June 23, 2016 marked the day that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a referendum, the Brexit as it is called.
Countless debates and predictions from analysts and economists alike led up to that day. Still it turned out to be a bit of a surprise that the Briton wanted to leave.
As a result, the UK Prime Minster, David Cameron, who supported staying resigned. Stock markets plunged. The British pound fell to the lowest level in the last 30 years.
The next day, while the rest of the world was trying to makes sense of what was going on, some Briton seemed to be having a different question.
Google Trends, a Google service that lets people see what everyone is searching on Google, reported that the day after the referendum, the second top search in the UK regarding the EU was ‘What is the EU?’.
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) June 24, 2016
That had to make you doubt the confidence of the 72% Briton who voted in the referendum the day before.
Google Trends may not be able to tell the whole story but it does cast a shadow on the referendum result. The picture is even grimmer if you look at the referendum analysis, that of the 30 areas with the fewest university graduates, 28 voted leave.
Education could not have informed people whether or not leaving the EU was the better path. No one could possibly know how history would have otherwise unfolded if UK had voted to stay. Being educated however does provide a foundation for understanding the question and choices at hand.
Leaving the EU has tremendous impact for everyone in the UK. For that it makes sense to inquire the people in a referendum, to seek consensus and to confer legitimacy to the decision that comes about.
Politics is complex and most people are busy with their daily lives. To be informed on a political topic and to be able to deliberate on it, requires substantial amount of time and knowledge in politics and current affairs, that most people simply do not have.
This makes the people vulnerable to manipulation, and to demagogues who appeal to the popular desires and prejudices to gain support and power, instead of balancing the different interests of the people.
And for those who do have the time to deliberate on the issue, without a practising knowledge in politics and current affairs, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape our cognitive biases and fallacies in forming rational political judgment.
It is identified that we have a tendency to search for, interpret and focus on information that confirms our beliefs, that we rely on information that comes easily to mind, and that we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, driven by emotions rather than reason, as the 18-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, puts it, ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’
To confer legitimacy to a political choice with such profound impact, and to ensure that the collective decision that comes about is as informed and as free from cognitive biases and irrational emotions as possible, a safeguard, I believe, may need to be added to a referendum.
A safeguard, that was in place when democracy was first developed around the 5th century BC in the Greek city-state of Athens, and has since then been misinterpreted for discrimination and long forgotten.
That the people need to prove to the fellow members in the society that they are informed of the topic at hand, and that their decisions are results of reasons by completing, with a passing score, an assessment that accompanies the ballot.
That a vote needs to be legitimated by the informedness and the reasons of the one who casts it.
Questions in the assessment are agreed upon by political parties supporting different choices in the referendum. This eliminates false information, and ensures that the questions are of objective facts that assess the informedness of the electorate of the topic at hand. Disputes are to be resolved by the judiciary.
Vote that is not accompanied by a completed assessment with a passing score will not count towards the result on the ground of a lack of informedness and reasons.
This retains the benefits of a referendum. It prompts and allows for the people to discuss and deliberate on the topic before a ballot, and it derives legitimacy for the decision that comes about from the people.
The informedness and reason safeguard simply adds a layer of protection for the people from impartial facts and information, as well as irrational biases and emotions that may deter their true rational selves to make an informed and reasoned decision.
And in fact this safeguard can be added to any general parliamentary or presidential election.
People with no doubt have a right to deliberate and collectively decide, or to choose a representative to do so for them, in political affairs.
It is, however, often forgotten that choices by the individuals in a society, affect as much as themselves as everyone else, and that the people have a duty, to assure their fellow members of the society, that they are making an informed and reasoned decision.
A decision that is well discussed and considered. A decision that is free from irrational biases and emotions. A decision that represents their will and desire. A decision that is informed and reasoned.