Published in The Edge Malaysia, 4 - 10 July 2016, as "The Political Economy of Fear and Anger".
The United Kingdom’s recent referendum on whether it should formally leave the European Union turned out to be a shocker. With a voter turnout of approximately 70%, the ‘Leave’ vote, ‘Brexit,’ won, garnering 52% of the vote versus 48% for the ‘Remain’ campaign. There are important consequences to this result, some of which are already being seen.
Rather than bore the reader with yet another economic, political or social forecast of the impact of Brexit – those are everywhere now – I would like to raise two lessons in political economy from this Brexit episode. The first is on how vacuums for populist measures can arise due to citizen disenfranchisement and the second is on how we should re-think the current implementation of democracy.
With regards to the first lesson, the most common reaction that I have seen to the Brexit outcome goes along the following lines. “All these ‘Leave’ voters are idiots!” “The old have screwed over the young!” “Those who voted ‘Leave’ are racist bigots!” “I’m so sick of the idiocy of my Northern countrymen!” Let me just be clear – these reactions do not help. Blaming the voter base without understanding why they voted the way they did is arrogant and presumptuous.
Yet, these sorts of sentiments can be seen all around the world, whether in Malaysia or, as is a hot button issue today, the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for the American presidency. It may be easy to think of all Trump supporters as brainless supremacists, but that is intellectually lazy. While the support for Trump and the support for Brexit are different issues altogether, there are some underlying similarities. Perhaps the most important similarity between both camps is the fact that a good chunk of the supporter base for both movements tend to come from lower to middle-income working class groups.
A big reason for this is a feeling of disenfranchisement. The Leave campaign has seized on the concerns of some white working-class British folk who have felt left behind as the United Kingdom has progressed. As Tim Oliver, a professor at the London School of Economics puts it, “The rest of England feels a bit adrift from [London].” Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten agrees, stating, “growing social inequity has contributed to a revolt against a perceived metropolitan elite.” Indeed, the Bank of England reported that while higher asset prices resulting from Quantitative Easing have boosted the value of households’ wealth, the holdings are heavily skewed with the top 5% of households holding a whopping 40% of these assets.
I am not saying I agree with the viewpoints of these demographics (or the viewpoints of others). I am just saying that in a demographic which feels disenfranchised, left behind and has seen the world they knew changed so dramatically, it is not difficult for a skilled politician to exploit such feelings for their own purposes. In other words, a skilled politician may leverage on the fear and anger of the people to propound a message of making a country great ‘again.’ This should sound familiar.
When people feel disenfranchised, what they are really trying to regain, most of all, is their sense of dignity in society. As such, persuading such demographics becomes a matter of pathos or emotion, not logos or reason. Politicians such as Boris Johnson or Donald Trump have done a great job engaging with the pathos of these demographics. Simply using the voice of ‘experts’ such as adverse economic effects will not have much impact. The logos is, of course, important to any policy discussion, but politics is typically a battle over pathos. Thus, the continuous attacks on the dignity of the Leave supporters or Trump supporters will just make matters worse. Restoring dignity to such supporters, based on the political view we support and engaging with them rather than simply condemning them, is the way forward.
On the second lesson, I have also seen a bounty of criticisms on democracy. Winston Churchill’s quote, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,” has been a popular one. Indeed, the argument that critical nation-defining decisions should be left to qualified experts rather than the will of the people has gained much steam, given the dire potential consequences of Brexit on the United Kingdom and its people.
I strongly disagree with that. First of all, leaving the choices that a nation makes to a group of qualified experts does nothing to empower citizens and restore dignity in those who have felt disenfranchised. Secondly, while democracy may be the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, it is still the only system in which the vote of a dock worker in Liverpool counts for the same as the vote of a City CEO in London. Citizens of a nation absolutely have the right to have a say in where their country is headed. Whatever they decide, we should not be so arrogant as to think their view counts for less than ours.
Yet, there are two key points to raise. Firstly, while the right to vote is a right, it must also be treated as sacred. The populace, in exercising their right to vote, owe it to themselves, their fellow citizens and their nation to make informed votes. This may not have been the case for the entire voting populace in the United Kingdom; Google searches for the European Union spiked dramatically after the Brexit vote outcome, indicating that many voters did not actually know what they were voting for. However, for those who are informed, we should not begrudge them on their decision even if we disagree with it. Rather, we should engage with them to best understand why they chose what they chose.
Secondly, with that said, some democratic reform is still probably in order. As mentioned earlier, 70% of the population voted 52:48 for the UK to leave the European Union. For a nation-defining decision as crucial as this, should the outcome really be determined by, as Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff puts it, “a one-time snapshot of a fragment of the population?” Rogoff makes the point that “the idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term.”
Rather, the greater and more lasting the consequences of a decision, the higher the hurdle rate should be. It is why, for instance, constitutional amendments in Malaysia require a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament versus regular Bills. As such, Rogoff posits, “Surely, the hurdle should have been a lot higher; for example, Brexit should have required, say, two popular votes spaced out over at least two years, followed by a 60% vote in the House of Commons.”
Thus, while there will be severe consequences of Brexit in the days to come, let us also take this opportunity to learn from the whole proceedings. Specifically, the need to be humble and to empathise with those with whom we disagree, and to recognise individuals’ need for dignity. With that said, it is also important to ask questions about how we do democracy and methods of check and balance for democracy such that a “one-time snapshot of a fragment of the population” is not allowed to be the sole determinant of a nation’s future.