacious. They render the logic of their suffering with exactitude and skill, waxing to new expressive heights. The deluge of fine writing that follows the referendum contrasts strangely with the reticence that preceded it. The liberal elite are defending their reality, but too late. Some urge a show of tolerance and understanding; others talk about the various stages of grief; others still call for courage in standing up for the values of liberalism. These are fine performances, but it is unclear whom they are for.

Rachel Cusk, “The Age of Rudeness”, The New York Times Magazine (19 February 2017), 42.