In what will be the last article this year, we should remember the strangeness that has been 2020, but also the strange few years we have been living through. It was four years ago, in June 2016, that the UK decided to formally leave the European Union in an election decided by a majority of 51.9%. That is, there were 1,269,501 more votes to leave the EU than to remain. To put it another way, the future rights of the UK were decided by just 634,751 voters – a significant number, but less than 1% of the population.
If we look at the US elections that same year, Donald Trump received 1,322,095 votes fewer than the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, with Clinton getting 48% total, Trump 47% and ‘Others’ accounting for almost 6.5 million other votes. Due to the electoral college system in the US, however, where it is the ‘first past the post’ in each state (as in the UK), the person with the fewest overall votes managed to win more electoral votes and become President.
Why are we talking about ancient history? What happened four years ago has been and gone and there’s no point talking about it, right? Wrong!
As George Santayana said “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. And if we do not learn from the elections in the UK and the USA four years ago, and from the 2020 US Election, we will continue to repeat the mistakes. There are two mistakes I am referring to, and this is true regardless of your political point of view and whatever country you can vote in:
i. Democracy is not democracy if people do not vote; and
ii. Democracy assumes people know what they are voting for.
The first point is a simple one. People have died fighting for their right to vote over many hundreds of years, and there are still millions around the world living in places where there are no free elections or the elections are so controlled that they might as well not pretend. So if you have the right to vote, please vote. 72% voted in the Brexit referendum, just over 65% voted in the 2020 US Presidential elections. But just imagine for a moment, that it was 100% of those eligible to vote had voted. What if the remaining 28% of the UK electorate had also taken part in the vote? That is almost 13 million people who couldn’t be bothered to vote. Imagine if the 82 million who could vote in the USA, had voted. Let us remember that only 30% of the US electorate voted for the winner (and it doesn’t matter whether you count Biden or Trump as the winner). Two-thirds of the country did not vote for that President… so can they truly represent the people?
It is easy to feel that our individual vote makes no difference, but as should hopefully be obvious to you all, if everyone felt that way, it would make a difference. If everyone throws their rubbish on the floor, the world would be covered in litter. If we each take responsibility to do our bit and dispose of rubbish properly, there would be no litter at all. So please vote, every time, every election. Exercise your right to help decide who should run your country and make decisions that affect you on a daily basis.
The second point is all about critical thinking. Just because something is written in print, it doesn’t make it true. The numbers I quoted above are all easily verifiable by a quick Google search, but there is also lots of misinformation around, lots of lies and “fake news”. And the challenge, of course, is that hundreds of millions of people fail to spot fake news when it hits their inbox, either through their social media or personal messages. Fortunately, there’s an app for that: goviralgame.com – a game developed by researchers at Cambridge University that shows you how to create fake news and, in so doing, spot fake news when created by another. This is useful then for seeing through the nonsense of conspiracy theorists who think COVID-19 was created by the 5G network, or the dangerous vaccine deniers whose children could then get measles, as well as seeing through the untruths from your favourite politicians – for example, see how the Washington Post have researched the US President’s facts over the last four years: wapo.st/trumpclaimsdb. And it has been well documented how the Leave campaign used Cambridge Analytica in the UK to manipulate voters before the Brexit referendum with misinformation.
So as we enter the next decade, as we leave the nightmare that was 2020, look to change the world. Make a new year’s resolution to make the world a better place. Make a resolution to do your bit. And it’s only a ‘bit’ – you don’t need to make grand gestures. We can all play our part. Take responsibility. And use the critical thinking we have learned through our general education to understand what we are voting for.
The future is bright. The future can be wonderful. The future is in your hands… don’t drop it!