A response to “How a Strange Massachusetts Election Helps Explain Britain’s Brexit Chaos” by Max Fisher (NYT)
The recent events surrounding Britain’s controversial Brexit referendums has highlighted a major source of democratic erosion in today’s struggling democracies.
The U.K.’s drawn-out exit from the European Union began with a non-binding popular referendum in mid-2016 where voters called for a Brexit from the European Union by a slim margin. Following this referendum came months of debate of how the U.K. should approach an exit from the E.U., with much concern being raised into the economic and trade ramifications that would accompany a complete, all ties severed, exit. Now the time has come for Britain to establish its terms of exit with the E.U. and follow through with their resolution but parliament has been unable to support a concrete plan of exit. This confusion in parliament has caused for Britain’s declaration of divorce from the E.U. to be postponed multiple times and internal debates as to whether there should even be a Brexit in the first place.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, “How a Strange Massachusetts Election Helps Explain Britain’s Brexit Chaos” (2019), Max Fisher placed blame for the confusion on the initial 2016 popular referendum indicating that its “Leave” or “Stay” voting choices were too general. More specifically he described that there were many factions who supported leaving the E.U. but could not agree on what the conditions of the Brexit-deal should be (i.e. “soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Norway-style Brexit, Canada-style Brexit”, etc.). Therefore, he argued, that these different pro-Brexit groups should not have been combined as one single “Leave” vote, and instead should have been separated on the ballots according to their Brexit conditions. Under this argument he maintained that if the “Leave” vote had been divided into its constituent groups, the “Stay” vote would have won by a clear majority.
This analysis of the current state of Britain’s voting system is quite worrisome concerning the democratic resiliency of the country as a whole, as it implies that the government has (accidentally or otherwise) misrepresented the will of the majority of the populace in a major political decision. In his book, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971), Robert Dahl argues that the “key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of a government to the preferences of its citizens” in an inclusive voting system open to contestation. Britain, in this regard, has failed democratically, by supporting a measure that most of its voters have not supported.
The U.K.’s struggle with the Brexit decision is dangerous because it has the potential to cause a crisis of legitimacy and effectiveness of its democratic system of governance as described by Seymour Lipset in his article, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” (1959). The U.K. government’s spearheading of an initiative that most voters oppose may cause for citizens to feel that parliament does not effectively govern according to the will of the people, and therefore seek other (less democratic) governmental systems that they feel will. In their article, “Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence” (2018), Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf have shown that these crises have already caused citizens of democratic countries to exhibit some degree of un-democratic sentiments, with many displaying an openness to “a [governmental] system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”.
Another, equally frightening, consequence that the Brexit initiative might have is that it may discourage a subset of its population (more specifically, those who chose to stay in the E.U.) from participating in further public votes and make them open to extremist rhetoric. In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), Arlie Hochschild documented the sentiments of Louisianans who became disillusioned with the American political system and felt that the government did not care about or account for their voices when creating public policy. If U.K. citizens begin to share the sentiments of these Louisianans because they feel that their votes don’t matter, all further public referendums would be less democratic because they would (unintentionally) consistently not account for the votes of a large portion of the population and foster further resentment inside of these groups. As described by Yascha Mounk in his article, “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy”, the resentment that forms within these groups is also of some concern as it allows for them to be more easily coerced by the possibly undemocratic rhetoric of populist politicians who can begin to erode democratic norms in a government if they are elected to power.
The British government’s advancing with Brexit negotiations should not be viewed as the beginning of the end of democracy in the U.K., as one bad policy decision does not a dictatorship make, but it should serve as a reminder to developed governments that more care must be taken in the creation of voting systems so as they do not unintentionally misrepresent the will of the people.
*Photo by Tasnim News Agency, “Thousands Protest Against Brexit in London’s Trafalgar Square” (tasnimnews.com), Creative Commons Zero license.