United States | October 7, 2016 at 1:52 pm

A Tale of Two Ballots: What Brexit Can Teach America about Its Own Election

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Left: Leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage, right: U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump

The results of the British referendum on EU membership this June—dubbed “Brexit” by most—sent shockwaves across the globe: the British people had voted in favor of leaving the European Union. Whether it was the inflammatory rhetoric of political leaders like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson that fanned the flames of the separatist movement or a longer-term shift in opinion against globalization and immigration that pushed the country over the edge is unclear. In the lead-up to the vote, Michael Gove, Co-Convener of the Vote Leave Campaign Committee, identified perhaps the quintessential impetus behind Brexit: “People in this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best.”

Gove received widespread criticism from the international community for his ostensibly anti-intellectual statement. However, his words offered a penetrating insight into the mindset of Britons who feel they have lost their livelihoods to globalization. Particularly, his statement echoed a sort of deep-rooted populist ideals for which evidence-based reasoning simply served as external validation.

In an interview with the HPR, Will Straw, executive director of the main “Remain” campaign, Britain Stronger In Europe, described the vote to leave as “part of the populist uprising that we’re seeing in many western countries.”

So what went wrong? Understanding the fire beneath the movement allowed Brexit visionaries to strategically formulate interpretations and arguments that would appeal to potential voters. On the contrary, opponents of the movement failed to effectively alter their campaigning to fit the frame of mind of swing voters. For much of the British electorate, economic struggles brought about by developments as recent as the Great Recession formed an incredibly important factor that ended up going Vote Leave’s way. Peter A. Hall, Professor of European Studies at Harvard, explained, “If you look to see what kind of voters tended to support Brexit, you’ll find that they were predominantly voters in economically depressed parts of the country, and some were in small coastal towns or rural areas.”

How exactly “Leave” won

Consider Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign bus on which the following ad appeared: “We send the EU £350 million a week—let’s fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave.” Johnson’s fiscal appeal was a golden promise, but it was soon revealed to be riddled with fallacies. Most significantly, Britain’s net capital flows into the EU at the time were at most only half of what the bus touted.

The embellishment and inaccuracy of Vote Leave’s appeal, however, seemed to work; the campaign’s combination of positive appeals—arguing for the benefits of Brexit and promising a brighter, EU-less future—and negative appeals—urging Britain to avoid a future resembling the present’s economic tribulations—reflected an apt campaign strategy. The campaign’s leaders realized that the votes of many on the fence could be won via emotional, rather than logical, appeals. The UK’s historically aloof relationship with the EU certainly made the vote less about policy and more about the emotional aspects of establishing “an independent United Kingdom,” as Farage put it on the day of the vote.

Additionally, the “Leave” campaign capitalized on the anxiety of an economically beleaguered British labor force surrounding the EU’s open-border immigration policy.

“Ultimately,” said Straw, “in this referendum, people voted for emotional reasons around immigration and a broader sense of nationalism, as opposed to making a financial calculation about what would be in their best economic interests.”

“That economic discontent makes people vulnerable to xenophobic cultural appeals,” said Hall. “You look for someone to blame, and immigrants are always available as a group that can be identified as the ‘other,’ as those who can be held accountable for your economic conditions.”

Rather than identifying Britain’s low interest rates or intense competition from foreign industries as the reason for its recent economic struggles, many voters fell prey to the anti-immigration rhetoric of groups like Vote Leave and the U.K. Independence Party, which tended to spread disinformation about immigration’s impacts on the lives of British citizens. In contrary, academic research generally shows that immigration benefits the UK economically. A 2013 University College London report revealed that recent immigrants paid more in taxes than they received in benefits and mitigated the economic burden on native citizens.

Moreover, the regions of the UK that have traditionally seen high levels of immigration actually preferred to remain in the EU. Chief among these examples is London, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and an overwhelming supporter of “Remain” by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.

“Paradoxically, although immigration was the central issue in this campaign, the areas that voted ‘Leave’ typically had much lower levels of immigration than the areas that voted to remain,” said Hall. “More than anything, it was a vote against the status quo; broadly speaking, people who felt that their lives were not improving voted for change.”

By and large, it was “Remain” that failed to sharpen its appeal to swing voters. Given that Britain has never been a particularly enthused member of the EU, the easiest option for high-profile “Remain” supporters was indeed to run an overall negative campaign that showcased the many downsides of a Brexit. For instance, in response to Johnson’s campaign bus, Stronger In provided the one-liner that the bus, which was made in Germany, would cost £56,000 more post-Brexit. Such starkly cynical messages were not the right campaign choice, as the result of the vote suggests.

