It is a sad thing to see a country tear itself as the United Kingdom has just done.
With nearly all the ballots counted, roughly 52% of 72% of voters in the UK opted to Leave the European Union, with stark divides among demographic, geographic and political boundaries. The young - those who have to live with the decision - voted to Remain, while the old - the, to be blunt, dead and dying - voted to Leave; Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain while England, minus most of London and some major cities, voted to Leave; and as some of the authority results have played out, the white working class areas and old country villages voted overwhelmingly to Leave while the urbane wanted to stay.
52%. That number is incredibly close considering the impact the vote will have on the future of the UK. While there is a lot of doom and gloom about the markets right now, it will likely stabilize shortly after. Had the UK been part of the Eurozone, things would be incredibly different, but at the end of the day the UK and the EU countries will figure out a way to work everything out. Nothing will truly change on that front, simply because everyone has too much at stake to allow a total divorce to occur. Like with Quebec's "sovereignty-association" idea, the EU referendum was a lot of bark but little actual bite.
No, at the end of the day, what may truly change is the political landscape. The UK has voted itself out of what many considered an unbreakable alliance of nations, and that will have a greater impact down the road than I think any of us are willing to accept. The UK's referendum has given democratic cover to nationalists and outright fascists to gather the alienated and downtrodden masses, left behind by globalization and capitalism, and form them into a base of support the likes of which liberal democratic politicians have rarely seen and will barely be able to touch.
They're already out there, of course. They're the people who complain about "political correctness" going too far, while openly praising attacks on others. They're the ones who say it'll be a good day when institutions like the EU are gone so "the people" can get their power back, when in fact they're concentrating all of it in themselves. They're the ones who say they're going to fix everything, while causing most of the problems we see today.
The personalities who say the above are powerful because they speak to what people face in their everyday reality - that they're being called out as racist or xenophobic simply for being white, or that some bureaucrat from on high is dictating to them without concern, or that their lives are ruined because of matters out of their control. These are real concerns of real people who have just as much a right to vote as you or I do, and they feel they're no longer being heard. All it takes is for a demagogue to propose an easy fix - "Vote Leave and get your country back," or "Vote Trump and Make America Great Again," or closer to home, "Vote Ford and stop the gravy train" - and they'll listen, even if the demagogue's promised solutions can never be delivered, because at least someone cares about their problems.
When faced with the challenge of the populist demagogue and their supporters, democratic politicians often shrug. They say, "oh we'll appeal to their sense of reason," or "we'll show them how damaging it is to disrupt the way of things." They prattle on about high-minded and even justified ideals of open societies, globalized trade, and the high-tech future, but what they don't get is that those people are no longer listening. Complex explanations of how the modern world works and how it benefits them or the community cannot stand up to the simplistic call-to-arms of the demagogue, who demands everything be fixed through sheer will alone or by God they'll burn it all to the ground around them. Reason and pragmatism mean nothing when up against passion and innate anger at the system. Do the politicians and Eurocrats get that? I have my doubts.
The UK and EU will probably survive the upcoming challenges. While demagoguery now has precious cover for some of its baser and nastier instincts, there still exist an equal, if not greater half of people who resist it. But probably not since the early 20th Century have we been this close to the breaking point, where populist anger boils over into murderous rage. Some countries have already tipped over the edge, like Poland and Hungary, where growing authoritarian leaders and governments actively promote censorship, government crackdowns, and animosity between communities. Russia has been there for nearly two decades.
Could such governments be elected in democratic bastions like the US, Britain, France, and Germany? How about Canada? Why wouldn't they be? Our countries are in many ways no different from struggling Poland and tiny Hungary except in maybe the severity of the problems, but how far away is the tipping point really?
We live in dangerous times. While I believe we'll can get out on the other side better than before, we won't if we continue on as we do. The world is getting better for most people, but those left behind by forces outside their control need to know they can also come with us - we need to listen, not talk down to them.
Does that mean we give into bigotry and racism? Of course not, it doesn't have a place in the society we all want. But it does mean we have to listen to those we consider having disagreeable views, and find out why these issues are coming to the fore. Is the guy complaining about the immigrants just a racist ass, or is he seeing a new community move in with benefits that he will probably never see? Are some simply xenophobes who can't accept people of other faiths, or are they concerned about the loss of their cultural identity in a globalized world? Is the person screaming about men in women's washrooms just a bigot, or do they simply not yet understand what trans people are all about?
People don't come to conclusions based on nothing but simply being an adjective. They feel justified in their opinion based on their experiences or those of others. If we, as people committed to liberal principles, want to avoid getting swept up in a demagogic wave, we'll need to approach these people and find out why they hold these ideas, and what we can do to move forward together on solutions.
My silly concluding analogy is thus: you can continue to drive your agenda forward over all those bumps in the road, but there will come a time when the damage will add up, and not only will progress become stalled but it may even be reversed. To me, its better to lay down the pavement first before we continue on than risk having to tow it all back to the beginning, as the UK has to now.