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The EU is bad. Brexit is bad. Both things can be true.

September 6, 2019
The EU is bad. Brexit is bad. Both things can be true.

1. Brexit

If you have time to cast an eye across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson’s implosion as prime minister is something to behold.

The short version: Johnson took office and immediately declared that there would be a Brexit by Halloween, whether or not England could work out an agreement on how to unwind the arrangement.

In order to force this threat through a hostile Parliament, Johnson petitioned the queen to essentially shut Parliament down so that he could bypass legislative procedure and accomplish Brexit on something like unilateral executive authority. (I’m abstracting all of this a bit, obviously.)

In response to this executive power grab, a group of conservative MPs revolted. They were thrown out of the party. And suddenly Johnson’s majority is a minority. His own brother—a member of parliament—so opposes his actions that he’s stepped down from the government.

There are some lessons here.

My old friend Chris Caldwell has a long piece about Johnson and Brexit in the Claremont Review of Books in which he suggests that by insisting that there would be a hard Brexit if there can’t be a soft one, he had “burned his ships.”

The problem is that the act of burning your ships does not automatically assure victory and doing so doesn’t make you Cortes.

Just as a for instance, you could say that by attacking the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany burned its ships.

Leaving yourself no Plan B only looks like strategic brilliance when things work out for you. When they don’t, it looks like foolishness.

2. Two Wrongs

I haven’t talked with Caldwell about Brexit in a while. His current thinking seems to be that the entire concept of national sovereignty is at stake and that if England does not get a hard Brexit, then it means that “the elites” have substituted their will for the will of the governed, essentially permanently.

There’s something to that.

It is difficult to look at the E.U. project seriously and not to see it as an elite attempt to create a supra-national structure with only limited accountability to those it governs.

There may be—there certainly are—a great many benefits to the existence of the European Union. But at the most basic level, it does place the levers of governing one (or more) step further away from the governed than they are even in a representative democracy.

Maybe this is a good thing. (Have you met “the people”?)

But my own view is that, on net, it was probably not a good thing. And what’s more, the manner in which the E.U. was accomplished, as Caldwell details in his piece, was at best injudicious and at worst underhanded.

In other words, I’m basically pro-Brexit.

But the manner in which Brexit was accomplished was basically insane. They took a two-generation long project, which had built up its own logic and constituencies and facts on the ground, and put it up to a one-time vote.

Imagine if we decided to settle, say, abortion with one-time referendum in the United States.

Actually, that’s not quite big enough. Imagine if we decided to the entirety of the welfare state—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, all public assistance—with a one-time vote.

Or: Imagine if, in 1970, Nixon had put the Cold War up for a referendum. If “War” wins then we keep opposing communism, forever. If “Peace” wins then America pulls out of NATO and Europe and Asia and accedes to whatever  the USSR wants. Hope we get good turnout!

As I said: Insanity.

The bigger the question is, and the more irreversible the decision, the more important it is to make the choice over as long a time horizon as possible.

Unwinding a thing like membership in the European Union should never be done with a one-time popular referendum is basically the worst idea in the world—even if unwinding membership in the European Union is a good idea.

In a rational system, getting out of the E.U. would take almost as long as getting in. It would require building coalitions of support and passing through step-down gates. This lowers the stakes on any single decision and gives everyone time to accumulate new information and make adjustments on discrete parts of the whole.

It is entirely possible that Britain’s membership in the E.U. is a net-loss for Britons and a diminishment of popular sovereignty AND that the Brexit referendum was a cure as bad as the disease.

Or possibly worse.

At least before Brexit, there was one side that claimed to care about process and institutional precedents and the sovereignty of Britain’s duly-elected representatives.

After the last week, that’s obviously no longer true.

3. Deja Vu

Here’s a piece about how Deadspin’s owners are trying to screw up their product because they don’t understand the product, or the marketplace. Or how business works. I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:

The question I hear the most about the owners of this company is “Why did they buy a bunch of publications they seem to hate?” I and my colleagues have asked Spanfeller only slightly more diplomatic variants of that question on several occasions. The answer he has given is that the publications didn’t cost him much and that he liked their high traffic numbers. The unstated, fuller version seems to be that he believed he could simply turn up the traffic (and thus turn a profit), as if adjusting a faucet, not by investing in quality journalism but by tricking people into clicking on more pages. While pageviews are no longer seen as a key performance indicator at most digital publications—time spent on the site is increasingly thought to be a more valuable metric—Spanfeller has focused on pageviews above all else. In his first meeting with editorial leaders, he said he expected us to double pageviews. Several weeks later, without acknowledging a change, he mentioned that the expectation is in fact to quadruple them. Four months in, the vision for getting there seems less clear than ever.

This company’s websites already have larger readerships than most of their competitors, and much more loyal ones. Yet Vox and Vice and BuzzFeed are, on paper anyway, worth billions between them; this company recently sold for a tiny fraction of that. Those companies’ path to those valuations (which are obviously inflated, but that’s not the same as not “real”) was not through scammy advertising on scammy SEO plays, but through investing in sales reps and creative revenue ideas and good stories that people wanted to read. Great Hill Partners is correct that an opportunity for huge profit exists here, too, but they want a quick cash-out rather than the growth that comes from a well-run business. This makes no sense on its own terms—who gets into media to turn a fast buck?—but more than that betrays a curious lack of greed. Who would squeeze publications to save thousands of dollars here and there when hundreds of millions are on the table?

What has in any event been made exceedingly clear is that the owners’ vision involves narrowing the scope of Deadspin’s coverage. During my first real conversation with Spanfeller, he told me he didn’t understand why the site covered other media companies. During my first real conversation with Spanfeller’s hand-picked editorial director, Paul Maidment (another Forbes veteran), he said he didn’t understand why we covered politics. My responses—that we cover those things because our readers like them, a thesis that is supported by traffic figures—have failed to make an impact. In a meeting with the Deadspin staff earlier this week, Maidment said the “stick to sports” edict comes from Great Hill leadership, but that he would “double-check the numbers.” “If the data changes, my views change,” he told my colleagues.

The data has in fact stayed quite consistent. Posts on The Concourse, Deadspin’s vertical dedicated to politics and culture and other topics that are not sports, outperform posts on the main site by slightly more than two to one.

My colleagues and I know that most Deadspin readers do not want the site to stick to sports. I know this because I have 18 months of experience running the site and 12-ish years of experience reading it, and because I work with people who have seven or eight or nine years’ experience writing and editing for it. We know this because we read the comments. We know this because readers make obvious every day what they most like to read, and because our traffic numbers are large and growing, and because I have tunneled obsessively into the details of those traffic numbers for the past year and a half. The politics, media, and lifestyle stories will not stop, because my colleagues are committed to giving readers what they want despite any bureaucratic obstacles, and to doing it with enviable levels of intelligence, humor, and integrity.

The numbers apparently do not matter to my ostensibly numbers-obsessed bosses, for reasons I can’t quite understand. When I have told them that the data show that non-sports content brings more traffic and more revenue opportunities, I have been ignored. When I have told them that the data show that readers prefer publications with a distinctive point of view, that Deadspin succeeds precisely because it doesn’t try to be all things to all people, I have been told that being all things to all people is in fact exactly the way to grow pageviews. The reason my colleagues are not going to suddenly start sticking to sports is not about editorial purity, it’s about the opportunity to grow the audience and make more money for Great Hill Partners. But the adults in the room know that we’re wrong, despite all evidence, because they just know.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.