“The air war,” explained Straw, “was conducted primarily on the risks of leaving. In the face of an arms-race of rhetoric from the ‘Leave’ campaign, the only way to cut through was to have eye-catching numbers and statements about the risks of leaving.”

“A negative appeal is ultimately limited in the number of voters it can influence,” said Hall. “People want to vote for something, not just against something. The negative character of the ‘Remain’ campaign limited its appeal.”

As Gove had predicted, more important than experts’ studies and opinions were the tone and spirit of the campaign. Although “Remain” had the backing of an overwhelming contingent of prominent think tanks and economic organizations, the British people were weary of listening to pundits, feeling more comfortable with the messages of less authoritative, yet outwardly more optimistic, figures. Despite the fact that many see the “Leave” camp as the treacherous, fear-mongering side in this referendum, a majority of British voters likely interpreted the negative appeals of the “Remain” campaign as a sign of its populist ties and participation in an extensive blame game.

Hindsight is certainly 20/20, as the truism goes, but perhaps with a more optimistic message, the “Remain” campaign could have better broadcast the benefits of membership. For instance, instead of countering Johnson’s bus with only a witty-yet-critical put-down of Brexit, the campaign could have tried to publicize in a positive tone the jobs, security, and other benefits the £350 million buys.

Across the pond

Much like Vote Leave, the Republican nominee Donald Trump tenders a visceral, emotional appeal, one that has gained him numbers despite his propensity for bluster and, often, utter fiction. And just like ‘Leave,’ Trump has offered voters both positive appeals regarding his own candidacy and negative condemnations of his opponent while also heaping blame for very public issues on various groups.

While many of these messages have been erroneous, Hillary Clinton’s response cannot be centered on pointing out the inaccuracies. Just as clever quips and accurate fact-checking couldn’t defeat the populist mindset in the UK, pointing out that more than 99.99 percent of Muslims worldwide are not associated with Islamic terrorism or that the U.S. will be the one to pay for the Donald’s beloved border wall will not be effective ways of damaging Trump’s image.

Nor should Clinton pinpoint Trump’s flaws and the damages his presidency would create. A recent TV attack ad by the Clinton campaign against Trump questions whether he will really make America great again, pointing out that “he outsourced jobs to 12 countries” as a businessman. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the “Remain” campaign, it’s that Clinton cannot expect to defeat a populist, emotional Trump campaign with such an exclusive focus on Trump’s faults. Instead of concentrating on convincing the country that Trump is the wrong option, Clinton needs to devote a greater focus to displaying her own positive qualities. That doesn’t mean she has to develop a Trump-like level of arrogance, but she does need to demonstrate to undecided voters why she is a good option, rather than just a better option.

More importantly, her supporters need to do the same. “Endorsements” by notable supporters, from Bernie Sanders to John Oliver, have often seemed more anti-Trump in nature than pro-Clinton. Even ordinary Americans supporting Clinton often sound more in support of keeping Trump out of the White House than getting Clinton into it. That needs to change.

In an interview with the HPR, Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, clarified, “The obvious lesson [from Brexit] is to speak to people’s concerns and to show why membership in the EU, or [analogously] participation in a liberal international order, actually works.”

Whether voters want to achieve a Clinton presidency or avoid a Trump administration, they share the same end goal. Thus, they need to start making the positive case for Clinton. They need to provide reasons why they are for Clinton, not just why they are against Trump. They need to make the logical case for Clinton’s liberal policies, not just condemn Trump’s jingoistic stances. They need to highlight Clinton’s diplomacy and political savvy, not just emphasize Trump’s lack thereof. It’s not that they shouldn’t stand between Trump and the White House; it’s just that they simply cannot afford to not be fully behind Clinton.

Perhaps the most important question of this election cycle is whether American voters—like their British counterparts—are tired of listening to experts. Are we in the midst of a revolution in voter attitude, a shift to increasingly anti-intellectual or tone-based voting? Like it or not, we need to accept the reality that a large subset of American voters has transitioned to voting based more on candidates’ appearances and packaging of messages than on those messages’ content or the opinions of political and economic savants. Gove’s keynote is not just an interesting insight into the irrelevant votes and problem of a distant land. It’s actually an eerily perceptive warning about how the outcome of the EU membership referendum may bear great semblance to what could happen in the U.S. in the not so unimaginable future.

Image Credits: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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