EU referendum, U.S. elections & social change — An outsider’s perspective

‘Binoculars’ by Varin on flickr, used under CC BY

By Gorgi Krlev

This article is also available on the Kellogg College blog.

This isn’t about a single political decision, nor a single person. This is about more fundamental building blocks of contemporary society. I am avoiding the usual buzzwords for the events referred to in my headline, since a reduction of attention to the consequences of the referendum or the president-elect represent one of the core problems in the analysis of these events as reported in media outlets worldwide: a reduction of complexity.

Since the events have taken place I, as many others, have read a wide range of factual reports, academic analyses and opinion pieces. Although all of them have been insightful in their own way, none of them provided an analysis comprehensive enough to understand the potential causes of the current social change we witness. I am not claiming to be omniscient or less influenced by my own world view, experience or discipline. However, I’ll try to combine different perspectives and present them in a new light.

Readers, please be aware that I will give a critique and narrative analysis of what I’ve read and experienced rather than provide a piece of research.

And now brace for a long read.


What are the factors behind the electoral outcomes? Most analyses I’ve seen were loaded with catchy terms, both with regards to the factors leading to the current events and their potential consequences. These included:

the post-truth era, economic deprivation, social media revolution, social values, immigration, race, populism, and yes, fascism, devastation and world war.

They relate to different spheres that are treated as distinct and for whose interconnection there seems little awareness: (1) people’s economic situation; (2) their world-view; (3) their social connections; (4) their political activity. I argue those are all interconnected, which sounds trivial but given the present analyses apparently is not. Let’s consider what some of those analyses tell us and try to find out how they can be systemised and which aspects might have been overlooked.

Some people, on social media and elsewhere, have claimed it was not the left-behind, lower income people living in rural places that have made these events happen. They are of course right in pointing out that there have been many well-off and highly educated people who have given their vote to the ‘winning side.’ However, and as the immense failure (in case of the United States) and the more moderate one (in case of the UK) of most polls has shown, a rather unexpected mass of people otherwise disengaged with politics or known to vote otherwise, now cast their ballot to support the more extreme political positions. Although these people have not decided the elections alone, they have acted as the triggering force. The reasons for it lie in deprivation, but not in the economic sense alone.

Despite rather longstanding debates about more complex concepts of deprivation or the criticism of income as the sole indicator of social welfare, analysts still mostly explain social problems by differences in income or other one-dimensional measures. By doing so they ignore positions that claim deprivation is the systematic exclusion of particular groups of people from realising various personal outcomes, as highlighted in Amartya Sen’s capability concept established in the 1980s. They also ignore that there is a range of alternative measures of social welfare, for instance those proposed by the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission in 2009.

I instead relate to this broader understanding and suggest the reason for the election results and further change across Europe and elsewhere is an unequal distribution of capitals. I refer not only to economic capital, but cultural capital (people’s values), social capital (people’s networks) and political capital (people’s ability to influence policy). With ‘capital’ in the latter cases I mean immaterial assets that enable individual action and collective functioning. Those who turn towards extreme political positions do so due to their particular equipment with cultural, social and political capital. And many structural deficiencies lead to strong differences in the distribution of those capitals across the population.

Cultural capital factors. Political scientist Eric Kaufmann recently proposed cultural factors gave a more meaningful explanation for the recent events than economic ones. I agree that culture is of major importance here. In fact I believe it is by far the most important component at play. But I also believe that the question of culture and thus values and mind-sets directing people’s behaviour cannot, as Kaufmann suggests, be broken down to a survey question on whether people agree that children should be considerate (as an indicator of other-directedness) or well-behaved (as an indicator of respect for authority). Most cultural factors causing the recent electoral outcomes relate to tensions between people’s ‘self’ and ‘the others.’

