Hard Brexit lessons for US Democrats

Brexit continues to lie untouched in the dog’s breakfast bowl, no more appetising in the cold light of day than it was when things started to smell bad on the night of June 23.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Brexit over easy on rye, nobody’s quite sure what they ordered. The Scots aren’t planning to shut up and eat what someone else requested on their behalf, that’s clear. Alex Salmond said recently there will be a new independence referendum in 2018.

The US is facing a similar binary choice with one indigestible option on the menu: here are some lessons from a still-suffering Remain supporter.

1) Denial doesn’t help

In the run up to the referendum on EU membership, I found myself almost unable to believe that the British people would vote Leave. Reading reports of the poll results, which tended as they do, to congregate in the middle, I discounted the ones I didn’t like.

When MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered, I thought, as many others did that people would vote the way she asked them to, to honour her memory. But it wasn’t a turning point, in fact it was an indicator of how bad things were getting in that part of England. Even her own constituency voted ‘Leave’. It seems now that we were in denial.

There was a recent article in the New York Times about Democrats seeing Trump eyeing the White House. “The possibility of that is too horrifying to broach,” Larry David, the “Seinfeld” co-creator and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star, wrote in an email. “It’s like contemplating your own death. I can’t go there”. Go there.

2) Beware the filter bubble

A British entry has more chance of winning Eurovision than Trump has of winning  Massachusetts, where I am living. Trump supporters are rare. I read the New York Times which does not carry their voices; a friend pointed to  this piece where Nicholas Kristof interviews an imaginary Trump supporter.

Similarly, my home city of Edinburgh was the most Remain of any in the UK. I know people who were pretty unenthusiastic about the European Union, but none who voted ‘Leave”.

On the day after the EU referendum, in a Facebook post, mySociety founder, Tom Steinberg, wrote” I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy *despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today* and despite the fact that I’m *actively* looking to hear what they are saying… We’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.” (Quoted by the Guardian’s Katharine Viner in “How Technology Disrupted the Truth”.)

Many Brexit voters were people left behind by the digital revolution. Disproportionately old, poor, socially unconnected, living in deprived areas, Leavers were heavily reliant for information on tabloid news outlets punting out cheap populism. Don’t forget that not everyone is on Twitter, sharing bon mots and hyperlinks.

3) Avoid “mansogyny” and other inverse prejudice

After the Brexit vote in the UK, I listened on a radio phone-in to callers voicing distress at divisions the referendum had brought out within their families and communities. One woman called the show in tears to say she had been told: “White trash shouldn’t have the vote.”

And on an important TV debate in the run-up to the referendum, we watched an all-female team on the Remain side make repeated personal attacks on Boris Johnson. “That’s mansogyny,” my teenage son commented. He was joking but I suspect that his word captured how a certain kind of male viewer might have felt.

The new poor, the new marginalised, are sensitive to their loss of status and reduced prospects. Don’t insult them.

4) Think harder

Britain’s UKIP leader NIgel Farage, said Remain focused on “how terrible it would be to leave” rather than making a positive case.” In the Brexit referendum campaign, the case for continuing to work towards a better Europe didn’t measure up to the grandiose false promises of “Leave”.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill put it, is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Apparently the Chinese followed the Brexit campaign with fascination – the Chinese media reported it in detail, as an example of what a silly system democracy really can be. And Chinese media outlets have described the rise of Trump the “big-mouthed clown” as an illustration of how scarey and pointless democracy really is.

But what really lies behind his rise in support? In France, the leader of the political movement En Marche, Emmanuel Macron, has declared there is a new split in politics superseding the left-right divide, between those afraid of globalisation and those who see it as an opportunity.

Has unfettered globalisation has been too harsh for too many people? An interesting column by Dani Rodrik in the NYT argues that a more strategic approach could have been taken.

As Barack Obama pointed out in his speech to the UN, “the solution for what ails our democracies is more engagement not less”. Ask more questions.

5) Be Ready

It is likely that Hillary Clinton will be elected the next President of the United States. It will be a historic moment – the election of an older woman, a grandmother, a woman of as the leader of the free world. It is still unlikely that Trump will win. But it’s possible.

The night of June 23 was a memorable low for British democracy. It was a shambles. It was only when Scotland’s SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon appeared on television , looking poised, flanked by Scottish and European flags that it seemed as if we were watching someone who had prepared for this moment. For her, the end of the Brexit referendum was the beginning of the next electoral campaign.

One of the strengths of democracy lies in its resilience. As long as the other institutions which underpin it remain strong, and an autocrat isn’t able to seize power, there will be another election coming up.

For Democrats, as for democrats, November 9, 2016 will be either a day for celebration or it will be a day to be ready to start the next campaign. But I hope it’s the former.

Donald Trump image: Wikipedia.


