In Rhizome’s occasional series sharing thoughts and perspectives following the EU Referendum, polarisation is a key issue that we need to learn from and deal with now, both in the wider Brexit world and in our social change groups. What are your thoughts?
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised at the desperate polarisation that occurred in the EU referendum – it happens quite frequently in referendums. The EU referendum was bad enough, but the outcome can be more serious still. In the words of Sarajevo newspaper, Oslobodjenje, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum”.
Here are a couple of examples. Note in particular the reference to ‘blind emotion’ leading to a rejection of the status quo in the second one.
A Canadian academic called Simone Chambers studied the run-up to the referendum on whether Quebec should become independent of Canada in 1995. She summarised what happened: “All in all, the referendum debate had an effect opposite to what deliberation is supposed to have: it moved participants further apart, heightened distrust, exacerbated misunderstandings and left Canadians in a worse place than when they started.”
In 1978, voters in California supported Proposition 13, which was a citizen initiative which reduced property taxes. Voters did this “in a surge of recklessness, a period of nearly blind emotion, surrounding the passage of Proposition 13, when anger at the government seemed to dominate the public’s thinking. The usual explanation for the voters’ choices still held sway, but this added hostility proved a potent weapon for the tax revolt. At this point, the tide of anti-government emotion eroded stable attitudes about what government should do. The public’s desire for maintaining the status quo of services plummeted, their perceptions of government inefficiency rose considerably, and their anger focused on the ‘bureaucrats.”
The Brexit referendum seems to have followed the same patterns as many other referendums. Does that help us in working out what should happen next, both on the issue and on its repercussions? And on what we might do next time (if there is a next time)?