Brexit, Trump and lessons for local elections


2016 is proving a contentious and important year for voting. From Brexit, to the US presidential race, to South Africa’s municipal elections just 3 days away, the democratic project is being put through its paces. As important as it is, from a behavioural perspective voting has some inherent weaknesses. There are many cognitive biases and heuristics – mental shortcuts – impeding our making the ‘right’ choice in elections. First and foremost, they require us to think – hard, rationally and comparatively – about a whole host of important, sizable issues that most of us don’t understand let alone engage with regularly. Job creation, macro- and micro-economics, social services, laws and legislation, immigration, foreign policy and trade… These are, individually, mammoth topics for debate and discussion. Topics that we’re now supposed to be able to break down, interrogate, understand various candidates’ positions on, and form our own intelligent and optimal opinions. When was the last time that you read an election manifesto? Or even all major parties position on one single issue? Do you know what you’re voting for when you make your cross?


Brexit break down

One of the most memorable votes of our lifetime will surely be the outcome of June’s Brexit referendum. The United Kingdom (UK) is no longer a part of the European Union (EU), Scotland and Ireland have rekindled talk of independence, and Britain has its first female prime minister since Thatcher. What exactly Brexit means - for Britain, Europe and the world at large - remains to be seen. One thing that is certain, though, is the behavioural and persuasion science which led to this iconic moment in world history.

The issues were too large to grasp in their entirety – unprecedented economic effects, those to legislation, trade partnerships, foreign policy and immigration – there were too many unknowns and no real frame of reference for what Britain’s breakaway might mean. The primary weakness of the Remain campaign was their reliance on rational arguments, followed by their focus on the economy. As Behavioural Economics has shown time and again – particularly in such circumstances, particularly when it comes to traditional economics – we are not the rational, realistic people that we over-confidently think we are. The Leave campaign’s (sole) saving grace was its noting and exploiting this. They ingeniously manipulated and re-positioned the choice architecture of the entire debate.

As immediate public reactions indicate, all too many used simplified decision strategies when casting their votes. This inherent behavioural barrier to optimal elections is evident world over. Voters tend to focus on and cling to one or two primary issues, those that have the most emotional resonance with them. We all battle to make complex decisions, particularly when there is such a wealth of compelling and conflicting information. This is the quintessential example of choice (and cognitive) overload. Add to this our present focus, unwarranted overconfidence in our decision-making, and our optimism that “it’ll all be OK”, and the Remain campaign seems doomed to have failed.

Everything about the framing of the referendum - dubbed ‘Brexit - primed people to vote leave almost from its inception. The Leave camp structured the argument to play on people’s ignorance, biases and fears. Aside from falsified figures and other factually unfounded claims, those rallying for Brexit went so far as to hand out leaflets stressing the threat of Turkey joining the EU in the lead up to the vote. The accompanying ‘map’ highlighted Turkey – in bright red, the universal colour for danger – nestled next to Iraq and Syria. No other countries were highlighted. Turkey shares its borders with Bulgaria and Greece.

Turkey Map
Turkey Map

Leavers also cleverly crafted catchy soundbites that they knew would receive publicity – good or bad – across the airwaves in the coming weeks. No need for rational arguments or long, intelligent debates, a three or four word mantra is all that our brains can wholly absorb at once anyway. It’s the same strategy which has brought Trump such resounding success across the Atlantic. Just like Trump, they courted controversy and deliberately highlighted short, disruptive, Tweetable and debatable points. Whether for or against, all anyone spoke about was ‘Brexit’. Rational Remain lost again.

We’re creatures of emotion; we’re influenced by the affect heuristic. Particularly in complex and conflicting situations, we tend to ‘go with our gut’. We make decisions based on emotion rather than reason. When considering the merits of different options - rather than checking facts, analysing charts and opinions, crunching numbers – we most often ask ourselves ‘how does this make me feel?’ It’s a cliché for a reason. Memorable campaigns saying that the UK was wasting money in Europe meant for ‘us’, and that Britons were losing jobs to immigrants who are making ‘us’ unsafe, had far more emotional effect than a suit and tie with a pie chart.

We’re social learners. We’re very influenced by the actions and opinions of our family, friends and communities, those we’re most familiar with and similar to. As all of the evidence suggests, for the last two years there has been growing distrust of institutions, government and experts in the UK as populism has resurged (there, and world over). Asking economists and big business to spearhead his campaign could have cost Cameron his job.

