Those of us who were following the results of the Brexit referendum as the votes began to trickle in could barely believe it. It was a tightly fought campaign, with popular support on both sides, but there is this somewhat misguided belief among moderate, educated people to expect common sense and rationality to shine through. To be sure, there isn’t really any historical precedent for this belief, but maybe we wanted to believe that Nigel Farage’s smug face couldn’t convince more than half the United Kingdom to recklessly endanger their future and possibly destabilise the entire global economy. How wrong we were.
Support for Brexit was largest in England, but outside London virtually every region in the UK outside Scotland, Northern Ireland and the capital ended up voting leave, by a variety of margins but some of them pretty convincing. Going from that data alone, it paints a picture of a divided nation, a schism between the more multicultural areas and the ones who, for want of a better phrase, have more of an investment in their uniquely English identity. Support for Brexit also correlated with a few other notable demographics; polls found that if you were older, white, male, conservative and had a lower degree of education or no formal qualifications, you were almost certainly going to be a Brexit supporter. Without investing too heavily in these demographic indicators, we can start to build a picture of the voices who, misguided and lied to by opportunistic politicians though they were, had the largest investment in the idea of leaving the EU.
Generalising wildly, but the picture of your standard Brexit supporter is not unfamiliar to us; despite being part of the ethnic majority, they are concerned about preservation of their cultural heritage. Despite their own relative advantage in procuring employment even without qualifications, they are concerned about waves of unwashed immigrants taking their jobs but simultaneously absorbing their dole payments. And despite the massive failures of right wing politicians to support the increasingly disaffected voting bloc that is the middle class average Joe, they view modern leftist ideas as wishy-washy and bleeding heart, and yearn instead for a return to the good old days of yore, days that were most likely only possible with the assistance of the construction of the post-war welfare state that allowed Western world to recover economically following WWII. This specific but surprisingly common citizen is also exactly the type of person who across the pond is hoping for Donald Trump to make America great again.
Like Brexiteers, Trump supporters are usually considered to be a pack of racists and white supremacists, more invested in airing their racial grievances than any kind of political agenda. Many an intellectually-lazy liberal has latched onto this narrative and, with a shake of their heads, wonder why so many poor people are such horrible bigots. Of course, to latch onto such assumptions is erroneous. As this excellent article in the Guardian pointed out, a Trump supporter is likely to have some unfavourable views on multiculturalism, but they are even more likely to have been systematically disenfranchised by the political decisions made since the Reagan era, the Thatcher era for Brits, decisions that have seen a concentration of society’s wealth at the very top level to the detriment of the average person. In the parlance of South Park, yes they may be the type of people to complain that “dey took our jerbs!” and blame immigrants for that, but it doesn’t take away the fact that someone did take their job, and they have a right to be angry about it.
Savvy politicians channel that rage to their own ends. Brexit is probably the greatest example of that. The conservative politicians in the UK who have been trying to push their agenda of widespread austerity cuts while handing big business swaths of taxpayer cash through deregulation and tax cuts, will now frame such inequality as financially necessary to help stabilise the British economy. They will frame their further disenfranchisement of the very people who voted leave as a necessary and worth sacrifice, once again evoking the carrot-on-the-stick of the “good old days” to keep older and more conservative voters on side while handing more of those “savings” to their wealthy corporate backers to the detriment of everyone else, leading to a stagnant economy and further disenfranchising virtually everyone who is not part of the economic elite. Tying it back to South Park, their jerbs will continue to be taken, at a rate far greater than they have been, by the very people they thought were going to stop it.
Jump to our isolated little island, and we have to wonder what these trends in the US and the UK, by far the two societies most similar to ours, spell out for us given a historic double dissolution election is being put to the ballot in less than a week? Our country is not free from ideological schisms; before the Brexit debacle, a victory for overtly racist, anti-immigration propaganda, our immigration minister says on national news that illiterate and innumerate foreigners will be taking OUR jobs and absorbing OUR dole. Against the backdrop of Trump’s nonsensical pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border, our government is deploying part of its naval fleet for the sole purpose of turning rickety boats full of the poorest and most marginalised people on Earth back to where they came from. These are not coincidences; like the UK ad US, Australia too is struggling with a relatively stagnant economy and growing wage inequality, with many lower- and middle-class people feeling the opportunity for a good life is functionally being robbed from them.
Either through fear of terrorist attack or through the far more subtle but far more hateful fear that one’s cultural superiority, and by proxy place as a member of society’s most privileged caste, is under threat, our politicians are finding ways to convince us that the difficulty the middle class is feeling is more a result of unfettered multiculturalism than their own fiscal ineptitude and ideological stubbornness. And while some people, those of more directly racist predilections, will absorb that message on face value, the truth of the matter is that a lot of people are not xenophobes or racists in any extreme sense but instead are legitimately and correctly concerned about the world’s cultural trajectory. They may lack the education or cultural connections to properly articulate or even understand that fear, but it doesn’t make it any less real, and when an ideologue promises to allay that fear, with simple answers and rhetoric, sometimes that just happens to be what people need to hear.
The starting conditions for a radical and reckless event, like the Brexit or the rise of Trump, Duterte in The Phillippines or Orban in Hungary, are present in Australia. Racial tensions, the fiscal pressures of growing inequality and a diminishing sense of national identity all contribute to an ideological powder keg. All that it takes is the spark, a catalytic moment that galvanises sentiment, to push it into the realm of the bizarre, and the extreme. Australians should be watching these events unfolding with an eye to the future, and try to grasp the foresight that seems to be clouded in other nations by a fog of nationalistic propaganda and internal cultural division.