(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.
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.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.
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'.
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.