The Demographics of Hope

Speaking as an exiled Chinese democracy activist, what is the takeaway from the British referendum on Thursday? Simply, democracy is flawed in the sense that, when widespread mistrust of the system prevails, it can provide an opening for populist opportunists to flag-wave the people to vote against their own interests.

For all of the European Union’s flaws, there appears to be nothing for Britain to gain from exiting. Quite the contrary: Britain will be thrown into political and economic turmoil in the near-term, and very likely the long-term.

It is difficult not to look to the United States and see an analogous situation with the rise of Donald J. Trump, which has similarly taken everybody by surprise, and similarly raises the specter of a presidency that would be in nobody’s interests — except perhaps Trump’s.

In short, democracy can be manipulated, especially when people feel economically oppressed — as many have done worldwide since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 — and when they feel like the system is rigged against them.

Speaking to the New Statesman ahead of the Brexit vote, American political philosopher Michael Sandel talked of a broad “disquiet with democracy … in most democracies around the world today,” arguing that “the rise of anti-establishment political movements and parties throughout Europe and in the US” can be explained by the “sense that people feel less and less in control of the forces that govern their lives.”

Sandel describes this as “a failure of the elites.”

But it is also a failure of democracy. Democracy fails when it systemically evolves to the point — perhaps financed by banking and corporate interests — where large numbers of people feel it no longer provides what it is designed to provide: a voice to express disaffection.

Citing a RAND Corporation survey, in March The Atlantic asked what was the best question to ask to identify a Trump voter. The answer: “Do you feel voiceless?”

The Atlantic reported, “Voters who agreed with the statement ‘people like me don’t have any say about what the government does’ were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump.”

Under such circumstances, it is easy to despair. But democracy, over time, is capable of healing itself and recovering from self-inflicted crises. If there are grounds to believe this is so, they are, I believe, evident in the demographics of voting in both the US and in Britain.

In Britain, reportedly some 75 percent of people 24 and younger cast a Remain vote. In other words, the much disparaged internet generation voted for an inclusive, globalized future.

In the US, it is largely the college-educated young that have rallied around the progressive, participatory politics of Bernie Sanders. On Friday, Sanders — in his first public concession that he will not be the Democrats’ presidential nominee — announced he would vote for Hillary Clinton. He said, “I think the issue right here is: I’m gonna do everything I can to defeat Donald Trump.”

It is a concession in which democracy shines, and hopefully Sanders can lead his believers to join hands with Clinton and fight the good fight. In Britain, the young who overwhelmingly voted to stay, and who were betrayed by a generation who will not have to deal with the long-term consequences of an exit vote, have democracy at their disposal to pressure British politics in a more positive direction.

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