We’re also prone to attribute substitution. We tend to substitute heavy, complex questions – like ‘whether or not to stay in the EU?’ – with easier ones: ‘is this current system working for me?’. Some of the biggest support for Leave came from working class areas. They were also, ironically, those regions that had benefited most from EU membership. It wasn’t necessarily the EU that many Britons were resisting, but their experience of Cameron’s upper-middle class Conservative government. Confirmation bias and the availability heuristic were also at play. While no-one had experienced the economic effects of EU withdrawal, everyone had watched a news segment, seen a movie, or heard from a friend about the (‘dangerous’) immigrants in ‘our’ country.

‘MERICA: I’m with Her, or I’m with Stupid?

The similarities between the arguments and tactics employed by the victorious Leave campaign and Trump's cannot be ignored, and should give us all pause for thought.

Much like Leave, Trump has built his campaign around emotion and fear. He too has used 140 character Tweets, defamatory nicknames like “Crooked Hillary”, and three to four word catchphrases – “Make America Great Again” – to secure the Republican nomination. As one of the world’s leading experts in probabilities, Nate Silver, has said on numerous occasions: Trump is far closer to becoming the next president of the superpower than many are taking adequately seriously. In fact, at the time of writing he is leading in opinion polls.


Trump’s team has carefully crafted his psychological appeal. As father of the Behavioural Sciences Daniel Kahneman has noted,

“Donald Trump is psychologically fascinating… He's a masculine fantasy: lots of money and lots of women. He is not afraid of anything. In the context of politicians who seem to be doing nothing, it feels compelling. He looks strong. He is a bully, and people like bullies. It is a very interesting phenomenon and it has reached the point where Trump can get away with almost anything. 'The bully is immutable, it is in his nature, that is what he does', and once you convince people that it is normal for you to do that kind of thing, you can get away with things that nobody else could".

The persuasive power of this "masculine fantasy" is all the more effective considering he is up against only the second female candidate to run for president in US history. In acknowledgement of the threat that Trump poses, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has turned to the behavioural sciences for support. The field has played an increasingly important role in elections over the last two decades. It had a pivotal role in securing Barrack Obama’s two terms in the oval office, for one.

In the 2008 Democratic primaries Obama’s staff employed many insights from the behavioural sciences to nudge people to the polls. From personal letters sent to targeted audiences in areas most crucial for his securing his nomination, to volunteers going door-to-door with behaviourally optimised messages. Obama pioneered much of the use of behavioural science in US elections and, subsequently, official government structures. You can read more about it here and here. Understanding his audience, these were directed primarily at young voters, so-called ‘minority groups’ and unmarried women.

Clinton has replicated many of Obama’s tactics in her run for the oval office.  Simply calling registered voters in Iowa and asking them for details about their voting stations – a well-known behavioural tactic called an implementation intention – contributed to Clinton winning the Iowa caucus, one of the most contested in the run up to this election. Implementation intentions alone more than doubled the voter turnout from previous elections. Her campaign callers also regularly remind people that they “may call to ask you about your voting experience” post-voting day. As studies show, adding that one, simple line can be three times as effective in ensuring that people vote.

According to research done by the Pew Centre, the overwhelming majority of Americans of colour identify with the Democratic Party. Specifically: 80% of African Americans, 65% of Asian Americans and 56% of American Hispanics and Latinos. Given the intertwinement of the Republican party with the National Rifle Association, their hostility to gun control laws and police brutality, the rise (and Republican derision) of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and Trump’s frequent, flagrant and defamatory disregard for immigrants and Americans of colour, this division along racial lines isn’t exactly surprising. Nor is it uniquely American.

If Clinton were to start targeting her nudges more deliberately at focused audiences, particularly ‘minority’ groups, women and the youth as Obama did before her, it could be the pivotal push securing her the presidency. Pre-election polls suggest that white voters will be in the minority these elections. While Trump’s sexism, racism and fear-mongering have won him the majority white, majority male Republican Party’s nomination, could they really secure him the presidency?

Lessons for South Africa’s Local Elections

South African’s voting behaviours and political divides have also, historically, largely centered on race. As Professor Carlson Anyangwe, Director at the Walter Sisulu University School of Law has said,

“In South Africa and other countries, race and ethnicity play a dominant role in voting behaviour. People feel they can trust their own kind, and believe they must support them. It makes them feel safe”.

