The Public Acceptance Factor and Politics

The first page of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 and her country’s exit from the EU.

About a month ago, my husband and I ditched our TV package with Time Warner Cable and changed to Playstation Vue. In the greater scheme of things, this was a thoroughly unimportant event. We are simply the latest Americans to determine that we will no longer pay obscene amounts of money for channels we don’t even like in the first place. However, this decision has come with some technical challenges.

We started out with a Roku box and an antenna. It was somewhat cumbersome having to switch inputs to get to the channel I wanted at any given time, but I adjusted. Then my husband bought something called a Kinivo, and this is where things really got complicated. In order to pause and record all of our channels, including those we were receiving over the air, and also be able to watch Blu-Rays, we now have three different inputs, five remotes, several different apps, and more boxes than we had when we began. As I sit here now and type these words, I am not entirely certain how I get the over-the-air channels to appear on our TV. I consider myself to be a halfway intelligent person, but I am at a loss.

I have warned my husband that he is hitting up against something known as the WAF: the Wife Acceptance Factor. He was the one who first introduced me to this term, which is used in a joking manner by computer nerds when they are trying to get their wife to agree to the purchase and/or implementation of some new technology. Apparently, the original line of thinking was that if you wanted the wife to like a gadget, you had to make it more aesthetically appealing (Because us silly women don’t care about what a thing actually does, I suppose…). These days, it seems to be more a matter of pushing things as far as you can before the wife throws up her hands and throws the device out of the house.

It remains to be seen whether I will commit such a violation of marital submission with the Kinivo box. It is not quite the bane of my existence, but things may well have been better before it arrived. However, all this thinking about the “Wife Acceptance Factor” has caused me to wonder if there isn’t such a thing as a “Public Acceptance Factor”, and if we have indeed been hitting up against it during the past year.

Just this week, the UK officially triggered Article 50 and essentially filed for divorce from the European Union. This process is likely to be long, complicated, and ugly. It causes one to wonder how things could have gotten so far. When former UK PM David Cameron and his Conservative Party pledged to hold an in-out EU referendum if people would vote for them in the last general election, they did so in order to prevent some of their own supporters from fleeing to the UK Independence Party. Once the Conservatives won an outright majority in the House of Commons, they pressed ahead and set things in motion for the referendum to take place.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at a European Council meeting in 2015. I can only assume that occasions like this will be less common in the future. Crown photograph by Arron Hoare

I do not believe that David Cameron honestly thought that the British would vote to leave the EU. Indeed, the polling right up to the day of the vote seemed to suggest at least a slim majority for the “Remain” campaign. Perhaps more significantly, Cameron was coming off another referendum success with the defeat of the Scottish bid to leave the UK. He must have been confident that the public would once again see the value of remaining part of an important political union.

I, for one, was never quite so sure. Although I am more of a casual observer of British politics than a true expert, I knew that the antipathy toward the EU within the UK was immense. Significantly, the people who wanted to leave were more passionate about their position than those who wanted to stay, and thus they would be more motivated to turn up and vote. Why should the British have been so eager to bid farewell to an institution that has seemingly helped their economic growth over the years? The Public Acceptance Factor.

The European Union is not a bad idea on the whole, and it has had some important successes. However, the problem is that many people at the top have long been pushing the concept of “ever closer union”. They championed something close to a confederation of European entities rather than a collection of sovereign states, with more and more power going to Brussels. Some of this came about as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon (signed in 2007), but the process was taking place before that. The introduction of the Euro currency was proof enough of where things were headed: countries would no longer have control over their own monetary policy. People in countries like the UK have grown increasingly frustrated as they have seen the EU set policies for them with regard to human rights, immigration, trade, etc.

The British were riled up enough about immigration a few years ago. Many people were very upset with policies enacted under former PM Tony Blair that had allowed more immigrants into the country. Then came the Syrian refugee crisis and the fears that ISIS militants would be able to infiltrate their borders and commit terrorist actions similar to those in Paris and Brussels thanks to the open border policies within the EU. (Keep in mind that Britain has had its own sad history with terrorism and has no desire to return.) I think that this may well have been the final straw for some people. I suspect the reasoning went something like, “It was bad enough when they were taking our jobs. Now they’re going to attack us too?” I’m not saying it was water tight logic, but this is how people think.

