By Jennifer Ryder
2016 has been quite an eventful year for western political science. The two bastions of Anglo-Saxon capitalist democracy, the United Kingdom and the United States, have experienced political earthquakes in the form of Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump. As professors of the discipline attempt to reorganize their syllabi and pollsters begin the search for a new profession, we have seen a number of explanations emerge for this shift. It is easy to lay the blame on a lack of education, inherent xenophobia and racism, as so many have. However, it is important going forward to recognise that even as we pour over demographic breakdowns and analyze shifting polling data, we must also identify these events exist as part of a larger narrative.
Our attention must first be turned toward pre-Brexit Britain. Central to the Leave campaign, as has been well-documented and discussed, is the idea that Britain was suffering both culturally and economically from its membership in the European Union. The argument that EU membership was a drain on the economy was debunked by numerous economists, especially when considering that the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner. Despite this, the gut feeling that remained for many voters was that Britain was somehow losing its core. In a country where Chicken Tikka Masala has been declared the unofficial national dish, what it means to be British has come under threat to certain people on a more basic level than the balance of trade.
Perceptions of the success of the EU vary from overwhelmingly positive (nearly 75 percent) from the perspective of Remain voters to the largely negative (58 percent) view over the past 30 years from Leave voters. The challenge in finding a fixed idea of ‘Britishness’ aligns with the dramatic disparity among the voting population. The generational gap is evident in the fact that 73 percent of citizens under 25 voted Remain, in comparison to the 60 percent of Leave voters who were over 60 years old. Younger generations grew up accustomed to, and planned their lives around, the freedom of Schengen-era travel. They also were raised with a strong EU role in their education and work habits. However, the same cannot be said of their older counterparts. Rather, the elder generations have no plans to utilise the majority of their rights as EU citizens beyond shorter queues in European airports. It is this type of disconnect between dichotomous sides of political arguments, I would argue, that forms the root of our current political problems.
Trump’s rise to power followed a similar route. The United States has been dividing itself into multiple different spheres for decades. There has been a widening gap between blue and red, the coasts and the Rust Belt as well as the educated elite and blue collar working class. These disparities have collided to create a political situation where the fear of possibilities is enough to drive droves of voters in the opposite direction. Trump’s rhetoric and promises were enough not only to galvanize voters to a win, but to outstrip all expectations. Democrats and anti-Trumpers from both sides of the political spectrum are left to handle the surprising outcome through witty rants from Stephen Colbert and online petitions calling for the popular vote (which Hillary won) to be expressed through the Electoral College vote. Once they pick themselves off the floor, they will find that the Republicans hold control of the House, Senate and White House, bringing an unprecedentedly right wing platform with them.
Up until this year, the center was the safest place for mainstream politicians. However the shift to the right has been tangible throughout the US election campaign and particularly in post-Brexit Britain. The shift away from the traditional all-encompassing welfare-state system of the UK has been evident as far back as the 2008 financial crash, as ‘austerity’ became the buzzword of Europe. The number of children in poverty spiked in the UK by 200,000 children this year, as the culmination of cuts to ‘lazy’ parents reached new levels. Similarly, the UK government has been chastised by a United Nations inquiry regarding cuts to disability support services and its subsequent impact on the lives of people with disabilities. The belief in a welfare state and the role of government in supporting its poorest citizens has developed in strangely contradictory ways. As demonstrated in the UK, the poorest are facing new challenges. Simultaneously, the Leave campaign centered much of its argument around saving British support services for ‘British’ people, as opposed to migrants. As poorer people voted for Brexit, the logical assumption would be that social services would be a priority. Instead, broader concerns regarding sovereignty and immigration have served to mask the fact that post-Brexit policies have yet to produce any tangible shifts in policy from Theresa May’s government, beyond her new role as face of the charge for Brexit to be achieved.
One tangible impact, however, is the rise in hate crime and racism following the vote. Though some would argue this is more a reflection of increased reporting of crimes, the numbers say otherwise. As soon as the 24th of June, the racially and religiously charged atmosphere in Britain felt intimidating to anyone who didn’t immediately identify as idealized ethnic British. Similarly, in the first few days after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center had received 200 complaints. Whether this is simply a matter of increased reporting or not fails to negate the fact that at least 200 people felt they had experienced or witnessed a hate crime as a result of Trump’s election. The debate over causation versus correlation will likely continue but the reality is that at least a portion of those who voted against the establishment did so for more than simply political reasons.
