Brexit: A cautionary tale

Editor’s note: This is cross-posted to my Emergent Journalism blog because of its commentary on the state of news reporting around the issue.


On Friday I thought more about Ireland, the UK, and my friends there than on any other day since I returned from my semester in Galway seven weeks ago. The reason, of course, was all the news on the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union.

The immediate impact of the vote was turmoil in world financial markets because of the likely political and economic impacts of a British departure from the EU. The longer term impact is uncertain, but unlikely to be positive.

One interesting angle on the whole affair is a parallel between the Brexit vote and the rise and popularity of Donald Trump as a U.S. presidential candidate.  I’ve seen a number of stories about this; The Guardian did a good job of summarizing the connections as follows:

There are, admittedly, similarities between the populist and anti-immigration attitudes that motivated many to vote for Trump in the Republican primary and many to push the UK towards the door marked “Brexit”. Brexit voters were also whiter, older, less well educated and from areas that had not participated in the recent economic recovery. They were motivated by resentment towards immigrants and refugees and disdain for metropolitan elites.

(It’s worth noting that the general theme of the article is that the Brexit vote is not necessarily a bellwether for a Trump win in November because of substantial differences in the electorates of the U.S. and UK. A New York Times article this morning made a similar point for similar reasons.)

On the other hand, Amy Webb  in a column for Inc. magazine said the UK referendum outcome leaves her “gravely concerned,” and added:

I think about the Brexit vote within the context of our US election, where we see similarly misguided anger and resentment toward immigrant communities, not to mention a complete misunderstanding of how the economy actually works. It reminds me that our current media distribution channels–social and traditional–have shackled most of us within echo chambers that grow louder and more impassioned with every new political event. Those who were shocked to learn that the #Leave vote succeeded didn’t give credence to the very large, mobilized and powerful group of people who took advantage of such an ecosystem.

Either way, there is no escaping the parallels, on a few different levels including the role of the media in each and the way way both campaigns progressed (and Trump’s is still progressing) with utter disregard for the facts. Since this is an angle that I thought of, but others have stated better, I’m going to liberally use their thoughts here with credit. (As an aside, The Guardian has decided to go a level beyond fact checking to publishing articles that highlight Trump’s flat-out lies. They say it will be a regular feature. I predict they will have no shortage of material to work with.)

But with regard to Brexit, this comment from the Financial Times that I saw posted and re-posted a couple of times Friday on Twitter pointedly cast the outcome as people voting based on demagoguery with factual appeals absent or irrelevant.  comments3a

Although written about Brexit, it’s an apt description for Trump’s popularity as well. A similar comment, also found on Twitter but whose source I can’t ascertain because it was a retweet of a retweet, makes the point more sharply, across a broader context that explicitly includes the U.S. election. It also resonates with Webb’s observations:


Then, of course, there was The Donald himself, crowing about how positive the vote was. One problem, though, was that he made the comments while he was in Scotland for the re-opening of a golf course he owns there. And of all areas of the UK, Scotland voted most strongly to remain, by a 62-38 margin. That led to some choice reaction on Twitter.1

Speaking of a campaign based on something other than facts ….



1 I don’t endorse and generally dislike ad hominem insults in online discourse, but since Trump loves to insult those who disagree with him with names like “liar,” “loser,” and “moron,” turnabout seemed fair play in citing some people calling him similar names.


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