It seems that policy makers and business leaders have forgotten about locality in the wake of globalisation. Despite the global interconnections most people now unarguably have, locality remains the most significant cultural identifier. A recent documentary about Hip-Hop culture in Germany illustrates this quite vividly. It contains an interview with a youth worker, who describes the way migrant youth often respond to his queries about their identity (at 10:21 minutes): “Do you consider yourself German? — No. But you consider yourself a Berliner? — No. Do you consider yourself a Kreuzberger then (a Berlin borough)? — Yes.”

This is quite telling about the role of local identity and symptomatic of patterns at the national level. The countries of the former Yugoslavian Republic for example sought independence and partly despise each other with vigour. But all of them also seek to become members of the EU. An analogy could also be drawn to those Scots who want to split with the UK but remain members of the EU.

The tricky balance that has tipped towards nationalism here is the one between globalisation or Europeanisation on the one side and localism on the other. Or in other words between independence and community, which always entails some degree of dependence. This critical modifier of cultural attitudes and habits has been disregarded for too long. A stark contrast in people’s mind-sets even within one country, for example between city dwellers and people from the countryside, has nurtured extreme political positions.

There is an interesting aspect that writer David Wong, the author of the linked article, touches on. He says that differences in skin colour even in rural places in the United States don’t matter that much as long as white and black people’s ways of living do not differ too much from each other. It is when others are perceived as threats to one’s own position that others are opposed.

Perceived inequality is a major factor. Take almost every news interview addressing German people from regions that have received public attention for demonstrating hostility towards refugees. What you will hear is that these people feel treated unfairly and that refugees currently receive support without having earned the right to it. Paradoxically among the interviewed are people whose close ancestors might have been involved in almost devastating the entire continent in World War II. You also find people that only about two decades ago have been freed from the German Democratic Republic’s political system, commonly regarded as oppressive. Still they feel disadvantaged against others.

A similar line of reasoning may apply to older population groups that have supported the Leave side in the British EU referendum. Over dinner I have once been told by an elderly French lady residing in Britain that it took her a long time to realise that some British felt they had actually lost the war. This is, and although it sounds utterly cynical, because the large scale destruction of built infrastructure in continental Europe has been a source of prosperity and modernisation in the war’s aftermath for Germany and also France, whereas the UK has not experienced the same effect (compare this argument to historian Tobias Stone’s treatise on the revitalising forces of destruction). This felt disadvantage is enhanced by the soaring real estate prices British people face at present. Such kinds of worries need to be met, if the majority of the population don’t want people to be driven further towards radical views and means.

An illustrative case is the hostility that Polish immigrants to the UK have faced after the referendum. Poles represent the biggest group of immigrants. They are often perceived as enterprising and laborious. Supposedly they thus detain economic and social advancement from British people while enjoying almost equal rights as the latter in a country that is not their own. In consequence Poles have been seen as the biggest immigration threat. This feeling has evolved although Polish people are more like the British than many other immigrants, in skin colour, bearing or religion.

Finally, a parallel can be drawn between British people’s feeling that rights should depend on nationality and Trump’s proclamation of ‘America first,’ which may provoke hostility against those that don’t evidently fall into the category of ‘American.’

All of this clearly outlines that inequality or perceived unfairness matter and I think this is the case globally and not only in the specific contexts just discussed. Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his book ‘On Inequality’ says society should worry less about inequality than about absolute states of misery, poverty for instance. I believe this claim is wrong, in particular where inequality and poverty are understood in a cultural, social and political, and not merely the economic sense.

It is dangerous to meet social unrest by pointing to the fact that on average all people are better-off today than ever before while ignoring the spread in capitals between population groups. The observation that “America is currently great, according to pretty well any statistics,” as Tobias Stone remarks, hasn’t deteriorated the effectiveness of the Republican Party’s divisive campaign.

In all of this it has to be understood that virtual reality is more of a mirror of social reality than determining what is going on in the real world. Social media inarguably is a powerful tool for shaping public opinion. But as I have just tried to outline opinions are deep-seated and formed by real circumstances and not artificially produced, no matter how big the available electronic data.

