Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, June 24, 2016

(un?)informed electorates, democracy, and referenda

A little more than 20 years ago I went to a conference sponsored by a group affiliated with Newt Gingrich, and I remember him talking about the rise of "irredentist" movements across the world. Then particularly prominent examples were the Basque Region in Spain or the Kurds, which spread across Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.

In many respects, you can consider the Brexit vote in the UK to be an irredentist movement, vis a vis the European Union.  Ironically, it will trigger further irridentist moves within the UK as it is likely that Scotland will vote to become independent and to remain within the EU.

Not being in the UK, I only know about the campaign -- Remain or Leave -- from what I read in the online newspapers, mostly the Guardian (The London Times has always had a very strong paywall) and in print in the the Financial Times, plus articles in the US media.

Obviously, there are many parallels with the Republican campaign for President by Donald Trump. The demographics of people who support Trump -- older, whiter, less educated -- are comparable to the people favoring Brexit.

And we have a kind of irredentist movement in the US, the East and West Coast versus the interior of the country, and the rural-urban divide, and how political districts drawn for the US House of Representatives and state legislatures tend to be shaped in favor of rural interests at the expense of cities and metropolitan areas.

Media and the informed electorate.  But in the UK, while on the decline sure, newspapers are still prominent and relevant.  The London papers have national reach, especially the big "populist" tabloids like the Express or the Mail.

But there, more than in the US, the owners dictate coverage of issues, and on both the recent national election and Brexit. for the most part, especially the tabloids, were "all in" on the Conservatives and exit from the EU, and newspaper coverage of issues was manipulated in crass and craven ways to support their positions ("Power without accountability in our tabloid press" and "The triumph of the tabloids," mainly macro).

The blog mainly macro published this composite image of covers from the Daily Express which played up immigration as the UK's biggest problem.

If you can't rely on the media to be "somewhat objective," the basic requirement in democratic systems of having an informed electorate cannot be met.

Political positions versus the truth and an informed electorate.  This problem is further accentuated by the fact that "the politics" is similarly poisoned in that ideologies and agendas more than "doing the right thing" are driving elected officials and what they say.

These days politics is more about winning and imposing ideologies and agendas rather than making the right policy choices based on knowledge.  (Maybe it's always been this way, and I am merely a naif in my belief that knowledge and doing the right thing matters the most.)

For example, mainly macro ("Why do people want less EU immigration") argues that people's sentiment in favor of Brexit was largely driven by their belief that immigrants were disproportionately using the National Health Service and this is the cause of its decline.

False claim promoted by the Vote Leave campaign.  Publishers Association photo.

But their popular understanding of the decline of NHS is counter to the facts.

First, the fact that immigrants consume government services at rates less per capita, and second, pay more money to the state in taxes than they get back in services.  The real problem with NHS is that the government has been cutting funding as part of its general economic austerity program.

But the Prime Minister didn't want to tell people that.  From mainly macro:
Which means that in reality EU migration creates more resources that allows the government to spend more on the NHS and other public services. Not only do EU migrants pay for themselves in this respect, they also make access easier for natives. Add in the negative impact of making trade with the EU more difficult, and it is clear that Brexit would have a negative impact on public services. No wonder Dr Sarah Wollaston switched sides.

Yet this is an argument David Cameron was reluctant to make, because it raises an obvious question. If EU migration is not the reason why the NHS is in crisis, what is? The answer is that his government has chosen to shrink the share of national income going to the NHS, when there are good reasons why this share should be rising. In other words the government has taken the taxes EU migrants pay, and used them to cut taxes or cut the deficit. Because Cameron will not make the case for why EU migration helps the NHS, that case is not heard by voters. Instead they are told all the time that the NHS has been 'protected'.
And self interested politicians.  Others take positions to support their own interests.  Boris Johnson is a perfect example ("EU referendum live: Boris Johnson hails 'glorious opportunity' of Brexit as David Cameron resigns," Telegraph).  He wants to be Prime Minister, so he joined the Leave campaign, whereas a few years ago he was in favor of immigration, etc.

Directing fury at the wrong target.  So the rise in support for Brexit was a reaction against the austerity policies of the Conservative government, but instead of voting them out last year--the Conservatives won decisively--instead they blame the EU and vote Brexit.

Similarly, in the US the rise of the Tea Party as a conservative movement was triggered out of a ridiculous belief that President Obama is a socialist and wanted the government to take over the economy, which was their interpretation of the huge bailouts made of the financial industry in 2008-2009, which was necessary to ward off an economic depression.

Yes, the bankers weren't punished, but from the standpoint of Marxism, this was a type of "Capitalist Crisis" where capitalists required the intervention of government in order to recover and maintain overall control.  That's capitalism, not socialism -- privatizing profit, socializing risk.

