Welcome to democracy

Or: How to Lose Votes & Alienate People

Source: the Guardian

If you've been keeping up with world news recently, no doubt you've heard about Brexit - a.k.a. the 2016 referendum for the UK leaving the European union, which recently passed. Depending on what sort of filter bubble you currently reside in (see my earlier post), you might have also run across a lot of articles saying why this is a bad idea. In general I agree that it's not the optimal outcome, but was pretty surprised at the way the responses came out, and feel like, if anything, they made the issues worse, not better.

Given that many of the readers of this blog live in democracies (it seems a popular form of government), and democracies at times will have votes you don't agree with (otherwise you're either the world's best bellwether, or leading your own dictatorship...), I figured it worth covering some of what I saw happening, and why it did or didn't seem a good idea...

What not to do when a population votes opposite to how you'd like:

-) Don't ask to vote again.
Seriously? 16.1 million people voted Remain in the referendum, so I feel like only 4 million people on the petition is small...Country-wide votes are a lot of organization and cost too! This is why rules for elections or referenda are set in advance. Note however that asking for changes in future votes is ok, although I fear that increasing the barrier to change will just result in loads of more conservative 'no' votes, which is already the case in Australia. For example, in Aus they're talking about a gay marriage plebiscite (finally!), but I wouldn't want that to be 60%-with-75%+-turnout to pass, and I'm assuming many of the petition signers wouldn't either. Related to this...

-) Don't ask to change the style of voting.  
There was a bunch of discussion over whether it's 'right' to allow the general public to vote on EU membership - in a representative democracy, the theory is that the leaders are chosen to represent the people, but have much greater knowledge so are more likely to get complex decisions correct. With Brexit, the majority of experts (political, economic, ...) seemed to agree that remaining was best, and so of course the call afterwards was to say that it should have been decided by the politicians instead, as most things are.

Unfortunately, again this appears only to be being applied to votes that 'went the wrong way' - take the gay marriage plebiscite in Australia again - the demand here has been that the vote should be given to the people, because the politicians have skewed interests and are old and conservative. I'm yet to see a good definition of which votes should be given to the people and which to the representatives, but also tend to discount any argument for one or the other that is essentially "the one that will get the result I want".

The other downside here - why the general public 'shouldn't vote' on it - gets to what I consider the crux of the matter, which is:

-) Don't call the people who disagree 'stupid'.
Whether it be the EU Refeyendum Stupid Girlfriend video (note: it's satire) or the 'Brits search What is the EU on Google' article (note: it was about 1000 people?), or the Brexit-Mad-Cow map (also fake) or a myriad of other articles, there was no shortage of people claiming that exit voters worse stupid (or racist, or old). Call it anti-intellectualism if you like, but the problem is, this leads to claims like how 'people have had enough of experts'. It's a feeling that is shared with much of the US Trump movement - who can say that they've not seen articles call trump supporters stupid?
Yet calling people stupid is never going to change their minds, which is what you need in an actual democracy. What is worse, calling a viewpoint stupid without listening to arguments for it will prevent people from sharing arguments with you. This just compounds the effect (see the earlier filter bubble mention). It's even covered briefly in the popular Newsroom pilot episode speech. Calling someone stupid tends to avoid dealing with their arguments, not fixing the problems they have, and losing their vote.

While here, on the topic of age - this tweet image showing 'average number of years they have to live with the decision' made the rounds, implying that young people's votes should be weighted higher as they have to live with it longer. It's a strange implication though, as usually the opposite is true ("You just joined the company, so you'll probably leave last...can you sit in on board meetings?"). If you change it to 'average years of experience dealing with governments, countries, world wars, ...' then you get a fairly different conclusion.