The current surge of attention towards online nudging based on voter profiles is a thread of information I consciously don’t provide a link to. For no matter how substantial the claims, they divert attention towards potential tipping forces in the election and away from the underlying causes for voters’ present inclinations.

Let me give you an example of the indicative capacity of social realities. I was touring the UK in the midst of the EU referendum with my family and we’ve visited a good deal of places across England, travelling by car. Before arriving in Oxford, having previously travelled from North to South, we had the impression no Remain campaigning existed, since all roads were plastered with Leave signs. Even the chippy in a small Northern English town, run by a family of Chinese origin, was distributing leaflets that informed prospective voters about the £350,000 million that allegedly went to the EU instead of the National Health Service (NHS).

Pollsters or the residents of the ‘isles’ of London, Oxford or Cambridge should have taken a ride through the country. They might have got a different flavour of what the referendum outcome could be and for which reasons. Generally pro-European as I am, I still didn’t expect it, but grew more uncertain the more I saw of this. I bet similar observations could have been made in the USA.

Social capital factors. In relation to perceived inequality, social capital, more specifically diversity in people’s social networks, plays a significant role. The importance of diversity in social contacts is highlighted by Eric Kaufmann’s finding that anti-immigration and thus pro-Republican votes were most numerous where the rates of new immigration had been highest, whereas they were relatively low in regions culturally diverse by tradition. Hostility is thus most pronounced where networks have not yet had the chance to become more diverse, or never will have this chance due to the cultural capital factors mentioned earlier. In consequence, policy makers need to show more awareness of contextual factors that not only shape how likely it is that immigrants will accommodate to the environment, but also that the environment will accommodate to them.

Political capital factors. Some other points relate to what I’ve called political capital, more specifically citizens’ ability to engage politically and have an actual effect on politics. Although everyone in Western democracies has the right to vote, actual political capital is increasingly weakly developed.

Here are some examples: Economists Becker, Fetzer and Novy point out that EU-phobic UKIP is literally not represented in British parliament due to the first-past-the-post system, which is in sharp contrast to the shares of votes and seats UKIP has won in the European parliamentary elections. This most likely strengthened instead of weakened the party’s influence on the referendum. It seems that an underdog challenging the ‘ruling class,’ and with extreme positions, is currently favoured by those who feel their interests are not adequately represented by the parties in power.

This probably also explains why ‘Mannheim North’ was one of only two city districts in which German right-wing AFD won a direct mandate in the 2016 parliamentary elections in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. This area used to reliably deliver a social-democratic mandate for decades. The loss of this mandate resulted from a lack of citizens’ political capital, that is a mismatch between actual policy and people’s political expectations.

The consequences of such a lack have partly been visible for decades and can be witnessed all over Western democracies. An illustrative example is given by law scholar Joan C. Williams, who describes the swelling stream of migration of blue collar workers from the Democratic to the Republican Party since the 1970s, which has found its recent culmination in the 2016 U.S. elections. Historian and past New York Times editor Sasha Polakow-Suransky in turn describes how traditional social democratic voters had turned away from ‘their party’ to support the right-wing Danish People’s Party back in 2002 and how this pattern has reoccurred or may reoccur in France, the Netherlands or Germany.

In addition to the disengaging effects of policy towards certain population groups, it is the specific actions of politicians, in particular aspects of communication, which have repelled many voters from supporting those currently in power.

First, policy speak has become so far detached from the ‘common people’ that those cannot relate to it anymore. Ever more often, when I watch a German political talk show, I get the impression that those participating in the show only address and try to impress those that are similar to them. They formulate their statements in ways that totally disengage many people. So called ‘elites’ finally end up discussing things among themselves. Polakow-Suransky makes a similar argument in relation to the world-detachedness of graduates of the “ultra-elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration,” who shape the French political landscape.

