LAST WEEK, THE UNITED KINGDOM voted to leave the European Union. For those who had been following the referendum, the outcome was a shock — it seemed so wildly implausible, so self-destructively stupid, that it was simply assumed it wouldn’t happen. For those who hadn’t been following the referendum (or the existence of the EU in general), the outcome was even more confusing — what in God’s name was a “Brexit?” And why was the entire world losing its shit?
If you’re in the latter camp, Vox did a pretty great job of explaining the Brexit, as the choice to leave the EU was called. But what pretty much everyone noticed was how similar the Brexit vote felt to what’s currently going on in American politics. Young people in the UK felt betrayed by their elders, who largely voted to leave while the young largely voted to stay. As one viral post put it:
“The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.”
Donald Trump also immediately started crowing about Brits “taking back” their country, and virtually everyone with a conscience is shuddering at the sudden rise in right-wing racism in the Western world.
Scary as it all is, young Americans can learn a few things from the UK’s sudden dark turn. And maybe the Brexit can serve as a cautionary tale that will save us from ourselves.
1. The thing you think will “never happen” could very easily happen.
Donald Trump was quick to point out the similarities between the Brexit and his campaign: “The people of the United Kingdom have exercised the sacred right of all free peoples,” he said. “They have declared their independence from the European Union and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy. Come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first.”
Donald Trump is going to have a much harder time winning the US election than Brexit had winning in the UK (the UK has a lot more white people than the US, for one thing), but it’s jarring for those among us who have been laughing off the possibility of a Trump Presidency to see what just happened to those who had been laughing off the possibility of a Brexit.
Trump is currently doing a terrible job fundraising, and he now has some truly abysmal polling numbers. But just a month ago, he was polling above Hillary Clinton. Terrible as Trump is, Clinton is not bulletproof, and the election could still go to Trump.
2. When it comes to politics, anger isn’t a particularly useful emotion.
Much of the backlash against the UK’s membership in the EU had to do with resentment towards immigrants and refugees, and this anger was deftly exploited by anti-EU politicians who used posters of swarms of refugees to whip up a scare about ethnic invaders and lost British identity. It also had to do with a rejection of intellectuals and “establishment” politicians: one prominent Brexit supporter said, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.”
It’s obviously an irrational way of thinking. Not only is being “anti-expert” a nonsense position, but economists generally agree that immigration is good for economic growth, both in Europe and in the United States.
This kind of voting — “protest voting,” or voting with a desire to simply shake things up, or to kick the bastards out — might feel good, but it’s not productive. Comedian John Oliver has long been critical of Cameron, and he said Cameron’s resignation “should make me happy, but in this situation, it doesn’t. It’s like catching an ice cream cone out of the air because a child was hit by a car. I mean, I’ll eat it, I’ll eat it — but it’s tainted somehow.”
The sad truth is that the protest voters are likely to be the ones that are hurt most economically when all is said and done, and their victory is Pyrrhic.
3. When we don’t take care of everybody, we all suffer.
It would be easy to blame things like the Brexit and Trump exclusively on widespread bigotry and racism. To be sure, they do go hand in hand: there has been a spike of hate crimes in the UK since the Brexit vote, and a spike in hate crimes in the US since the ascendancy of Trump, but it would be reductive to say that this is all that’s happening.
In the UK, people who voted in favor of the Brexit tended to vote along class and education lines. The lower class and less educated people who have been left behind by an economic system that favors the rich, favors the elites, and favors those living in big cities, found themselves in a sudden position of power. They chose to lash out at an establishment that had neglected them, even if it was against their own best interests. It may be true that many of these people are bigots that are using immigrants as scapegoats for larger problems, but that doesn’t mean those larger problems don’t exist.
The UK and the US aren’t exactly the same, but we can learn the same lesson: Insecurity breeds instability, and when you refuse to take care of giant swathes of society, it’ll eventually come back to bite you in the ass.
4. In a democracy, the people that show up are the people that win.
This may sound blindingly obvious, but participatory democracies only really serve the people who participate in them. The people who voted for the Brexit quite simply turned out in larger numbers than those who voted against it. Older people voted to leave in higher numbers, and they showed up to the polls in higher numbers. Areas with the highest turnout percentages broadly voted to leave. Scots — who broadly wanted to stay — showed up in much lower numbers than most other places in the country.
So while it’s galling that older generations have basically scuttled the opportunities of their children by voting to leave, it’s way more frustrating that young people of voting age turned out in absolutely abysmal numbers.
We’re facing a similar situation in the upcoming US elections. If everyone in the US voted, elections would usually favor progressives. But young people (who are also generally more progressive), simply don’t show up in the way their parents and grandparents do. If you can’t be bothered to show up for the vote, you can’t be shocked when your side loses.