The famous American author Mark Twain is rumoured to have once said ‘If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.’
The year 2016, though, was supposed to be the year where voting did make a difference. But the twin political disruptions of 2016 – Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as President in the United States – have not lived up to expectations.
Indeed, it is now clear that Brexit will not happen. On 23 June 2016 the British were presented with two options in a referendum: ‘Leave the European Union’, or ‘Remain a member of the European Union’. There was no ‘hard Brexit’, no ‘soft Brexit’, and no mention of a ‘customs union’, of payments to the EU, or of cross-jurisdictional mobility. Leave means leave.
Except the elites have another idea. Some 17.4 million Britons voted to Leave, 16.1 million voted Remain; 406 constituencies voted to Leave, 242 to Remain; and nine regions voted to Leave, and just three to Remain.
Yet just 160 members of the House of Commons voted to Leave, and 486 voted to Remain. The Prime Minister Theresa May is one of those 486.
The political class never had any intention of implementing the will of the British people.
This intent was on display when the House of Commons voted against a ‘no deal Brexit’ – better known just as Brexit – 321 votes to 274. This means the only way out of the EU will be some sort of compromise position. And the only compromise on the table is the one put forward by Theresa May which has been twice rejected by the House of Commons.
In all likelihood Article 50 – the provision which once triggered gives effect to Brexit – will be extended, at first for a few months and then beyond a year. By then the political class is hoping that the 17.4 million Brexiteers will lay down their arms and ride quietly into the night.
The situation across the Atlantic isn’t much better. Trump’s presidency on the whole has been a success. So far it has included substantial corporate tax cuts, deregulation, withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, convincing Nato allies to pay their share of common defence costs, a renewed approach to North Korea and appointment of conservative judges.
But, as in the United Kingdom, the political class in the United States has sought to nullify Trump’s presidency ever since he was elected on 8 November 2016.
Almost every argument for removing Trump from the Presidency has been used. The electoral college is outdated. Trump conspired with the Russians to steal the election. He is mentally unstable and should be removed from the presidency under the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
And then there is the biggest brickbat of all: Donald Trump is an avowed and unapologetic racist.
Democratic party Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, claimed in the wake of the tragic New Zealand terror attack that Donald Trump ‘embraced and emboldened white supremacists.’
Importantly, it is not just members of the Democratic party that have been doing their best to stop Trump.
It was Republican Senator John McCain who voted against repealing Obamacare, after having campaigned on it for eight years. And it was a majority Republican House and Senate that for two years refused to pass funding to build a wall or barrier on the southern border.
This left Donald Trump with no choice but to make a national emergency declaration to build the wall. It is little surprise that the establishment is trying to stop that, too. Recently the Republican Majority Senate voted 59-41 to cancel Trump’s February proclamation of a border emergency. Twelve Republicans voted with the Democrats, triggering Trump to issue the first veto of his presidency.
But Trump himself also appears to be straying from ‘Trumpism’. He still talks tough on illegal immigration, but at his State of the Union address in February of this year Trump stated he wants legal immigrants ‘in the largest numbers ever’.
Trump’s ‘bring the boys home’ approach to foreign policy has been replaced with keeping troops in Syria and escalating rhetoric on regime change in Venezuela.
His hostility to trade deals has softened markedly (a welcome change, but a change nonetheless). And the ‘swamp’, far from being drained, appears to be alive and well.
None of this is to knock Donald Trump. He is one man who was sent into Washington D.C. to shake things up. And he has given it his best. But in the end it appears that Washington always wins.
Australia faces similar challenges. The upcoming election is interesting for what isn’t being discussed. Voters are concerned about three big issues: rapid population growth. high electricity costs and political correctness.
But the political class is intent on not talking about these issues. Both the Coalition and Labor have fundamentally the same view on these three issues. There is literally no difference on population growth. The Coalition offers a slightly less destructive climate change policy, with a 39 per cent renewable energy target as opposed to Labor’s 50 per cent target. And the government’s decision to ban Milo Yiannopoulos from entering Australia is just the latest example of their apathy, if not outright hostility, to free speech. A hostility that will only be outdone by a Shorten Labor government.
So voting, at least for the meantime, may not make a difference. But actions still do. And that is why despair is not the right response. Rather, we should follow another apocryphal quote, this time from Mahatma Ghandi who said ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’
For those feeling disenfranchised, this means living in a way that will create a better future. If political parties, neighbourhood councils, or local organisations are not functioning properly, then it is up to all of us to either develop alternative institutions or use our freedoms to join up and make them better.
Daniel Wild is Director of Research with the Institute of Public Affairs