Afterwards politicians are surprised that a considerable amount of people turn to those that use a more direct and illustrative way of speaking, mind you, independent of whether it is populist or not. Barack Obama for one drew quite a bit of support from his rather straight way of talking and his ability to speak effectively to different audiences. Hillary Clinton didn’t have this ability. Donald Trump instead was very effective in this, though towards different audiences than Obama.

Second, the scope of people reached and positively influenced by political communication is often decreased, not by political correctness itself, but by the pedantry that so often accompanies it. As advocated for by media analyst Adam Johnson, it is true that maintaining standards of openness and respect are indispensable and that correctness must not in itself be blamed for people embracing the opposite of what those communicating in correct ways want to achieve. However, if politicians want to propel gender equality and fight racial discrimination, they will have to find ways to engage the broad public instead of disenfranchising it by proclaiming sermons in a morally presumptuous way. This has recently been criticized for example by Bastian Hermisson, representative of German Heinrich-Böll foundation in Washington, during the German Green Party’s first post-U.S. election meeting.

Third, there is too much black and white political ideology. There are objective criteria by which recent actions taken by Russia or Turkey are condemnable. But it is tiring to see how literally each and every of their actions will by guarantee be assessed less favourably than any taken by the UK or the United States. The annexation of Crimea and the Iraq war were both wrong by objective criteria and unbacked by international law, but they have not led to the same uproar in international politics. It is clear that established alliances and global economic weights come in here and the way international policy has tided perfectly follows a realist political tradition.

However, most policy makers and media have not factored in the retaliations their positions might evoke in voters who feel they are being fed one-sided policy talk. Until recently continental Europeans could justify their position by pointing to shared values and the alleged moral supremacy of their Anglo-Saxon partners over others. However, the recent events have shown that about half of both, the UK and U.S. population, do not embrace Europeanisation or liberal democratic values as much as many would have liked to see.

A fourth political communication aspect is that of extreme polarisation and a roughening of the manners of speaking. Independent of the topic at stake, this trend can explain why so many people don’t seem to give too much weight to what is being said in current political debates and how it is being said. In the United States, where the ‘Comedy Central Roast’ is a popular TV programme, it is of little surprise that people will remain unmoved when a presidential candidate insults women, immigrants or homosexual people.

In politics and in society more generally, there is a deterioration of mutual respect that makes it hard to be shocked and repelled by literally anything that is being said. People can always resolve on what someone will do is different from what someone says. This has often been articulated after Trump’s victory. The trend is probably almost impossible to stop, but one would need to recognise these wearing-off effects more consciously.

Closely related to the last aspect is the power of simple and catchy messages that increasingly dominate political campaigns. The ‘winning side’ was very good at coming up with slogans that whether you liked them or not had high appeal. “Take back control,” “Make America great again” or “Drain the swamp” clearly marked the heroic vocation of the winner, whereas the ‘losing side’ both, in the UK and in the USA was incapable of coming up with any similarly possessive message. This time there was no “Yes we can” in near sight.

There is a last aspect that probably most strongly deteriorates people’s faith in the genuine representation of citizens’ interests through representative democracy: politicians’ decreasing credibility. The politicians who found themselves on the winning side, were those the people felt stood for what they said. It wasn’t hard to believe that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson would act upon what they proclaimed, though each for different reasons: the one since he had apparently devoted his whole life to making the UK leave the EU, the other since his career prospects would rise if he won the fight over the referendum, which in fact proved true. The same applies to Donald Trump. This is underlined by people’s fear that he will actually stick to the promises made during his campaign.

The ‘other side’ was far less convincing, even to someone more receptive to their arguments. I recall a TV debate shortly before the EU referendum where Amber Rudd, Angela Eagle and Nicola Sturgeon acted as the pro-Remainers. Take this in: Amber Rudd, who after becoming Home Secretary, as an indirect result of the referendum by the way, announced she would seek to significantly reduce the number of international students in the UK. Angela Eagle, whose first action after the referendum was to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. And Nicola Sturgeon, who even during that very debate threatened Scotland might seek a second independence referendum if people voted to leave the EU.

The list of Political Figures drastically revising their initial positions or embracing contradictory policy goals can be extended as far as Theresa May, who from a Remain advocate transformed into the fiercest proponent of a ‘hard Brexit.’ I am not arguing in favour or against any of these positions. I am just saying that the actors’ changing attitudes can hardly be reconciled and any perceived hint at ingenuity may have deteriorated their credibility in the first place.

Authenticity has become more important than political positions. You may not agree with Angela Merkel’s political position and may criticise operational mistakes in dealing with the many migrants seeking refuge in Europe. But you have to grant her that, for once, she has acted on a clear conviction and continues to fight for it.


So what? I think it has become clear that we, and I essentially mean everybody, must avoid narrow perspectives and quick-shots when discussing the circumstances that have led to the recent events. The factors that move people need to be understood properly. This includes getting a grip on social reality and not only a virtual image thereof. A very simple way of doing so is talk to people and also use the resulting depth of information to direct socio-political actions. We have seen that such actions should not always be steered by surveys and statistics.

Most importantly by far, we have seen that society needs to find ways to improve the cultural, social, and political capital of people, in particular those deprived in these regards.

To me, promoting social mobility will be one key aspect in breaking manifested structures of inequality. Social mobility would not only decrease economic inequality. It would also reshape individual mind-sets and thus strengthen shared cultural capital, increase interaction across class barriers and thus diversify social capital, and enable citizens to push for more balanced policies and thus lever citizens’ political capital.

It has been purported for years that the countries observed here actively promote social mobility. Although some improvements might have been made, we are far from a desirable situation. Continuously low rates in German higher education of children whose parents have not had similar educational experience speak a clear language, and so does the fierce rebuttal of establishing a comprehensive school system in the country. Private and thus costly primary and secondary education in the UK or the persistence of Grammar Schools despite their actual abandonment in the late 1990s or the horrendous costs associated with university education in the United States, all point into the same direction, namely the preservation of class differences.

Why aren’t there more academics like me?” asks Geraldine Van Bueren, a human rights scholar in the UK whose parents unlike her had not entered the spheres of higher education. The answer is dire but straightforward: Those belonging to privileged circles try to shield those circles from intruders. This pattern is found not only in school or university education but replicated in vocational education too. Formal qualification is the backbone of German industrial quality, but it also complicates vertical career progression or horizontal career transition, a challenge currently faced when trying to qualify refugees for the German labour market.

I think it is cheap to react to the current problems I discussed by simply demanding more and better education. While this will certainly be beneficial for progress and prosperity overall, it will not promote social mobility. What we need is a more transient educational system and support for those who are disadvantaged, for whatever reason, and those who seek to reach higher educational levels against existing obstacles. Critics can always fall back on the position that this is in everyone’s own authority. But when structural inequalities distort the balanced unfolding of different capitals across society and thereby lead to the social division we’ve recently witnessed, they become a problem that affects everyone.

Some ideological advances seem to be on their way. Louise Richardson, Oxford University’s new vice-chancellor, called the University to seek talent other than where it has typically been sought. But first, this must not remain a wish but become a principle, and second this principle needs to be woven into the social threads of our societies, across all levels.

Only by ensuring that social mobility is in fact possible can we establish links between more groups of society. This is crucial for shaping cultural and social capital in ways that make people embrace unity over division. It further needs to be accompanied by politicians and policies that are reliable and keep the balance between different population groups. This is necessary for representative democracy to create an adequate level of political capital for citizens and thus remain a legitimate form of government.

This article closes just as it has begun: By stressing that the present challenges are complex and solutions will be hard to achieve. I am afraid there is no easier answer to fixing the unequal distribution of capitals in contemporary society and the consequences it has produced.


Gorgi works as a researcher at the Centre for Social Investment of Heidelberg University and is a DPhil candidate at Oxford University, Kellogg College.