I WAS in the United Kingdom when the Brexit vote was taken and I was traveling in the Middle East with an American tour group in the latter part of the United States presidential campaign that ended last Tuesday with US Election Day. These are some observations I made vis-a-vis attitudes toward two elections.
In the United Kingdom, I could hardly detect in public any agitation, excitement or unusual moves that showed that an important election or referendum, as it was technically termed, was in the offing. Yes, there were the usual headlines and quotes of the pro and con figures on the issue in the newspapers which hardly made traction due to lower readership, some television panels discussing it with each side represented but all under seemingly normal parameters. On the whole it seemed like ho-hum time. Definitely, nothing was obvious in London, and in Scotland on Election Day itself, nothing unusual. There were no crowds lining up in polling places which for the most part were not visible, at least to strangers and tourists like me.
I was in the town of St. Andrew’s for my granddaughter’s graduation from the university there and graduation day fell on the same day as the referendum. There were lots of young people and their parents and teachers about, and the excitement centered on the graduation, the garden party later that afternoon and the celebratory dinners in the evening. The graduates seemed to be indifferent to the day’s election and more concerned with their transition from school to the real world.
One of the issues of Brexit was the fear of the uncontrolled entry of immigrants or maybe the dilution or weakening of what is regarded and prized as the British way of life, the Anglo-Saxon identity outnumbered by a vast number of migrants. There was too, particularly in the industrial cities, the economic problems brought on by unemployment through outdated factories and the jobs that were lost from them. For added measure there was general resentment of European Union rules which were attributed to detached bureaucrats based in Brussels, the city where the EU is headquartered, and the monetary contribution that the UK had to give to it yearly. There were also some false premises perpetrated as well as some outright lies about how the country would be better off if it were out of the European Union.These issues seemed to have mattered only to people of a certain age–older than the average, old enough to know of a past that they were nostalgic for, unemployed because older or stuck in older industries that had suffered because of new technology. Apparently, the younger people, millennials as they are now called, were just not involved, did not have the issues resonating with them or were so disillusioned or disappointed either with their situation or the government that they were detached and distracted. Some may have been content with the status quo. Whatever, it was enough for them not to bother to vote. Elders voted and the result was the shock decision for the country to leave the European Union after 40 years.
No one can predict how this will turn out for the UK, whether good or bad, and whichever it will be in the long run. When it comes to roost, the elderly who mostly voted “No” will be gone and the millennials now will be in their place, the elder ones of society living out Brexit.
The impression is that people are so involved in their lives to the exclusion of anything that does not seem to directly impact on them, that they forget their connection to society as a community or as a government.
The Brexit vote has caused an upheaval in the UK where it is safe to say now that things will never be the same again. Let us just hope that if they are not, they are better.
As I traveled in Iran with Americans, mostly retired, living in the US and not somewhere else as many retired Americans are wont to do, I noticed a certain indifference, if not outright hostility, to the election campaign going on in their country. Many were on the trip to escape the campaign rhetoric, debates, accusations, vitriol and other unpleasantness that the 2016 presidential campaign seems to have brought to the fore as never before. No one seemed to miss the constant electoral campaign news and if they received it in the email, ignored it.
When brought up as a topic, some said they did not want to discuss candidates, campaigns or come-ons to vote. They complained that the presidential election process in their country took too long, wasted too much time, frazzled out people’s attention span and was nasty. Moreover, neither one of the candidates excited them except for harsh criticism or downright dismissal of both as bringing no choice, no ascendancy of one over the other.
I also noticed that some American women do not automatically warm up to a woman candidate but may in fact have their hackles raised by such. There is a very palpable resistance too to a woman candidate for the presidency.
With the feeling of hostility and indifference to either candidate comes the reluctance to vote or to bother to go to the polling place on Election Day. This may have changed a bit in the final weeks as it was said that New Yorkers were lining up for the polling places to open. But I doubt if this was a country-wide phenomenon. Voting turnout in the US compared to us is much lower.
Perhaps the world has changed without our noticing much about its evolution. We are just seeing the results. Very few politicians are trusted implicitly, government is expected to give the best basic services taxpayer money can buy, especially if a calamity, an economic depression or some such dislocation occurs. People who fail or are not in a good place blame their leaders and take it out on them at the polling place. Thus, we have a proliferation of demagogues, a cascade of extravagant promises and over-the-top lies by those who wish to replace them.
These circumstances have occurred because of changing times causing fear and distrust not only of politicians but of anyone who is different and strange in a society that wishes to be homogeneous for whatever reason. People as a rule resist change when they are content with what they have or live with. But when things go awry for them, they will go for those who promise to bring them back to the familiar and the past. No matter how unrealistic, outdated, and incredible those promises are.
We need to know and to learn.