THE BLOG

Brexit And The Presidential Election: How Did We Get Here and What Do We Do Now?

20/01/2017 12:50
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Following both events, and that sense of disorientation, disbelief and alienation, we now hear it said that we must accept that "the people have spoken", so stop moaning.
I wonder. Have you, the people, spoken? All of you? And to whom?

Yesterday's Gallup Poll of Approval Ratings for Presidents-elect shows that Donald Trump is the most disapproved-of newly elected President in modern history. This you may find baffling like so many polls, given you may never in a lifetime 'have spoken' in a poll yourself. But it's also baffling for another reason: how does the 'most unpopular president' in recent times actually get elected as President of the United States? And how many of the people have spoken? This bears thinking about.

In the UK, for example, as a result of the June referendum, we're told that "Brexit means Brexit" because the government must follow the "will of the people." In the U.S., the President-elect will be the President for the next four years because "the American people have spoken". It's informative to look at these two significant events and at who has actually spoken.

In the UK referendum to determine whether the 'people' wanted to leave the European Union or not: Approximately half of the entire population voted ( excluding babies, toddlers, 16-17 year olds and other disenfranchised groups) and about half of that electorate voted to Leave the EU, amounting to 26% of the population and 37% of registered voters.

Today, we hear that this gives the UK government a mandate (i.e."the authority to carry out a policy")for the unprecedented decision that the UK will become the first country ever to leave the EU. Note, the vote was so close that either way the result would have represented just over one-third of the electorate.

Looking at the United States presidential election: Out of a total population of approximately 325 million, 200 million Americans are registered to vote (another contentious issue about which President Obama recently said, "We are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote"). Over half of US citizens who are registered to vote actually cast their votes in this election: about 130 million people or 58% of the electorate.

Hillary Clinton won 48.2 % of the popular vote and Donald Trump received 46.1 %, nearly 63 million votes to her nearly 66 million. As we know, in the US, popular votes do not elect the president, the Electoral votes allotted to individual states do. However, the fact remains that in this particular presidential election less than one third (27%) of the actual American electorate voted for Trump.

That means that Donald Trump is about to become the 45th president of the United States with the votes of 19% of the entire US population behind him. Please read that again: 19% of the American population voted for Donald Trump. Talk about a mandate to rule (and to wage war, and to use nuclear weapons). And note that those results, based on how close they were, would have produced a similar mandate for either candidate.

So could this mean that Donald Trump is indeed the most unpopular president in recent history and the most reviled? Yes, if you believe the Gallup poll, the left wing press and the protesters and no, if you believe Donald Trump himself, his supporters and Kellyanne Conway. Time may tell, but the fact is we don't know how popular or unpopular he is, no matter what we are told. Unless and until we've polled every citizen, well beyond our social circles, we really only have an impression.

If we ask why we are here at this point in history on both sides of the Atlantic, why people voted as they did, there are reams of explanations. But if we are looking at the how, this is in the statistics: 19% of the American people have spoken with their vote, and 26% of the UK population have spoken with theirs. That's how it happened.

So what do we do now?

President Obama in his farewell address gave some indication:
"It falls to each of us to be guardians of our democracy, because we all share the same proud title: citizen". This, he suggested, includes having a voice, but using it, being informed, interested and confident in your worth, as a citizen. "But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; it needs you, not just when your own narrow interests are at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime." He goes on to add interestingly: "Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk".

And democracy is a risk, he said. The Greek philosopher Socrates pointed that out long ago as well. Stating that democracy can easily devolve into demagoguery, Socrates believed voting in an election is a skill and only for those who thought rationally and deeply. Today, more than ever, the flaws in democracy are too apparent. Yet the alternatives are so much worse. So what do we do now?

Today is the day to recognize that small numbers matter. Small numbers have changed the course of history again and again, and have done so today. Only a small proportion of Nazi Germans compared to the entire world population caused havoc across the globe. Not just for ill but also for good, small groups make a difference. Didn't President Kennedy say in that memorable inaugural address: "And a glow from that fire, can truly light the world". We are still trying, to light , enlighten, that world.

So today, a disturbing day for many on both sides of the divide, we can still take heart. As Obama said, "I believe tragic things happen. I think there's evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we're true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time."

So we have hope, not giving into fear, nor thinking the people are powerless. The people are the power. Not all of them have spoken yet.

How did we get here? What matters is we start again. We can do better. Yes, we can.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS