US Election: Some Hard Lessons from Brexit for the 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 UK vote, I found myself unwilling and almost unable to believe that the vote was going to go the way it did; that the British people would plump for something that virtually every friend we had in the world was warning against – except Vladimir Putin. And I more or less dismissed the possibility that Brexit would happen. Reading reports of the poll results, if there was a discrepancy between one and another, I would immediately turn to the one I liked and discount the other as flawed.

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 the memory of this inspiring woman. But I read that event wrong. 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’.

Instead of clutching at straws, perhaps people like me should have gone to the area she represented to knock on doors, we might have made a difference. At least we would have had a better sense of what was happening in the real world.

I was reminded of this experience by a recent article in the New York Times about the creeping horror in the blue states as they see 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.”.

2) Watch out for the filter bubble

A British entry has more chance of winning Eurovision than Trump has of winning the state of Massachusetts, where I am living. I almost never come across Trump supporters here; and don’t encounter them on social media. I read the New York Times which does not carry their voices; a friend pointed to a this piece where Pulitzer prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof interviews an imaginary Trump supporter.  

Similarly, my home city of Edinburgh was the most Remain of any in the UK with almost 75% of the vote. All of my friends voted that way. I knew people who were pretty unenthusiastic about the European Union, but I don’t think I know a single person who voted ‘Leave”. Any of their material that was shared on social media was usually shared in an ironic way.

On the day after the EU referendum, in a Facebook post, the British internet activist and 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.”

This post was quoted in an essay by the Guardian’s Katharine Viner called “How Technology Disrupted the Truth”.

But the problem is not just created by Mark Zuckerberg et al – many Brexit voters were people left behind by the digital revolution. Disproportionately old, poor, socially unconnected, Leavers were heavily reliant for information on tabloid news outlets punting out cheap populism.   Sometimes, it’s easy to 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 to their narrowed prospects. It’s not helpful to insult them.

4 Think harder about the issues

Britain’s UKIP leader NIgel Farage, a leading light of the Brexit campaign, said recently in an interview that he saw a Leave vote coming because the Remain campaign focused on “how terrible it would be to leave” rather than making a positive case.”

This is a tough problem which is also faced by the Democrats in combatting Trump.

In the Brexit referendum campaign, the workaday acase for carrying on making baby steps towards a better Europe didn’t measure up to the grandiose false promises made by the “Leave” campaign.

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

A friend with Chinese connections told me that her Chinese friends followed the Brexit campaign with fascination – Chinese media outlets 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 as Barack Obama pointed out in his speech to the UN, “the solution for what ails our democracies is more engagement not less”.

In France, the leader of the political movement En Marche, Emmanuel Macron, has declared there is a new split in politics which supersedes the old left-right divide. Voters, can be divided into those who are afraid of globalisation and those who see it as an opportunity. But globalisation tends to be more of an opportunity for the educated young and the privileged. It’s tough if you are 60 years old and lost your job in a paper mill that closed because of cheap imports.

Maybe unfettered globalisation has been too harsh for too many people. Perhaps some protection could have been offered to industries which needed time to gear up for international competition. An interesting column by Dani Rodrick in the NYT argues that a more strategic approach could have been taken.  

The statistics seem to show that the people on the Democratic side tend to be more educated – well let’s hope they can do a better job than we did in the UK of putting that brain power to work at the coalface of politics.

5 Hope for the Best; Prepare for the Worst.

It is likely that Hillary Clinton will be elected the next President of the United States. She is ahead in the polls, she is a strong, experienced candidate who has the support of her party and she has a good chance. If she wins, it will be a historic moment – the election of a woman, and what’s more an older woman, a grandmother, a woman of what the French call “the third age” as the leader of the free world.

It also seems possible that Donald Trump will win. It is still unlikely. But Democrats may need to take account of that possibility and plan for it.

The night of June 23 was a memorable low for British democracy. It was a shambles. Not even the people on the Leave side seemed to have the faintest sort of clue what they should do or say..

It was only when Scotland’s SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the television screens that everyone was glued to, looking poised and confident, 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 is in its resilience. As long as the other institutions which underpin democracy 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.