Exploiting the Electorate: Lessons from Brexit

Caitlin Vito is a research Events Administrator at the International Institute
for Strategic Studies (IISS); Formerly at NATO, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division 


On June 16th British Member of Parliament Jo Cox was shot and killed by one of her own constituents. In the midst of outpourings of grief and cross-party condemnation, her death also allowed a moment of reflection. How had Britain reached this point?

To answer that, one couldn’t help but think of the heated debates on Brexit in the weeks prior to her death, with both the Remain and Leave camps hurling accusations at each other. Both accusing the other of whipping up hatred and fear among the British electorate. Sadiq Khan, the pro-Remain London mayor lambasted his predecessor, pro-Brexiter and former London mayor, Boris Johnson for unleashing ‘Project Hate’, of stirring up xenophobia and fears of immigrants flooding into the UK. In return, the pro-Brexit camp attacked the Remain side for running a ‘Project Fear’ campaign, which they argued exaggerated to the British public the costs of leaving the EU.

These catchy one-liners were quickly sucked up by the media and became the labels with which to hastily dismiss and discredit opposing arguments. ‘Project Fear’ and ‘Project Hate’ have exposed, and in many ways exacerbated, a visible and growing polarization of British politics and society. The referendum debate was framed in black and white, allowing little space for balanced discussion, and further breeding distrust and a corrosive contempt for the other side. Where arguments are boiled down into sound-bites, politics finds itself easily drifting towards the extremes.

Similarly, the Brexit campaign brought far-right anti-immigrant sentiment from the margins into public discourse. A leading Brexiter and head of the anti-immigration political party UKIP, Nigel Farage, even employed a campaign banner that depicted hordes of migrants and refugees crossing the EU border with the slogan of “BREAKING POINT: the EU has failed us all”. Immediately, many pundits pointed out similarities to propaganda used by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Jo Cox’s murderer also had longstanding neo-Nazi leanings. His decision to act at a time when politicians and the media were stoking divisions and polarizing discourse through extreme populist rhetoric was likely not a coincidence.

The trend seen in the UK, towards polarization and division, is shared across the Atlantic in the United States, where demonization has been seen throughout the US presidential election campaign. Donald Trump is a master of populist rhetoric, dividing voters with his early call for a temporary ban on Muslim migration and labeling all Mexicans crossing the US border ‘rapists’. The real life consequences of this are playing out across America, with a number of civil-rights organizations voicing serious concerns about the rise in hate speech and violent acts by far-right groups, many of whom coincidentally also openly support Trump.

The vote for Brexit and the rising popularity of Trump reflects a significant number of people on both sides of the Atlantic who are justifiably angry and frustrated with the status quo. Many of them feel that they have not been included in the economic and social benefits of globalization and closer integration. Instead of focusing efforts towards bringing these people into the fold of prosperity, many politicians and media figures have exploited the electorates’ frustrations for their own short term political and financial gain. The murder of Jo Cox and the rise in hate crimes are markers of the ripple effects these dynamics have as they play out across society. People now need politicians and a media which does not try to take opportunistic advantage in division, but seeks to build longstanding bridges.

Uncertainty lies ahead from the fallout of the British vote. Therefore, it is important that the forces polarizing the debate are now reined in. The inevitable calls for unity, urged by many politicians following the vote, must be followed by real action.



Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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