ONLY now are the British starting to realize how epoch-making their apparently casual decision has been, to depart the European Union. Their Leave vote in last fortnight’s Brexit referendum may have damaged beyond repair the continent’s ideal of “One Europe” finally rid of its generational civil wars.
The vote also revealed multiple cleavages beneath the outwardly stable—because hierarchical—United Kingdom. For instance, most young city people voted to stay, while most older, rural people voted to leave.
There were just as significant differences in voters’ preferences—notably, between cosmopolitan London, seeking to remain Europe’s financial capital, and the regional cities forcibly de-industrializing under the impact of globalization.
Insular resentment of mass immigration from poorer EU states also seems to have set off apprehensions about the dilution of national identity—even the dismemberment of the UK—with Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving to join the EU. Free movement to travel, live and work anywhere in the Union is a founding principle of EU membership.
Mood of the moment
The Brexit decision did not seem to revolve around the rights and wrongs of any coherent proposition. It instead grew from the mood of the moment. This is plain from the number of Leave voters—in the cold light of “the morning after”—calling for a second consultation.
By June 30, an internet petition that would compel Parliament to debate the issue had gathered more than 4 million signatures, though it needed only 100,000.
Brexit seems part of a worldwide movement of everyday people collectively thumbing their noses at authority. Since the 2008 recession, resentment has been boiling all over the EU at the economic austerities imposed by crisis-ridden governments and EU mandarins.
People ‘fed up to here’
In the United States, France and our own country, citizens—“fed up to here”—are venting on those who rule them their bewilderment, fear and anger at occurrences and portents beyond their understanding and control.
In France, the far-right “National Front” has become the most popular political party. And it has its EU counterparts in the new “Alternative for Germany” and the “Five Star Movement” in the Netherlands. In Greece and Italy, neo-Nazi and fascist parties are rising on the back of waves of anti-migrant, anti-globalization, anti-EU movements.
In our own country, Davao City ex-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte patently owes his election as President not to the traditional coalition of factional machines but to the big-city economic elite raging at bureaucratic corruption, street criminality and social disorder.
“The higher the (income) class, the more the appeal of Duterte,” noted a poll-exit survey of the professional SWS group. “His lead (over his closest opponent) was 26 points in Class ABC, compared to 17 points in Class D, and only 7 points in Class E.”
Even apart from their bigger-than-life personalities, there are striking similarities between our no-nonsense new President and the buccaneering billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican Party candidate in November’s US presidential election.
Both epitomize the “anti-system” politician—a leadership-type associated with the populist parties rising all over the world.
Energized by adoring followers, charismatic politicians assert their compelling attractiveness not through the party systems and patronage machines but to populist voters directly.
In the US campaign, the anti-system candidates—Trump and the Democratic Party’s Sen. Bernie Sanders—disdain to hide their contempt for their party establishments.
The ICT revolution
What has set off this populist uprising?
The revolution in information and communication technology seems to be stimulating a new era of “direct democracy,” in which citizens themselves take part in the making of public policy—not through the agency of political parties but through the mediation of charismatic individuals.
And the vehicles of this ICT revolution are the “Social Media”—“the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community interaction, content-sharing and collaboration.” In the social media, modern populists have found the ideal carrier of their political messages to followers in the mass.
A new age of direct democracy
In ancient Greece, popular participation in public-policy-making became physically impossible once the number of “citizens” exceeded the capacity of the open marketplace, where their leaders customarily consulted with them face-to-face.
At that juncture, constituencies began to choose individuals from among their number to speak on their behalf. In this manner has “representative democracy” evolved, since the 1700s—creating party systems and civil societies to mediate between leaders and followers.
Now representative democracy via the party system is giving way to charismatic politicians and the internet.
More and more, political exchange and interaction are taking place through the social media—and less and less through the fragmenting party machines. Consider how easily, during the Republican primaries, Donald Trump defeated the Republican leadership for control of the party ideology.
Similarly, it was its masterful management of the social media that reportedly distinguished the Duterte campaign. The downside to direct democracy is that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have space and time only for the simplest answers to the most complex public-policy problems.
What is worse, the social media are apparently vulnerable to “trending” and downright distortion: barefaced “mendacity” is what the Brexit negativists have been accused of.
No stopping the world
What does this emerging picture mean for our own country?
Globalization—the integration of broad segments of a country’s economy, public policy and culture with those of other nations—is not going away. No nation-state—no matter how grand—can say, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”
The nation-state will become less and less capable of dealing with its problems by itself. Regionalism will grow—as it has grown in Asean; yet nationalism will persist, because the nation-state also remains the only emotional object of people’s group feelings.