On June 26th, 2016 The officials of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union effective March 29, 2019. This decision rocked the political world and is set to reshape the nation’s place in the world, as well as reshaping western political establishments. This event has now been dubbed as “Brexit” and as shocking and newsworthy as this event is, this could also be a sign of democratic erosion. In this instance, the evident democratic erosion can be credited t increasing populism and political polarization within the UK. The purpose of this article is to analyze why Brexit happened and how increasing democratic erosion can affect the country in the future.
Before delving deeper into the topic of political erosion, It is imperative that I explain what populism and polarization are.
Populism is a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against a privileged elite. In regards to Brexit, the national rise of populism was fueled by desires of the people to slow immigration and reclaim national sovereignty from international institutions. The Greenberg center of Geoeconomic studies performed an interview with political commentator James McBride on the issue. McBride states “People are uncomfortable with change and rising numbers of people around them—even if they only see them on television in London—who may speak a different language, may look differently. I don’t think that was all that was going on the Brexit vote by any means, but it was definitely a factor” (cfc.org). In other words, People wanted less immigration due to them being uncomfortable with change, although this didn’t make or break the decision for the United Kingdom’s departure, it did play a role.
Populism can be seen as a direct factor in political erosion due to the fact that because endangers the very foundation that democracy is built upon. When populist movements occur, radical leaders can take power and endanger the natural rights that the people within the country have within a democratic government. The very essence of a democratic government is the ability of the people to have rights and natural freedoms. The sudden radical changes can endanger the rights of the people and that essentially is what democratic erosion is.
Transitioning from the topic of populism, polarization played a role in the Brexit event. Polarization in a political sense refers to a split of political attitudes from minor to extreme ideological differences. Polarization occurs with public opinion or different groups of political parties. In the summer of 2016, after the UK”s exit, studies were performed to understand whether or not polarization played a potential role. A survey from the Pew Research center analyzed the amount of polarization within the country and revealed the United Kingdom is more polarized than any other European country. In regards to the split with ideology, the poll revealed that “ While a small minority of right-leaning Brits view the EU favorably, the vast majority of left-leaning Brits see the bloc in a positive light. And there’s a pretty big gulf between moderates and left-leaning Brits.” (Business Insider). Meaning that more Brits view the EU in a favorable light. There is also a division in regards to powers within EU. “ While a minority on the left say powers should be returned to national governments, the overwhelming majority on the right want to see national governments take back power. Moderates also agree with the latter view.”
The UK has two main political parties, The Labor Party and the Conservative party. The Labor party typically holds more left values while the conservative has right values. However, a third party, the UKIP, is a populist party that has been able to gain support due to political gridlock between the two main political parties. This allowed for the party to be able to make the possibility of a UK exit of the EU seem more appealing and eventually passing. Since polarization, in this case, enabled populism, then polarization is a viable reason for democratic erosion.
In all, the Brexit event is a red flag for the happening of Democratic erosion within the UK. The rise of populism, as well as a large amount of polarization, can be seen as direct links to this. Populism rose because of citizens being unsure about the overall amount of immigration that is occurring within the UK and is willing to give up rights for security. And the great amount of polarization allowed for the UKIP to have increased popularity and thus was a main proponent of the Brexit event.
Allen, Edward, and James Mcbride. “What Brexit Reveals About Rising Populism.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/interview/what-brexit-reveals-about-rising-populism.
Engel, Pamela. “This Poll on EU Favorability Shows How Polarized the UK Has Become.”Business Insider, Business Insider, 25 June 2016, www.businessinsider.com/eu-favorability-poll-2016-6.
Huq, Aziz. “This Is How Democratic Backsliding Begins.” Vox, Vox, 15 May 2017, www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/15/15632918/democracy-autocracy-comey-trump-fbi-russia-coup.
JOSHUA ANTHONY VARELA
I agree that the Brexit referendum was a clear message from conservative Brits against people different than them, namely refugees. I think the cornerstone of the reason for leaving the EU was subconscious (or not) xenophobia and racism, and that populist parties are capitalizing on these sentiments. Those are undeniable claims. But I think this post lacks an analysis of the economic aspects of Brexit. Yes, many Brits rejected the idea of open borders among countries in the EU, but I think it is imperative to also include economic reasons for the Brexit referendum. Many xenophobic/racist citizens will hide behind economic reasons for their support of Brexit, but nonetheless, it is important to analyze the economic influences and consequences of Brexit as well because some of these reasons are quite legitimate. Regardless, I admire the analysis of the effect of the populism on democratic erosion within Britain. The rise of UKIP is certainly something for the global community to keep an eye on.