2016 has been a big year for protest politics — not just in the United States, what with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump getting over 40 percent of primary votes, but also all over Europe and Latin America, where voters have been rejecting the advice of their nations’ political, financial and media establishments.
Two prime examples were in referendums. On June 23, 52 percent of British voters rejected the advice of Prime Minister David Cameron and other parties’ leaders and chose to leave rather than remain in the European Union. On Oct. 2, 50.2 percent of voters in Colombia voted to reject President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Polls had shown “remain” winning and the peace agreement far ahead. Financial and betting markets expected them to come out on top easily. Barack Obama endorsed “remain.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee voted Santos the Nobel Peace Prize assuming his agreement would be approved.
Britain and Colombia have different political cultures and traditions, but examination of the referendum results shows similar patterns in both countries — one similar to the partisan divisions that have developed in American politics since the 1990s. In both referendums, the establishment position prevailed in the capital metropolis and in geographic fringe areas of distinctive cultural and ethnic heritage.
Metro London, with 11 percent of Britain’s votes, voted 60 percent “remain.” Scotland, with 8 percent, voted 62 percent “remain.” And Northern Ireland, with 2 percent, voted 56 percent “remain.”
Colombia’s capital, Bogota, with 20 percent of national votes, voted 56 percent for the peace agreement. The coastal departments along the Caribbean and Pacific, with 16 percent of national votes, voted 60 percent “si.”
In the capitals and the fringes, the emollient arguments of the establishment prevailed — namely, that Britain must continue to accept EU interference in the form of laws and regulations and that Colombia must accept a peace deal giving FARC amnesty and automatic congressional seats.
But in the central part of each country, the part most typical of its historical national culture, a demotic politics prevailed. England outside of London, casting 74 percent of national votes, voted 55 percent “leave.” People in Colombia’s cordillera — the valleys and mountainsides among the three Andean ridges, in the heart of the country — and those in the sparsely settled Amazonian region to the east, casting 63 percent of national votes, voted 58 percent against the peace agreement.
It helped that despite the overwhelming establishment support for “remain” and “si,” there were respected leaders making the case for the other side — Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and (German-born) Labourite Gisela Stuart for “leave” in Britain and former President Alvaro Uribe, who led successful operations to quell FARC and other terrorist guerrillas, for “no” in Colombia.
These voices provided critical support for the common-sense intuition of Brits who valued independence from foreign bureaucrats and Colombians who opposed coddling a largely defeated terrorist movement.
The division between the establishmentarian capital and fringes and the demotic center crossed party lines in Britain and was not entirely tied to party affiliation in Colombia. But the divisions in those countries resemble the geographic and cultural divisions that have come to exist in the United States.
Our establishmentarian states — the center of our political, financial and media elites, i.e., the Northeast, except half-industrial Rust Belt Pennsylvania, plus the West Coast — cast 31 percent of the nation’s votes in 2012 and voted 60-38 percent for President Obama. The states in between, the demotic center, cast 69 percent of national votes and voted 51-47 percent for Mitt Romney.
That’s a 13-point regional gap, one that’s been widening. It was 11 percent in 2004, 5 percent in 1988 and zero in 1976. It could be larger this year.
It’s widely accepted in journalistic circles that Republicans are doomed to minority status because of the increasing percentage of nonwhite voters. But looking at politics through the establishmentarian/demotic lens, other results are possible.
George W. Bush could win in 2004 because the establishmentarian states gave John Kerry only a 12-point margin, while Bush carried the twice-as-large demotic center by 9. The British and Colombian referendums show that depending on the substance of issues, even overwhelming establishment media dominance can fail to overcome demotic opposition.
In Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither the establishmentarian capital nor the demotic center has an ideal champion. Trump has shown neither the command of issues nor the moral steadiness needed to win and in polls is further behind than “leave” was in Britain.
But that doesn’t mean the demotic side must always lose. Always in politics, new issues arise, circumstances change and leaders’ performance varies. Neither side can count on always prevailing.