Having established the basic emotions that were the driving force for so many of those voting to Leave and for Trump, it is important to examine the two campaigns themselves. In both cases, dramatic and controversial language were used alongside policies. In both cases again, there was a level of disdain for the ‘establishment’, as well as for supposed ‘experts.’ The threat of economic ruin or political anarchy, the former of which was somewhat confirmed by the disastrous devaluation of the pound, was simply not as frightening to voters as the overall threat to their culture. Be it preserving Britain for white British citizens or “Making America Great Again” for the white rural poor, the messages of the supposedly outrageous campaigns were effective and successful.
The historical patterns would be foolish to ignore. A disgruntled populace that feels their self-identity being threatened by outsiders, either ideologically or physically, are presented with an easy catch-all fix that has sinister undertones. Choosing to ignore the warnings of experts in favour of emotional appeals, the ‘outsider’ succeeds and the peoples’ champion is crowned. It doesn’t take comparisons to the second world war to link the rise of this kind of figure to a period of tumultuous change. Some muse on the implications of the Trump ascendance and impact of Brexit on the EU, fearing a stronger and more aggressive Russia. Others view it as a chance for a revolution akin to the 1960s post-Nixon backlash. Regardless, this period of time is an important turning point in a larger chain of events.
What is most concerning at present is not the fact that the earthquakes happened. After all, the world has not ended. The immediate concerns of those most at risk, be they immigrants, LGBT people or other targeted groups, are entirely valid and in the coming months we as a society must strive to protect these people. However we must also acknowledge the long-term threats that face us in the wake of these developments. Already we have seen a pull-back on campaign promises from both the Brexit and Trump camps. In the case of Brexit, the High Court ruling earlier this month has limited the ability of Theresa May to trigger article 50 and begin the process of EU withdrawal without the approval of parliament. Given the general uncertainty and regret expressed by many Leave voters immediately after the results, alongside the negative impact that Brexit has already had on the UK economy, it is not unreasonable to imagine that the Parliament will be the main actor involved in obtaining a ‘soft’ Brexit – devoid of economic ruin or political isolation. Whether that is possible given the atmosphere in Brussels is debatable. Should the Remain goal of no Brexit or a very low-impact Brexit be achieved, large swaths of Leave voters will be left even further dissatisfied with the political system they chose to rebel against.
Only a week removed from being elected, Donald Trump has similarly already pulled back from some of the many extreme elements of his platform. He most notably stated that he would not be pushing for changes regarding equal marriage rights for the LGBT community. He also expressed a willingness to examine Obamacare on “its merits and difficulties,” which is a sharp change from the aggressive discourse of his campaign. While many believe it would simply be impossible for Trump to follow through on every campaign promise (forcing Mexico to pay for the border wall springs to mind) the degree to which he is willing to push, and the amount that Congress allows through, is yet to be determined. The problem facing Trump now is balancing the reality of the situation with the image of the world he painted while on the campaign trail. Perhaps bluster and bravado will be enough to keep his supporters content. If he fails, however, the alternative routes that his supporters may be willing to go is perhaps more frightening than anything The Donald can do.
2016 has been an awakening for the political and academic elites of the United Kingdom and the United States. Gone are the days of predicable polling data and mild mannered politics. The new breed swept in under Trump and Brexit did not arise from thin air however, nor are they the final pieces of the puzzle. Rather, we have seen a year that seems to have separated society to a breaking point. Though some consider the election and referendum results to be a sign that the end is already upon us, I would rather argue that there is still time left to prevent the further deterioration of global politics. If these events are enough to bolster opposition to the Front National in France or inspire Democrats and Remain voters to truly look into healing the divide between them and their opponents, then it’s possible that these recent events will go down as nothing more than flukes. Perhaps they will be one day be viewed by historians as nothing more than a release of pressure from a system of government adapting to an ever-changing global landscape. If these events fail to inspire such actions, however, we may have to take what the doom-sayers prophesy much more seriously. As it currently stands though, Brexit and Trump are not the end of the world. At least, not yet.
Images courtesy of the public domain and Matt Johnson