Getty Images/Daniel Sorabji
On June 23rd, in a move that left political pundits and polling experts stunned, the United Kingdom voted 52% – 48% to leave the European Union. Both the UK and the EU immediately began feeling the consequences of the vote before the final tally was even complete. Prime Minister David Cameron immediately announced his resignation, global stocks plummeted, the pound hit a 31 year low, and Scottish leaders began discussing holding another referendum to stay in as an EU member. The Labour Party quickly fell apart and held a no confidence vote for Jeremy Corbyn to step down and presumed David Cameron successor Boris Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for Prime Minster as EU leadership was being gutted.
While virtually all the media discussion has been about the ramifications following Brexit, relatively little has been discussed regarding why the UK voted how they did. When the issue has been discussed, it’s come with an enormous amount of condescension, most notably concerning the top google searches in the UK questioning what the EU even is.
Brexit didn’t happen by chance
If we take a step back and think about the search results, they’re totally unsurprising. Not all UK citizens follow politics, and obviously not all voted, so of course when people wake up and hear the news they’re going to be curious. I would wager search results would be similar if the United States held a vote to leave NAFTA.
The narrative from the mainstream press was essentially that unknowing citizens blindly showed up to the polls and voted to leave. What they tacitly ignored was the fact that more than 33 million people showed up to vote, with more than 17 million voting to leave.
What happened in the UK is strikingly similar to what is happening in the United States with Donald Trump in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that elites can’t wrap their heads around why anybody would ever vote for Trump. The Brexit vote wasn’t a simple mistake of ignorant people not understanding the consequence of their actions, it was a deliberate decision made my 17 plus million people that signified their unhappiness with the status quo.
People are angry. They see their economic situation stagnating or declining while the wealthiest continue to get richer and their leaders doing nothing to rectify it. In the United States, the two biggest anti-establishment figures did incredibly well. Donald Trump received the most primary votes in the history of the Republican Party, and Bernie Sanders garnered more than 45 percent of the Democratic vote.
What’s driving the resentment towards governent?
A number of factors play into the anger directed at elites in the US, UK, and larger world. First, the dispersion of technology throughout the world has given people access to more information than they’ve ever been privy to in the past. Government has become more transparent, not by choice, but through the information highway. Anybody with a phone in their pocket can instantaneously look up the rate of income inequality or number of immigrants entering the country. Furthermore, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are constantly coming forward and releasing government secrets into the public domain.
Second, there’s been an spotlight cast upon the role of money in politics by politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities in the past decade. People like Bernie Sanders, Russel Brand, and Noam Chomsky have brought the issue of campaign finance into the spotlight. Citizens are beginning to believe that their politicians are being bought and sold to the highest bidder to represent the interests of the wealthy class rather than the average citizen.
Finally, the forces of globalization are being felt by the working class all over the world. Trade deals like NAFTA, TAFTA, MEFTA, TPP, and the TTIP are being written behind closed doors without the public having a voice in the matter. When one country enters an economic recession, as happened in the United States in 2007, the impact is global because of the structural economic interdependence prescribed by these trade agreements. The shockwaves felt from the third world on up the wealthy countries lead to economic anxiety, and that anxiety manifests into a distrust of those calling the shots.
Brexit isn’t the end of citizens rising up to fight the establishment status quo, it’s the beginning. People on both sides of the political spectrum are fed up with the way global politics are being run. Whether it’s immigration, income inequality, or climate change, citizens all around the world feel like their government has betrayed them. People will continue to take every chance they can to change the system. Elites would be wise to make note and adjust accordingly.