In his article, Max Fisher of the New York Times describes an intriguing conundrum in the democratic process, and two parallel cases that expose it. At the forefront is a recall election in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, in which a mayor prosecuted for fraud was simultaneously voted out of office and re-elected due to a confusingly packed ballot. This is connected to the much grander situation in the United Kingdom, where the population voted by a fairly slim margin to withdraw from the European Union. Fisher’s argument is entirely correct, but incomplete, and perhaps intentionally so. The primary implication of his article is that lawmakers need to be wary whenever policy issues are subjected to the will of the people, because votes do not always capture specific sentiments. However, any reform in the electoral process would ideally be accompanied by a heightened sense of individual responsibility to think issues through critically. The Fall River ballot merely illustrates the flawed decision-making process amongst the lawmakers responsible. Brexit seems like a different beast entirely, and illustrates, among other things, the role of misleading rhetoric and a lack of foresight on a much grander scale.
It has been noted that the Brexit referendum began as a concession to appease some of the more radical elements on the fringe of the Conservative Party, in order to help secure a Parliamentary win in 2015. The fundamental issue with the referendum was the idea of passing an extremely loaded question to an assortment of millions of voters who each bring different, but often incomplete, perspectives to the debate. This is not entirely unlike the problems that marred the recall vote in Fall River – plebiscite questions should not be overtly manipulative, but must be designed in such a way to properly channel public opinion. Fall River raises procedural questions, such as why so many candidates ran for the special election, or why the candidate being recalled was even allowed to run again. Brexit goes much deeper.
Whether we approve of them or not, it is an unavoidable fact that politicians make a living by forming policy decisions based on reasoning. Often it seems that people who have the necessary time and energy to research issues thoroughly constitute a much lower proportion of the total population than one would like. This is true even in the so-called information era, as internet users need to be wary of partisan bias and selective omission. What we lack in active research and refinement of political opinions, we make up for in passive consumption. This involves advertisements on television, on the radio, on billboards, et cetera. If the Brexit campaign was described in a textbook, I would expect to see a photo of the double-decker bus espousing the admitted lie that the European Union siphons £350 million every week from funds that could otherwise go to the National Health Service.
This highly visible symbol of the Brexit debate seems to appeal to a basic sense of logic and rationality, except for two main things: first, the wide recognition of the NHS as a symbol of pride and humanitarian achievement within the United Kingdom, of which this advertisement takes advantage; and second, the complete lack of context. The “red bus” figure refers to real dues paid by the UK on a weekly basis, but the actual amount paid is much lower due to negotiated rebates. The brief ad, meant to catch attention rather than to tell a comprehensive story, also fails to mention the benefits in international commerce that far outweigh British contributions. Sure, if the nation was free of its continental shackles, it wouldn’t be losing so much money in pre-negotiated contributions, but it also would not have as much wealth to allocate in the first place.
Hindsight paints us a comprehensive picture of everything wrong with the original Brexit referendum. Voters can’t always bear every single short- and long-term consequence in mind when making themselves heard on such issues. How many people really thought about the possibility of a “hard” Brexit as opposed to the relatively harmonious kind in which trade relations are maintained? How many small business owners really thought about how their ability to import materials would be affected? How many concerned patriots really thought about the security implications of a hard border between the UK and the sovereign Republic of Ireland? These issues simply were not discussed in public spheres as much as the nationalistic factor of being unaffected by wide-reaching European laws, or the transient prospect of economic independence.
The idea of intrusive rhetoric is far from new. Recorded circa 427 B.C., Thucydides’s dialogue on the revolt of Mytilene discussed in part how the employment of flowery speech can be dangerous when it is used to rationalize important decisions. So, although I mentioned in the beginning that reform depends partly on individual responsibility, I understand how one might doubt the feasibility of such reform. The lack of bureaucratic and political foresight remains an issue, however. In both Fall River and the United Kingdom, it was wrong for the issues to be punted to the general public as they were. The former example shows how both referenda and electoral laws were flawed in such a way that allowed a recalled mayor to be elected despite a clear public outcry. However, the Brexit case simply shows how political leaders have underestimated the role of extremist rhetoric in influencing the decision-making process from the outside. Amy Gutmann wrote about this as far back as 2007. While establishment politicians like David Cameron appear dialed back, reserved in such a way that inspires confidence, they are sometimes powerless in the face of those who can concisely relate to the will of the people. While these people, such as Brexit organizers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, might not express or even know all of the facts in the debate, they are masters of capturing overall sentiments. It is because of such faulty rhetoric that leaders must not ignore the radical voices in their ear, and the individual needs to resist heuristic urges while in the ballot box.
*Photo by ChiralJohn, “Brexit Protestors Westminster,” Creative Commons Zero license.