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3 lessons from Brexit for America

MP Boris Johnson addresses members of the public in Parliament Street, York, during the Brexit Battle Bus tour of the UK.
MP Boris Johnson addresses members of the public in Parliament Street, York, during the Brexit Battle Bus tour of the UK.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Last month's Brexit referendum, in which the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, has inspired a whirlwind of mischief. My colleague Darren Schreiber gives an interesting analysis of the "Leave" vote, which eked out 51.9 percent of the popular vote but does not automatically trigger British withdrawal from the EU.

David C. Parker attributes the success of the Leave campaign to efforts of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which was founded and centered on opposing immigration. As an American in the UK, here are my top three takeaways from the Brexit vote.

1) The institutions set the stage

UKIP mobilized a majority of voters to vote Leave in the referendum, but the party holds only one seat in Parliament. This apparent lack of symmetry is due to the British electoral system, which awards seats in the House of Commons to the candidate in each district that wins the most votes. Each member of Parliament (MP) then has one vote for prime minister.

This type of "first past the post" (FPTP) system rewards larger parties with disproportionately large shares of seats, while smaller parties receive disproportionately small shares.

As an example, examine the results of the 2015 UK general election:




Votes per Seat

Conservative Party

11,299,600 (36.8%)

330 (50.7%)


Labour Party

9,347,300 (30.4%)

232 (35.7%)


UK Independence Party

3,881,100 (12.6%)

1 (0.2%)


Liberal Democrats

2,415,900 (7.9%)

8 (1.2%)


Scottish National Party

1,454,400 (4.7%)

56 (8.6%)


Green Party

1,157,600 (3.8%)

1 (0.2%)


Democratic Unionist Party

181,700 (0.6%)

3 (0.5%)



959,900 (3.1%)

19 (2.9%)


Data compiled by author, retrieved from House of Commons Briefing Paper CBP7186.

As you can see, the Conservative Party received 36.8 percent of the vote, far from a majority, though it received 50.9 percent of the seats. Meanwhile, UKIP received 12.6 percent of the vote but 0.2 percent of the seats. This means it took 34,000 Conservative votes to elect one MP, while 3.9 million UKIP votes were necessary to accomplish the same goal. It also means that millions of UKIP voters were not directly represented in Parliament, and felt as though their votes did not matter as much as those of the more established parties.

The Brexit vote, then, offered much more than simply a referendum on EU membership. It offered the first opportunity in more than 40 years for the entire British electorate to come together over one single decision: Leave versus Remain.

This sort of national-level issue exists during every US presidential election, when American voters unite as one constituency and face a binary choice. This year that choice is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

2) The choice is singular

This binary choice presents an opportunity for any group to win by securing a majority of the votes. Victory tends to go to the group that can tell the most convincing story.

With Brexit, that group was UKIP and the Leave campaign. The story was not about the cost of EU exit, the benefits of EU membership, or the realities of agricultural subsidies, tourism, and education. The story was about the cost of immigration and EU membership, and improving national health care with promises UKIP's former leader, Nigel Farage, has already dubbed "one of the mistakes the Leave campaign made."

Trump supporters share with Brexit supporters the conviction that immigration must be stemmed at nearly all costs. They also share feelings of deprivation relative to those around them, and exclusion from the main party system. They even fear that their votes for Trump will not be weighed appropriately during the nomination process, though in Trump's case he has won convention delegates at a disproportionately higher rate than the votes he received.

Similar to UKIP and the Leave campaign, Trump's camp is crafting this election to be about immigration and security. They have no need for discussions of Israel/Palestine, the Middle East, or agricultural or education policy. The emphasis is only pure conservatism — not Republicanism. True to its roots, conservatism asserts that we are not created equal but that a properly maintained hierarchical system will be benevolent to all, and advocates reversion to a previous way of life that was preferable to this one.

3) The arguments are tautological

According to both UKIP and Trump, all the intricacies of domestic and foreign policy will be worked out when we "take back control" or "make America great again" by tightening or eliminating immigration and securing borders. When America is great again, immigration and border control (and everything else) will fall into place.

This argument is what we call tautological, basically because it is using itself to prove itself. America will be great again when immigration is resolved. When immigration is resolved, America will be great again. In other words, the resolution of immigration is both the way to make America great and the way to measure that America is great.

The problem with tautological arguments is that they are not really arguments at all — they are simply a long way of taking you back to where you started. Just like Trump's claims and UKIP's promises that resolving the immigration issue will resolve the immigration issue, tautological arguments do not have logical steps to take you from point A to point B. Instead, you keep finding yourself back at point A.

Tautological arguments can be very compelling, especially when replete with thuses and therefores, and when those making them claim to understand our own difficulties and challenges. When our deepest fears are preyed upon, it is easy to believe the promises of people who act like they know what they're talking about, to let fear and hatred dictate behavior. These promises are the bread and butter of Farage and Trump.

Britain's lawmakers installed failsafes into the government apparatus, mechanisms that require parliamentary endorsement before a referendum can take effect. Some might say this is an opportunity for public officials to rescue voters from their own, possibly less informed and more capricious, opinions. When comparing the UK and the US, the question is: Will the American electorate be able to rescue itself?

Dr. Gina Yannitell Reinhardt recently joined the Department of Government at the University of Essex as a lecturer. She studies how citizens and policymakers make decisions under uncertainty, and how those decisions affect economic, social, and political development and subsequent policy outcomes.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.