Changes in the balance of power are always preceded by changes in the nature of communication. Last week’s decision by the U.K. to exit the European Union is the direct result of our decades-long move toward a disintermediated public sphere, in which all groups have an equal chance at being heard, not just those in positions of power and visibility.
Brexit sets a new standard for high-stakes political decision-making in a disintermediated environment. While everybody expected the vote to be close, most informed observers put their money — in some cases literally — on the “Bremain” faction, led by a broad spectrum of the UK’s political establishment.
British voters chose to leave the EU by four percentage points, but the vote was divided along age and educational lines. Data shows that 75 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted to remain, compared to only 39 percent of those in the 65+ age group. Additionally, 52 percent of the population with a “higher education but no degree” voted in favor of staying in the EU, along with 71 percent of people with a degree. Just 34 percent of people with only a high school education voted in the same manner.
The upper echelon of the British tech and business world was, for the most part, opposed to Brexit, viewing EU membership as an assurance of their access to the global marketplace. Almost all of the U.K.’s A-list celebrities, from David Beckham to J.K. Rowling, deployed their caché in favor of Bremain. Sir Richard Branson even started his own campaign to keep the U.K. in the EU. But none of it was enough to counter the groundswell of anti-EU feeling. Within England, the vote to leave came overwhelmingly from non-urban areas and those on the lower end of the income spectrum. Brexit was, in effect, a cage match between those in power in the U.K. and the grassroots, with the grassroots winning a decisive victory.
The predictions of well-respected pollsters and political scientists–including those of John Coultice, the only political scientist to correctly call Britain’s 2015 parliamentary election–were proven wrong. The degree of shock that greeted the Brexit decision shows how much opinion makers still underestimate the power of disintermediation.
Since Brexit became a reality, a popular petition has sprung up to hold a second referendum, with the intention of reversing the decision to leave. The petition’s 3 million signatories include some who voted in favor of leaving the EU, and was in fact created by a man who was originally in favor of Brexit. This organically grown petition is, in many ways, a form of disintermediating the vote, with the population attempting to take even more decision-making initiative into their own hands. The sheer number of signatories means that legislators will have to consider the issue once again, since any petition with over 100,000 signatures is automatically given a hearing in Parliament. And with Scotland and Northern Ireland already talking openly about whether to secede from the U.K. in order to join the EU, it is safe to say that this is only the first of Brexit’s many serious international consequences.
In the past, one might have said that Brexit was a failure of the British establishment to communicate the necessary messages from politicians to the public. But with the middleman removed, that kind of analysis is now obsolete. Since the advent of ubiquitous digital communications in the 1990s, the ability of any one group to act as an intermediary between a point of view and its wide dissemination has been eroding. As a result, many Cold War-era institutions are now crumbling, along with the outdated media structures that held them up. The Schengen Agreement, which ensures free travel across many European borders, is being pulled apart by political tensions stemming from the migrant crisis. Last week’s decision signals that the EU itself might be pulled apart next. In the age of disintermediation, no outcome is now unthinkable.