There were two things that I believed to be true as I boarded my direct flight from Boston to Heathrow International Airport back in January, ready to spend my spring semester in London — the land of rain, sophisticated accents, and Harry Potter.
1. I would inevitably find my way to Hogwarts.
2. I’d be free from dysfunctional politics for the next 15 weeks.
Of course, neither ended up being true.
Campaigning for the U.S. presidential primary was already in full swing at the time, and I was supremely sick of the media’s coverage of it. I figured that flying across the pond would put exactly 3,269 miles between American politics and me, and the idea of escaping it for an extended period of time was liberating. I had no idea that leaving the American election behind would hardly save me from plunging headfirst into political dysfunction.
During my first week in London, I was not only tasked with adjusting to a new time zone and re-learning how to cross the street, but I was also hit with an orientation about a proposed policy that could significantly impact the country. Shortly after my arrival, David Cameron announced that the Brexit referendum — which essentially proposed the UK’s exit from the European Union — would be held on June 23, 2016. Before I arrived, the referendum was merely an idea, a promise that David Cameron made to propel his reelection in 2015. But the enormity of actually announcing a date to vote was evident from the moment I arrived in England. The referendum was now real.
I was slightly overwhelmed by all the talk about the referendum — listening to lectures about the “validity of the monarchy” and hearing “the Labour Party want this” and “the Conservatives want that” from my professors — right out of the gate. At that point, all my body could process was, It’s 5 a.m. Why no sleep?
But learning about the referendum also woke me up. I had a million questions. Why was this happening? What were the issues? I mean, being a member of the EU seems like a sweet deal. You don’t have to stand in the non-EU line at customs, and you can easily move between EU countries, visa-free. On a larger economic scale, there are major policies that benefit EU members, the most significant being free trade between EU nations. How could the British people believe that leaving would be better?
The answer: a fear campaign. Propaganda in the form of a bus ad and anti-immigration posters had convinced many that money that could have been going toward national healthcare — specifically, 350 million pounds per week — was instead being given to the EU. In reality, closer research indicates that the UK sends about 188 million pounds per week to the EU, much of which returns to the UK in the form of farm subsidies and science grants.
But the money itself wasn’t the only problem, according to those backing the Leave campaign. That money, they argued, also augmented another problem: immigrants. They argued that the UK needed to take back its borders and protect the interest of British citizens in a country that has limited space and resources.
So, in a nutshell, this is the Leave campaign’s position: We have no borders. We have no control. People are flooding in. We need to build a wall.
To be clear, the UK has no intention of building an actual wall, probably because it already has one: the ocean. But pro-Leave politicians did say a lot of things that were factually incorrect in order to stir an emotional reaction in citizens. Because who has time for research? If it’s written on the side of a bus, it must be true.
Despite this circulation of propaganda, it seemed that few people were really worried that the UK would actually vote to leave. Reactions I observed included everything from eye-rolls to sarcastic retorts — no one took Leave seriously, because leaving seemed crazy. The people with whom I surrounded myself were well aware of the many negative ramifications it would have. Three million jobs are linked to EU trade. There are 1.2 million UK citizens currently living and working in EU member countries. The livelihood of 4.2 million people would be at risk if Leave succeeded — and that was just brushing the surface.
But here's the thing: Propaganda is effective. Scare tactics do mobilize citizens. I lived in the Remain-centric world of liberal London, a world that was apparently unaware of the vast rural and conservative populations that were totally buying into the Leave campaign. By May 1st, Leave had an advantage of 46 to 43 percent, with 11 percent still undecided. With less than eight weeks before the vote, Remain supporters suddenly had a reason to be nervous.
Then came June 23rd: Referendum Day. It didn’t matter that by that point I was home in the U.S., where I’d been for over a month. On that day, I felt like I was right back in London.
I checked the polls every hour. At first, things seemed okay. Remain was leading by 2 percent. It wasn’t enough of a lead to lower my stress levels, but it was still a lead. That feeling was nice while it lasted, because soon enough the balance shifted, and the numbers were no longer in Remain’s favor. Every percentage drop was followed by a subsequent “GOD NO” in a group message with my London friends.
You know the ending to this story. Leave won the referendum 52 to 48 percent.
I couldn’t believe it. My friends couldn’t believe it. No one could believe it.
I cried. I cried for a country that wasn’t mine but had become a second home. I cried for my friends who were horrified by their new reality. Watching the referendum from a distance is one thing, but I had been there, I had made friends there, I knew real people there whose lives would be directly affected. It hit me hard.
In January, people said it was impossible. Then in June, the impossible happened.
On November 8th, the impossible could happen again — right here in the United States. It could happen thanks to Donald Trump.
In January, I was so ready to be rid of that name, even if only for four months. Except it turns out that Brits love to go on about Trump. The moment I spoke, revealing my American-ness, the conversation revolved around him:
“So, that guy Trump. You a fan?” —Starbucks Barista
“Trump. Hahahaha.” —anonymous British friend
“At least we don’t have Trump” —security guard at the British Museum
Even in the UK, Trump was everywhere. Every primary he won became the punchline of a new joke. The British media was (and still is) fascinated by him — fascinated by us, by the fact that the United States of America has let him come so far, let him be votes away from becoming the next Commander-in-Chief.
How did we let him get this far? How are we so close to letting our own version of impossible happen?
It turns out that we let this happen much the same way as the U.K. did. On June 23rd, British baby boomers decided the millennials’ future — with 90 percent of people 65 and older voting, as opposed to 64 percent of the 18–24 age group. On June 23rd, scores of people either didn’t understand the power of their vote or didn’t use their vote at all. Many who voted Leave now regret it — and have stated that they would change their minds in a re-vote.
The fact is, voting is power. As a citizen, it’s one of the most powerful things we’ve got. It’s a privilege and it’s a responsibility.
We get one vote. There’s no such thing as a do-over.
Currently, our nation is as divided, if not more so, than the U.K. was leading up to their Brexit vote. Millennials match baby boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. electorate. This means that we, the youngest eligible voting generation, have to use our vote. Not only are our votes influential, they have the power to shape the results of this entire election.
November 8th is the first time I’ll be voting in a presidential election. I am voting because it is my right and responsibility as an American citizen. I am voting because the stakes have never been higher.
Most of all, I am voting because there are some things that need to stay impossible.
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