  1. says

    Thanks for a most interesting post. I certainly agree that the Trump phenomenon has significant parallels with the Brexit referendum. Both are expressions of the new populism that you describe. Although – and apologies if was not your intention – I would be wary of implying that the Brexit vote was as straightforwardly populist as the Trump campaign seems to be. For sure, the mainstream Brexit campaign shamelessly exploited some base prejudices: fear of difference, a willingness to believe speculative economic claims, and so on and on – it has all been exhaustively documented elsewhere. But amidst the noise there was a reasoned, minority case for Leave that was based on long-standing reservations about the EU from both left and right: I tried to articulate elements of this argument in a contrary piece I wrote for Sceptical Scot shortly after the vote: http://sceptical.scot/2016/06/looking-again-at-the-case-for-lexit/.

    Trump’s bandwagon seems to me more alarming because it is hard to discern any underlying logic underpinning his campaign. His platform seems to evolve in response to whatever rhetorical flourish that occurs to him on any given day. Of course, coherent arguments can be constructed regarding the malign impact of globalisation on many communities, some of which were at the heart of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But Sanders had a coherent platform – whether ultimately persuasive or not – that drew upon serious economic and political research and policy formulation. Trump’s is an altogether more subjective form of populism, and all the more worrying.

  2. jackie kemp says

    Thanks for that response. I got an email update from the New York Times this am headed “ignore the polls”. The atmosphere here very much reminds me of how I felt in the run up to Brexit. I appreciate you feel there was some coherence to the Brexit campaign but I felt it was also very much based on misinformation. There is a really big difference between the kinds of Brexit that are being suggested for instance. How they will affect the Scottish economy specifically is pretty unclear and worrying. As I see it from here in the US, the perception is that its a mess and there is no clear plan. I see it as a response to the perceived threat of immigration and I read about a lot of nasty attacks on European citizens. Scotland is in a difficult position because the economy is perhaps a bit more fragile than London. I read Scotland may not get that film studio now, and people here say well, I wouldn’t want to go back to the UK. Not just now. Not with the shadow of uncertainty. I just think it’s a shame. It wasn’t necessary. The UK could have done with a bit of quiet time to recover from the indyref and get on with building bridges. I feel this whole Brexit thing is partly game playing. Will Boris Johnson go for hard Brexit because it will make it harder for the Scots to go for independence (more borders with England) even tho that will make things harder for Northern Ireland/ Ireland? I saw a thing from the Times red box the other day, saying everythings fine the sky hasn’t fallen in. But it’s just as if the UK is shuffling about in its carpet slippers really not getting on with anything. What Brexit has in common with Trump really is that its at least partly about annoying the grown ups. It’s kind of childish.

  3. Paul says

    It’s funny you couldn’t find any Trump supporters in your area as I cannot find any Clinton supporters in mine. Even the gays and minorities are supporting Trump, something the media will not discuss. I also see the difference in enthusiasm between the two candidates. You’d think electing the first female president would excite crowds, but its the Trump supporters who fill up stadiums to hear him speak while Clinton speaks to half filled gyms.

    The media has become the enemy and I notice more and more Americans are supporting the candidate the media hates. Consider it payback for forcing Beyonce or the Kardashian family on people 24/7. Fact is that the Clinton supporters I find online don’t spend their time campaigning FOR Clinton but against Trump. No one likes being told what to do. When someone on tv tells you who to vote for, our instinct is to vote opposite.

    With that said, for every poll saying Clinton leads there are two with Trump leading. The media will dismiss these polls as unscientific but when almost all polls had Trump leading the media cherry picked these same unscientific polls to show Clinton leading.

    An interesting poll was with Bravo, a liberal network watched by majority women and gays. Andy Cohen’s talk show held a live poll for 20 minutes where Trump won by 65%. Andy was so shocked he held the same poll a month later and the results were the same. Online polls for CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX and others had the same results. But they’re dismissed as unscientific despite CNN using polls where liberal democrats made up 68% of the people asked.

    My issue with polls is that the people asked could lie, change their minds, or not vote at all. Some asked may not be able to vote or even registered to vote. We saw with not just Brexit, but many elections where the outcome was opposite of polling. The most recent was Germany’s elections where Merkel’s party lost to the new right wing party.

    The world is changing. We’ve seen how devious the media is (only 6% trust or believe them) when it comes to playing favorites. The last debate had Trump winning every poll but one, which was CNN. So the media cherry picked the CNN poll despite it having the least amount of votes. We also saw CNN telling participants in a focus group what to say (unaware the cameras were rolling) vs a focus group of 20 undecided/independent voters on Fox where 15 came out supporting Trump.

    The reason we don’t know what’s going on with the other side is due to the media lying to us. If they covered this election fairly both sides could explain which candidate they favor and why. Instead its become a defensive conversation where everyone is defending.

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