HBO’s Brexit

HBO’s new feature, “Brexit,” stars Benedict Cumberbatch and dramatizes the events leading to the Brexit referendum. Check out the trailer here. Watching the film makes you appreciate how fragile our democracy is, especially (and perhaps ironically) in the information age. When we frame something as a referendum, we have the sense that we are encouraging public participation and broad democratic engagement on the issues. But referendums present binary choices (e.g., leave or remain), which oversimplify decision-making and lead to win-lose thinking. Win-lose thinking, as we know, can quickly devolve into difficult tactics and short-term strategies.

And indeed, that’s what happens in the film. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dom Cummings, the consultant who masterminded the Leave campaign. Dom does not appear to have deep substantive concerns around Britain’s membership in the European Union; on the contrary, his involvement in the Leave campaign appears to be motivated primarily by the intellectual and logistical challenges of beating the establishment. Dom spends his time crafting and deploying the campaign’s message as effectively as possible, occasionally tapping on politicians to do “the dirty work” (like talk about immigration) but not to encourage robust political discussion or build substantive coalitions between political actors and voters. Ultimately the success of the Leave campaign is built on slogans, half-truths and lies, racism, and (importantly) an eagerness to use big data and social media to attract, recruit, and “weaponize” those who feel unhappy and unheard.

Dom and the other architects of the Leave campaign were not concerned with what would happen after the referendum. They thought only of winning (and some of them, like Boris Johnson, appear to have assumed Leave would lose, which made it easier to speak recklessly and act with no thought of the future). They were not thinking about what it would look like to Leave, how it would happen, or whether leaving would be good on the whole for the country. Instead, they turned their formidable talents and resources to the vote itself and focused only on winning the referendum.

From the perspective of negotiation, it’s a good reminder that implementation concerns need to be addressed at the table whenever possible. Many commentators have suggested that M&A agreements often fail because negotiators do not sufficiently take into account what the realities of implementation (cultures merging, people leaving, processes changing) will look like for the companies involved. They get caught up in short-term thinking, in emotions and competitive dynamics, and they forget that the goal is not signing the deal — the goal is for something to happen after the deal is signed. I don’t understand the details of Brexit and the British government, but it’s clear that the decision-making process used in this case did not provide space for sensible analysis of the tradeoffs or of implementation concerns. Additionally, the failure to partner with (and not just trot out) politicians in the campaign meant that (1) potential problems with leaving were not surfaced before the referendum and (2) there was no broad-based coalition for working through the details after the referendum. Reducing the number of people at the table may make it easier to achieve short-term objectives in the abstract, but it may make it harder to follow through on these objectives down the line.

From the perspective of deliberative democracy, the way campaigning now eclipses governing (the US border wall debacle being one example) is very problematic. In The Case for Compromise, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson explain how our campaigning culture flattens out the issues and attempts to reduce complexity in the service of getting votes. Part of this is the win-lose adversarial mentality that campaigning creates. Win-lose mentalities do not make space for compromise, which is key to good governance. Our campaign-oriented political culture helps explain why we have failures of governing like gridlock, shutdowns, etc.

In short, getting out the vote is important, but focusing solely on “the vote” invites trouble. We must also consider the design of decision-making processes, the value of compromise, and the danger posed by campaign mentalities, especially in the current techno-political climate.

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