Brexit is not just a blow to the British economy, but also strikes at a core assumption behind the modern liberal order: that voters will act in their self-interest.
The progress of the last 50 years, particularly in Europe, has made it easy to buy into the idea that the forces of nationalism, xenophobia and prejudice are mere irrationalities, market distortions that will naturally fade away in the long arc of history.
Last week’s vote highlighted — not for the first time, but with unusual clarity — the hole in that theory. For many people, identity trumps economics. They will pay a high price (literally, in this case) to preserve a social order that makes them feel safe and powerful.
That dynamic is not limited to Britain, or to this referendum. It is playing out in democracies around the world, and immigration has become its focal point.
Many citizens, particularly those who have suffered under the economic pressures of globalization, express their anxiety over these changes by focusing on another form of change: foreigners in their midst. Halting immigration, even if the actual effect is to worsen their own economic situation, seems like a way of staving off those larger changes.
Democratic governments have shown over and over that they have no answer for this anxiety, even as the stakes, in Europe and globally, continue mounting.