Those seismic changes were not widely predicted or expected and sent pundits rushing to offer explanations as to why they ever occurred. However, according to academics at the University of Southampton over simplifying the trend would be a mistake.
Hedvig Schmidt, Associate Professor in EU Law at Southampton, believes there were a number of issues that were involved, with economics being at the core.
She says: “There was an issue with migration, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was much more about economic stagnation and the economic crisis of 2008–9.
Brexit was a protest vote by people disillusioned with the whole process, and frustrated with the political elite who are seen as self-serving.
Colleague Dr Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, agrees: “There is a tendency to oversimplify and look for mono-causal explanations. Yet there are very distinct varieties of these trends.
“Brexit was a function of long-term socio-economic trends, and while Trump organised his campaign around anti-politics, ultimately partisanship and polarisation were the key factors,” he added.
Will’s research also identifies a long-term rise in discontent and distrust of politics and politicians. “Trump’s support was concentrated in certain areas like the rust belt, the industrialised areas in the US where there has been economic shrinkage. In the UK, support for Brexit was strongest within communities that also have suffered economic decline and who feel a loss of identity, with nostalgia for a previous age where they had pride in their community.”
The impact of social media
Fashioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate was the foundation of Trump’s election victory. Using his own ‘media’ to inform the electorate of the messages he wanted heard was seen as controversial, but ultimately successful.
Trump’s ability to set his own agenda via his Twitter account gave the established press a new challenge according to the BBC’s North America Editor, Southampton alumnus and University Pro-Chancellor, Jon Sopel (BSc Politics and Sociology, 1981).
Describing the US election as ‘the most challenging’ he has had to cover, Jon explained how Trump was not only able to tap in to the distrust of mainstream politics through the use of social media, but also create his own news agenda.
Social media was also the platform where so called fake news (fabricated stories) gained momentum. Jon, who gave a Distinguished Lecture at the University earlier this month, explained how the rise of fake news was, in his view, a threat to democracy.
You look at how people engaged on Facebook with these sorts of stories, by the end of the election campaign, and more people were reading and engaging with fake news than they were actual news.
“That to me is terrifying, because people are just reading anything that feeds their own tastes. A democracy thrives on people who are well informed,” he added.
Whether those tactics will be deployed in upcoming European elections remains to be seen.
Is this more than just a passing trend?
The extent to which the populist vote will continue to redefine the political landscape is being tested in France at the moment.
The first round of the French Presidential Election was held on 23 April. France’s next president will be elected in a run-off election, which will take place on 7 May between Marine Le Pen, candidate for Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, Leader of En Marche! political movement. Pundits will be looking on with interest, as some are wondering whether the populist surge will sweep Front National into power.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands the far right candidate Geert Wilders increased his party’s share of the vote, but failed to beat the incumbent People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The result led the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, to claim that the Netherlands had ‘rejected the wrong sort of populism’. However, commentators have noted that in the days leading up to the election Mr Rutte took a harder line on issues like immigration with a near diplomatic crisis with Turkey being cited as an example.
The populist vote would appear to show no real sign of waning as the Brexit and US elections have shown voters who are disillusioned with the establishment, that anything is possible. And now we have another general election on 8 June, in the UK; the outcome of which is looking hard to predict.
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