Thus, while the EU may have seemed like a good idea to many UK citizens in the beginning, it slowly came to be seen as a very bad deal from which they needed to escape. The Public Acceptance Factor had reached its limit, and they gave Brussels the boot.

A similar phenomenon has occurred in the United States of America. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was really a reaction against the policies enacted during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Sweeping changes in two particular areas proved to be too much for many people to accept: 1) The health care system, and 2) Civil and religious liberties.

There were really only two major pieces of legislation passed under the Obama administration that are bound to find their way into the history books. The first was TARP, the Troubled Assets Relief Program that came into place very quickly in order to respond to the 2008 financial crisis. This took the country into a considerable amount of debt, but was likely necessary due to the state of the economy. However, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) caused the president to spend absolutely all of his political capital and goodwill with Congress, so controversial were its dictates. As a result, no major legislation was passed in the next six years. Nearly everything of significance that happened was due to executive orders, court decisions, and bureaucratic maneuvering.

As I feared, the Affordable Care Act has not delivered on its promises to lower the costs of health care and insurance. It is still too early to judge this legislation in light of history, but the Public Acceptance Factor is not so patient as politicians might like. Americans saw their insurance premiums increase and were immediately upset. To be fair, some people have truly benefitted from Obamacare, but those who are the most likely voters probably benefitted less than, say, a young person able to remain on their parents’ insurance but unlikely to turn up at the polls.

President Donald Trump gives an address to Congress. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Obamacare also helped lead into the second sweeping change by mandating that employer-provided insurance plans include contraceptives. This created a number of court battles where employers objected on religious grounds, which had the very negative effect of making Obama look like the enemy of religious liberty. I don’t think that was what he intended, but that was the effect. Democrats underestimated how much this perception would hurt them with certain segments of the population.

Yet, the contraceptive requirement was as nothing compared to the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Most of us who had been watching closely had seen this coming for a long time, but the decision nevertheless struck fear into many people around the country because a) they believed that it was a sign of a rapid cultural decline and b) they were afraid that churches would be forced to accept and perform such marriages or be shut down. I personally believe that the cultural decline has been in progress for decades and our culture was never as pure as some would claim. Whether or not the fears about churches will ever come true, I do not know. However, the fact that Democrats did little or nothing to acknowledge or allay this second fear shows how out of touch they are and how little they seem to care about a rather large voting bloc.

Donald Trump did have some enthusiastic advocates in 2016, without a doubt: people who genuinely liked most of his positions and would make excuses for all of his outlandish comments. However, I strongly suspect that the majority of people who voted for him did so not because they liked him as a person or even thought he would make a great president, but because they had hit up against the Public Acceptance Factor. Things were simply moving too fast in a direction they did not like.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and this is especially true in politics. Go back and look at any point in history, and you can see how the pendulum has swung. As long as a nation has something like a functioning democracy and competent political parties, no one group is bound to stay on top forever. This is why, in my lifetime, only one president has managed to hand off to another man from his own party, and then it was only for a single term. (George H.W. Bush) At some point, people get too fed up, and they swing in the opposite direction in hopes of bringing things back in line. Often, they overcorrect.

Yet, what happened in the US and UK in 2016 seemed much more significant historically. In my own country, we elected a man so vile that it smacks of desperation and could cause real long-term damage to our international standing and reputation. In the UK, they are now out to sea without an anchor, and we do not yet know if they will be able to swim…economically speaking. Let this be a warning to all politicians to pay heed to the concerns of the public and not write off certain groups, even if their criticisms seem unfair or ill-informed. (In all likelihood, they are at least somewhat true.) Every person’s vote counts just the same, and you must convince people that the changes being need are indeed for their benefit, or they will reject them. It is important to keep in mind that Francis Bacon’s famous quote, “Great changes are easier than small ones,” is not remotely true when it comes to politics, and that even those socialists in France like their traditions.

Therefore, take heed, politicians! Beware the Public Acceptance Factor!