Implications for democracy and the referenda process.  If you can't count on there being an informed electorate, which is further complicated by the nature of voting patterns (older people vote more, younger people vote less, poor people vote less than rich people, etc.) that can distort overall preferences, putting major policies to vote in referenda doesn't make sense ("If referendums are the answer, we’re asking the wrong question," Guardian).

Especially when you can't count on equal resources being spent to present "both sides" of the issue, let alone both sides being presented within the media, and adequately by the elected officials.

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At 10:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I've always thought that British politics was more "informed" than the US version -- in the sense listening to a debate or a speech is more like to make you smarter than dumber.

This was clearly the "American/CNN" or "BBC" model where listening to the debate made you dumber.

Within England, the urban/rural divide was quite stark. Scotland so much. Says a lot of "Value" of cities or urban areas now (places were successful people cluster and view themselves as meritocracy) vs ROW (people don't move more than 10 miles from they are born).

Was talking to my best friend growing up and despite a cosmo life (Swedish/British wife) lives within 10 miles of where we grew up.

(And I feel pretty rooted here, not my entire liking)

Commonwealth citizens could vote, EU citizens could not.

Nationalism ins't dead yet.

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The masses are revolting.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

good quotes in this article, relevant to the Trump campaign too.

At 11:40 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Not a big fan of Younge.

I'd guess that in the end the powers that be will be able to bury the referendum. They did that before when France and Netherland rejected the Constitution, and two years later they forced the Lisbon Treaty down.

EU law is tremendously fun from a lawyers point of view, I did several classes in it and kept up with some of the changes. Very unknowable to the layman (no pun intended).

EU politics is very much like American politics -- listening to it makes you dumber. Lots of code-words and signals rather than actual politics. More designed to obfuscate rather than educate.

(My own limited view is that is impossible to have a EU with non-euro members. Either the euro needs to go, or those non-euro members need to leave and form a free trade area.)

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Also this:

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aa-a-a-ck! Boris even looks like the Donald... wonder if they're related. Trump's mother is a MacLeod from the Northern Hebrides.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

the tough thing for the bbc is that being "government," it probably is even more reticent about stepping forward.

but the other thing, and this is written about a lot in the US press is the "bias" of objective journalism towards treating claims as co-equal only works when "both sides" are committed to being credible and logical, letting the sides duel so to speak, rather than being mendacious from the outset.

Since the ideological driven politics/policies aren't adequately addressed by journalists because of that "bias" to treat sides as co-equal, the "silly party" doesn't get taken down. And because of the "prestige of print and broadcast" -- when the claims are printed in the paper or shown on tv they sound credible, and are taken seriously.

Anyone who knows a bit about the EU and a bit about Turkey knows it's not likely any time soon, irrespective of Brexit, that they would become a member of the EU.

... not that the repositioning of journalism "as entertainment" helps. E.g., there was a piece in the FT maybe or the NYT by a journalist covering the EU in Brussels and how he followed in the footsteps of Boris Johnson, who set the tone of UK newspaper coverage of the EU as the EU being a total crock. The other newspapers fell into line on that narrative.

That being said, the EU has issues, definitely. One being around the Eurozone issue as you mentioned. But the borders too. They didn't foresee the ongoing turmoil of both Russia/ex-USSR, militant Islam (Bosnia,Chechnya, etc.), and the mideast/North Africa debacle as being constant, ongoing, and escalating.

No set of countries is capable of accommodating the velocity of refugees that are being generated by countries like Syria, Libya, and Iraq.

The Schengen zone should be free movement for EU countries, with checks and controls for non-nationals.

And they need to invest in border protection on the south, helping Italy and Greece, etc.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

this op-ed from the LA Times talks about addressing "isolationalism."

The problem of course is there aren't any good solutions to how "deindustrialization" has (1) decreased the number of jobs overall and (2) decreased the number of jobs that pay well for low education.

This is accentuated by capital investment's bias for capital over labor.

I don't have any good ideas on how to deal.

And in many ways, these are subtly different issues than "globalization."

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

wtf? (originally from the W. Post)

Cornwall, after voting to exit, realizes that EU will stop sending them structural readjustment monies.

... I was amazed when I did the series of pieces on EU "regeneration" how much money Liverpool and other UK cities got for regeneration because they were economically deprived.

It's not like the UK is at the forefront of revitalization planning and programming. Plus, because the govt. is organized so centrally, cities get screwed, irrespective of the austerity program, which has totally f*ed many cities. E.g., Liverpool's budget has been cut 58%!!!!!!!!!!!!


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