2016 was a year of referendums. A year when politicians around the world put some of the biggest questions of our time to the people in a bid to settle them once and for all. But rather than heal divisions, many of last year's votes only further exposed our societies' rifts.
In Demos' new report, Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself - which looks at political trends and public opinion across six European countries - we identified a new dividing line in Britain in the wake of the referendum, between 'open' and 'closed' attitudes. These two different ways of seeing the world, broadly speaking, coincided with the Remain or Leave camps: one group with broader social networks, recognising the gains a more inter-connected world has brought them, and another who largely still live, work and socialise in the towns where they grew up, struggling to see how globalisation has benefitted them.
In contrast to the popular belief that the wave of right-wing populism sweeping the West is solely down to those who have been 'left behind' economically, our findings highlight the impact of feeling dislocated by social and cultural change, as well as by uneven economic development. In Britain, for instance, we found that Europhiles and Eurosceptics tended to be divided by their attitudes towards social issues - such as women in the workforce, same-sex marriage and ethnic diversity - as much as by their income or where they live.
The social factor was critical in shaping the political landscape in other countries we looked at too. In Poland - the only country in our report governed by an authoritarian populist party - concerns about immigration and Islamic terrorism drove people's fears more notably than economic worries. While in Spain, despite a toxic mix of economic stagnation, mass unemployment and high levels of immigration, a far-right political movement has failed to gather momentum, largely due to the resolutely liberal and outward-looking attitudes that have dominated the country following the fall of Franco.
Our findings show, therefore, that while policies to ensure fair and sustainable economic growth are a much-needed part of any response, economic policy alone isn't sufficient to heal society's divides. For too long, liberal politicians have dodged debates about identity or values, and brushed off their citizens' concerns about the EU as the result of insufficient understanding. This has had a doubly negative effect, causing these politicians to be deeply mistrusted - seen as out of touch - and leaving these debates to be framed by insurgent political groups pushing a divisive and xenophobic agenda.
In our German case study, for example, many of the politicians we spoke to chastised voters for using the EU as a scapegoat for their general feelings of panic in response to global crises. But our surveys found that, far from exhibiting a generalised state of fear, most Germans actually have one or two specific concerns about the European Union, the most common being its impact on social security in Germany and the cost of increasing EU payments.
Politicians, therefore, desperately need to re-engage with their citizens through meaningful dialogue and debate to more effectively address their fears as individuals and as a society. To combat both the litany of dubious and divisive news sources, which seek to enflame rather than inform, while simultaneously addressing the genuine concerns of voters, there is a vital need to keep people engaged between election cycles. Increasing the representativeness of national institutions will be key, as will boosting accountability at the European level.
In 2016 politicians looked to referendums as the chief tool to reconnect political elites and their constituents. However, as the outcomes of these votes show, closing divides years in the making - between sections of society, and between publics and their leaders - will require sustained engagement rather than singular political events.