Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Foreign News Musings: 2016, the year of backing the wrong team (US Elections, Brexit, and Colombia)

I follow international news quite a lot and, as a result, I tend to have opinions on a wide range of international events and goings-on.

Many times I follow international news events with a certain level of detachment. I follow the news, get to know the basics of what is going on and when that particular item or event is no longer in the news I quickly move on to whatever else replaces it in the headlines.

On other occasions I find myself so invested in a particular developing story because maybe it might have implications for my life or work.

However, there are times I find I am so into some foreign news stories even when they might not have any direct relevance to me. It is like how you can watch a football game between two teams you’ve never heard of but over the course of the game you find you are rooting for one side over another.

2016 has been a typical year in the sense that I have followed some news stories quite closely, and I have supported different sides in a range of elections, referenda, debates etc. all over the world.

However, I cannot remember any other year when most of the sides I have supported have performed so badly. 2016 has had many “bad” outcomes for me as far as taking sides in international affairs is concerned that it seems every side I have backed has failed or performed poorer than I had expected.

I will use just three of the major examples- the US presidential elections, the Brexit referendum and the Colombian referendum on a peace deal between the government and leftist guerrillas commonly referred to as FARC.

In all three of these examples  found I was following the debates and campaigns quite closely and  became convinced that I knew which side would carry the day but in all I found myself on the losing side.

With the Brexit debate I took in the analysis of the pundits and reinforced it with my own understanding of what I thought the British were thinking. I figured nobody in their most objective state of mind would want to leave the European Union. I figured that the ultra-nationalists and the anti-immigration groups (who I thought were the ones most opposed to Britain remaining in the EU) would never carry the day. I was wrong.

A majority of Brits voted to leave the EU (59.1%-48.1%)

In the case of the Colombia peace deal I took the view that most Colombians would “see the light” and vote for the peace deal, I figured that no straight thinking person would be opposed to a negotiated end to a conflict that had lasted 52 years. There were those who were campaigning against the deal because they favoured a military solution to the conflict and some who supported a peace deal but only one that ensured heavy punishments for the FARC commanders, which they felt the deal on the table did not address adequately. I figured these were a minority who would be easily defeated and international news channels seemed to agree with me. Again I was wrong.

A majority voted NO. It was a small majority (50.2%-49.8%) but a majority all the same.

Finally the one I am still processing-how Donald Trump wound up being the President-Elect of the United States of America. A lot has been written on this, and lots more is still being written, so I will not get into the details that everybody is familiar with.

Like most mainstream media and the political pundits that filled the pages and airwaves, I was pretty sure that there was no way Donald Trump could win. I felt that though he had surprised everybody by getting as far as he had in the primaries, the national election would be a different ball game and the vast majority would vote for Hillary Clinton. I was wrong once more.

While the three examples I have given seem to be very different, they have a common thread going through them-the experts and mainstream media read the mood of the people wrong. In all these cases the mainstream media (the one I was most likely to follow) gave the impression that the majority of the populace was on the side of the establishment and anybody going against the establishment was most likely painted as being narrow-minded, short-sighted, not very informed etc.

In Britain the “Leave” campaign was characterized as being full of bigots who were against immigrants or working class people who didn’t quite understand the benefits of remaining in the UK. In Colombia the proponents of the “Yes” campaign held that anybody against the peace deal was either simply hawkish or a rich urban middle-class person who had no appreciation of the suffering the war had cost the poor Columbians in the countryside. Trumps supporters were dismissed as racists and country bumpkins who did not appreciate what it took to run the country and maintain positive relations with America’s neighbours.

Obviously I am over-simplifying but the point is that those that lost were all surprised because they had taken “the others” for granted and became overly confident of the numbers of those supporting them. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos had gone as far as saying that his people had no Plan B for when they lost the referendum because there was no option but to win.

I, like millions in the countries in which these referenda and elections were held, based my opinion on the mainstream media and the establishment pundits and I eventually found out just how off the mark I was.