Basically, the Brexit is the geopolitical equivalent of getting really drunk at a party, losing your phone, and making an ill-advised Taco Bell trip.
Hours after voting their country out of the EU, setting into motion an economic and political shitstorm, a lot of “Leave” voters were left wondering what they had done. Not in the emotional sense. In the literal sense. Hours after the referendum, top Google searches in the UK included “What happens if we leave the EU?,” “What happens if we stay in the EU?,” and, more worryingly,” What is the Brexit?” and “What is the EU?”
Just before the referendum, the top Google search in Sunderland, one of the first regions to report, was “How do I vote in the EU referendum?” One can imagine Sunderlanders standing in line to vote, scrolling through their phones, scrambling for any last-second information as if cramming for the SATs.
The regret of many “Leave” voters, claiming they’d have voted otherwise if they’d known that leaving would crater their economy, is any indication, suggests that they failed.
Obviously, some “Remain” votes were also uninformed. But the more likely explanation lies in the “Leave” campaign, which tapped into fears of terrorism at the expense of…actual facts. So swayed were some “Leave” voters by the xenophobic rhetoric of UK Independence Party Nigel Farage that they neglected the economic consequences of leaving the EU, like losing their jobs, retirement savings, the value of their currency, and economic subsidies from the EU.
Taken alone, changes of heart are excusable, if unfortunate. But with the referendum results split 52/48, these cases of individual ignorance have curtailed the academic and economic futures of an entire generation of Britons, whose prospects hinged on the EU’s freedom of movement and trade. Researchers will lose their funding. Students may be cut off from European universities. Companies may shift their offices from London to Paris or Germany, shedding thousands of jobs in the process.
All because a few people didn’t do their research. All because a few people allowed themselves to be baited by baseless, xenophobic rhetoric. The situation presents obvious parallels to the American presidential election. Seizing upon racist sentiment, a demagogue convinces uninformed Americans to vote against their self-interest, destabilizing global markets, foreclosing trade opportunities, and further intensifying national security concerns.
If the Brexit offers any advice (beyond investing in pounds), it’s the importance of staying informed. Lest any American get too smug about the “Where is the EU?” Google searches, 51% of Americans can’t locate NYC on a map .
OK, maps are hard, but the majority of Americans completely misunderstand the fundamental mechanics of our government. Among other gems: 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution, that the Founding Fathers wanted “One Nation Under Jesus,” which includes 75% of Episcopalians and Republicans. More alarmingly, only 1 in 1000 Americans could name all five First Amendment protections (speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition.)
Voters can’t safeguard the rights that they can’t name.
They also can’t cast informed votes without a clear understanding of the issues facing our country.
But our collective ignorance carries over to current issues, as well. A 2013 Kaiser survey found that 44% of Americans don’t realize that Obamacare is still law. Only 38% of Americans know which party controls Congress, even as its historic impotence has held our country hostage. Americans dramatically overestimate the crime rate. On a test of rudimentary current events topics, only 5% of Americans could answer basic questions about economics. For domestic issues, it was 11%. Foreign affairs? 14%.
Our ignorance of the outside world has been deemed “a threat to national security,” by the Strategic Task Force for Education Abroad.
So why are so many Americans so disengaged? Two smartphone swipes away from candidate voting records, policy statements, international news, their lack of education can only explained by disinterest.
That disinterest comes at their detriment. When people cloister themselves to personal anecdotes and sensationalist headlines, they close themselves off to any form of context. Precluding a full consideration of the issues, they’re more vulnerable to manipulation, and fear-mongering. They’re more susceptible to sweeping generalizations, simplistic 30-second attack ads, logical shortcuts.
Clouded by emotions and catchphrases, they vote in accordance with their anger. They’re enticed by vague promises of “something else” without understanding what that “something else” actually is. So they vote themselves out of the EU, check their stocks the next morning, and realize they’ve made a terrible mistake.
Mid-commute side-eyes notwithstanding, I am as “live and let live” as it gets. Not everyone shares my addiction to the Times, and that’s perfectly fine. I don’t begrudge the personal choices of others until they infringe on the rights of myself or others.
But come November, they will. My financial future, healthcare and abortion rights, and personal security lay in the hands of people who don’t appreciate their importance. My vote carries the same weight as those who ignore or worse, actively oppose, information.
As I have realized in horrifying fashion this year, educating myself won’t grant my vote any extra credit.
I understand and accept that some people, after appraising the facts and policies and aligning them against their self interest, will vote for another candidate. What I can’t stomach are the wasted votes. People who, like the regretful “Leave” voters, piss away their democratic responsibility to their fellow Americans with misinformed, misplaced votes.
My hope is that the Brexit, and the societal ignorance underlying it, motivates Americans to take closer stock of their own political landscape. This isn’t limited to the presidential election, but the local and state policies that probably have more direct implications on our lives. With a more complete understanding of current issues, we can cut through the attack ads and racist rhetoric to the truth. We call out corruption and demand change through the ballot box.
Contrary to popular belief, Americans can affect change. But first, we need to know what really needs change. So empower yourself through education. Challenge, engage, question.
As the Brexit vote has shown us all, your vote matters. .
Thomas Jefferson said it best: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”