-) Make predictions about the economy.
After Brexit, share markets fell sharply and the GBP lost a large amount of value against other currencies. Ignoring the fact that people who don't own shares or travel aren't immediately affected by this (but will probably feel transitive effects, many bad, into the future), the main British index (FTSE 100) has regained all losses after Brexit. I don't know if this will continue, but neither do most people - there's loads of complexities here. Did you know the Swiss Franc went up 30% in one day after unpegging from the Euro (the GBP dropped less than 10%), and many were unhappy as that meant it was harder to sell to others? It's possible that more international companies will invest in the UK, and foreigners might buy more houses (ironically). In conjunction with the previous issue, it doesn't help to call people stupid then make incorrect guesses about economies.

Green Screen Queen Meme
What you can do instead:

-) Keep calm (and carry on? sorry...)
Yes, there are a lot of problems. This hasn't helped abate the increasing fear of people from other countries, or tensions with Scotland & Ireland, and might increase the nationalist movements around the world, but none of that is happening overnight. Everything at this scale happens slowly, so there's no point panicking.

-) Talk to people who disagree with you.
Sorry to bring up the filter bubble idea again, but: how many people in your social media / news streams are pro-trump (or pro-brexit)? If the answer is under around 50%, then there's definitely a skew, and my guess is for many it's closer to 0% than 50%. Assuming democracy stays around for a while, the people you disagree with on referendum matters will need their minds changed by someone, maybe that's you? If you don't, I'm sure Rupert Murdoch is happy to try instead... :p

-) Take politics seriously.
It's hard, as lots of people find it much simpler to ignore it altogether. I guess growing up in Australia, it was a bit easier due to the whole compulsory voting thing, but I'm always surprised by how many people in other countries simply don't vote. Even if you do vote, it's now easier than ever to make yourself heard (write a blog, start a website, email local members or newspapers, ...). Again, this isn't going to get results immediately, but the people leading campaigns had to start somewhere too - Boris Johnson was writing in The Times in the 80s.

-) Help out people who are actually worse off overnight because of it.
This is trickier as it doesn't affect everyone, but there are no doubt a number who are actually suddenly worse off - either something was dependent on EU membership, or even e.g. their neighbours decided to be overtly racist. Note that these will be covered disproportionately by media as well, so the size will feel larger than it really is, but there is some immediate improvement that can be made.

St Pancras, London

Having said that all, I feel that nationalism / separatism has an externality that is usually not factored into decisions like this: i.e. there's an opportunity cost to not working together with larger, more diverse groups of people, so will keep trying to find ways to make it more tangible. And as always, probably for this more than other ones, comments and critiques will be appreciated. But until then, I will go back to mostly ignoring politics, with the unavoidable exception of next weekend's Australian election, other than to say that all of the above probably applies there too.

And in non-political good news: research has come out on how to detect diabetic hypoglycaemia (= dangerous low blood sugar levels) using Isoprene levels in breath, as well as ways to improve the signal from devices that measure the motor cortex.


  1. I don't think that the image with "How many years they have to live with the consequences" implied that young peoples votes should be weighted higher, but that old people don't really care about it, because it won't really influence them. This means they are more likely to vote with the shiniest candidate (eg the one who offers the moon and the sun, just like they do in Romania).

    Interesting observation about the FTSE 100, that it bounced right back up. Markets are very... interesting. :))

    1. I am old(er), and I really care about it, for the simple reason that I am heavily invested in my children's future.

    2. @rolisz:
      Indeed, you're right - the initial tweet was just the picture, and left it open for interpretation, of which there are a number. Most of the times I saw it shared however, the interpretation was more along the lines that a 'fair' decision would have somehow considered 'years to live with the answer' as a factor; Plus, the 'old people don't care/are gullible' stance is also an odd one to take, without the opposing 'young people don't care/aren't experienced' factor too.

      @Mark - Indeed, as I'd expect many of the older pro-brexit camp to be too; The 'Talk to people who disagree with you' applies here too, I guess if people source their opinions from online that probably doesn't include getting opinions from many of the 65+ group.

  2. Patrick - very well argued, sir. I find myself agreeing with all of it. I should try harder to follow your lead. It is an excellent example, I think, of your way of considering matters.


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