As Rhodes University Political and International Studies lecturer Siphokazi Magadla similarly noted in 2010, the prioritization of race and ethnicity are the reason why “The ANC continues to enjoy overwhelming support despite concerns about internal dissent, corruption and lack of service delivery” which have plagued the party since the Mbeki era.

Amidst widespread and ongoing protests around service delivery and corruption, a June survey conducted by IPSOS reveals that 47% will still vote in favour of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). This despite the fact that less than 28% of those surveyed felt that "the country was going in the right direction". Less than 26%  of young South Africans thought so.

The survey also revealed that the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) has had a dramatic rise in public support with 12% indicating that they would vote for the young party. The EFF's share of the electorate has doubled from the last national election where they secured 6% of the vote. These statistics clearly speak to the rapid increase in populist sentiment which has burgeoned in the last 5 years globally, as well as the success of racial rhetoric in the South African political sphere.

Voting is the principal mechanism through which we make ourselves, as individuals and as a nation, heard. In principal, our votes are meant to be a reflection of the values that we respect and want to honour and uphold. What is unnerving - though arguably entirely understandable - is that even when there is widespread public dissent and dissatisfaction with, for example, the ruling ANC, voters still primarily cast their votes along racial and cultural lines. That race has been touted and manipulated by all major political parties in SA in the lead up to the municipal elections evidences the stark realities of this.

But, are they appealing to the right audience(s)?


28% of the South African population are Millennials born between 1980 and 2000. We millennials are SA’s largest population group. Worldwide the millennial generation have nearly surpassed our ‘Baby Boomer’ grandparents. While studies have shown that young people are engaged in politics using Facebook filters and Tweets to share their political ideals, and as consumers in Che Guevra t-shirts, we’re also the group least likely to vote worldwide.

No moment has made plain the power and importance of the youth vote more than Brexit. As Co-Pierre Georg, senior lecturer at the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management at UCT has said,

If there is something to be learnt by the dire situation in Europe it is this: young people must organise to make their voices heard and to enforce policies that benefit their generation”

According to the final polls just prior to the referendum, 72% of 18-24 year olds were in favour of remaining in the EU. There are 13 million millennials in Britain. Only 34% voted in the referendum. While these were record-breaking numbers, it is impossible to ignore one plain fact: if every millennial had voted the UK would still be a part of the EU. The east coast areas of the UK which demonstrated the highest anti-EU sentiment were also those with the highest pensioner populace. Are we South Africans going to let our parents and grandparents determine our fate?

Recent research conducted by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) assessing high school, college and university students’ sentiments towards the election bore some interesting results. While it appears that support for the ANC is waning among the youth - largely due to pervasive corruption within the party and government -, corruption is also the largest disincentive for young people to vote. While corruption, service delivery, unemployment and education are the primary issues changing millennials’ party affiliations, they are also deterring them from engaging with democratic processes at all.  Out of the 25 million voters on the voter’s roll, the youth make up to less than 10 million. This despite the fact that 'young' people below 35 make up 66% of the South African population of 54 million.

While the youth acknowledge the importance of voting, and the democratic institutions and values that it supports, fewer and fewer see voting as the best way to bring about change. The overwhelming sentiment of the over 2000 millennials interviewed by the ISS was: politics is "a dirty game" and "a joke"; we don't gain anything from it, so why vote? This is a toxic and heartbreaking reality to accept in a country in which voting rights have only been available to all citizens for just over two decades.

Millennial voter registration in the last national election was at 33%, the lowest of any age group and well below the 73% average. Like the UK, not enough young people are voting. Like the UK, people 80 years and older have 100% registration rates.

As the recent and rapid rise of student movements in South Africa over the last two years has shown, South African millennials are engaged, engaging and highly politicized. Contrary to prominent media campaigns touting social media, virtual reality and gadgets as our be and end all, millennials care as much, if not more, about corruption, service delivery, structural inequality, the economy, poor infrastructure, education and unemployment. The sooner parties recognise and respond to this, the better.

The youth, the 'born-frees', us... the very people meant to benefit most from the struggle for democracy and equality are disengaged and disenchanted with the idea of it already. We need to find ways to radically re-involve the youth in the development of, and discussions surrounding, our democracy.

It took just 3 votes in the last municipal elections to determine the outcome of the Matzikama ward in the Western Cape. Every single vote counts. If all South African millennials were to vote come election day, we might have some unprecedented results too…