In the past few years, a number of policies that most experts agree are economically sound, driving up production and improving quality of life across the board, have been questioned by appealing to nativist tendencies, like an uneasiness with immigrants or a fear of international integration. Too frequently, these objections have gained enough traction to end the policies. In the US, for example, the fear of losing jobs killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), although the eventual United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement essentially restored it. The bipartisan U.S. International Trade Commission dryly predicted “that TPP would have positive effects, albeit small as a percentage of the overall size of the U.S. economy” and a 2014 report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics claimed that NAFTA made the U.S. “$127 billion richer each year.” While any lost job is a real source of hurt, the Peterson Institute report found that NAFTA’s responsibility for lost jobs was overblown: “[a]t most, 5 percent of dislocated workers can be traced to imports from Mexico.” Nonetheless, these agreements were struck down in the court of public opinion. What can supporters of policies such as these do to raise the popular support needed to maintain them and the growth and prosperity they bring? Comparing two referendums on economically-advantageous policies and the campaigns that surrounded them can shed light on this issue.
First, consider the economic concerns of the Brexit referendum in 2016, when the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union. The consensus of economists is that Britain’s exit from the European Union will hurt British GDP in the long run. A working paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics analyzed 12 models and found that the only two that showed an improvement in British GDP were “based on unrealistic assumptions.” The G7, G20, World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund all publicly opposed Britain leaving the EU. It was near-universally clear that leaving the EU was not in Britain’s best interests, but it happened anyways.
Proponents of Brexit succeeded despite overwhelming opposition from policy experts because they powerfully shaped the narrative around Britain’s relationship with the EU. As Paul Stephenson, the Vote Leave communications director, tells it: “We stuck to broad principles: We wanted control of our borders, free-trade deals and to take back control of the huge sums of money we sent to the EU every week.” They refused to directly address the nuances of economic arguments, because that was not the aspect of the debate they wanted the public thinking about. Instead Brexiteers focused on strategies for reaching low-information voters, such as “50million.com, a game of skill that offered a £50-million prize — the amount we send the EU every day — if someone managed to correctly predict the outcome of every game at the European Football Championships.” Brexit supporters established that the Brexit referendum was about general ideas of sovereignty and spending, points on which they held an advantage. Ultimately, Remainers let them frame the general narrative that way by choosing to stick with technical arguments about the economic consequences of leaving the EU.
Our second case study is a Swiss referendum from late September 2020 that could have had major economic consequences resembling those of the Brexit referendum. While Switzerland is not, and never has been, a member of the European Union, a series of treaties includes it in the European Union’s free trade area and allows free movement for EU citizens. This free movement was the subject of the recent referendum, which asked Swiss citizens to vote on ending freedom of movement. However, if the referendum passed and ended freedom of movement, a ‘guillotine clause’ in Switzerland’s treaty would have nullified other aspects of Switzerland’s agreements with Brussels. Freedom of movement with the EU has no small impact on Switzerland. According to European Union statistics, a quarter of Switzerland’s work force comes from EU or European Free Trade Association states. While the powerful nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) argued that this means jobs are being taken from native Swiss, experts suggest that this isn’t true. The Observatory on the Free Movement of Persons reports that nearly 60 percent of these foreign workers are in “intellectual, scientific or highly qualified professions,” meaning that they’re highly-qualified professionals needed by many Swiss companies. Even if these foreign workers replace a few individual Swiss citizens with similarly high levels of education, they ultimately benefit the Swiss economy and people by creating additional jobs beneath them for those less qualified. EU free movement may not harm Switzerland’s economy, but ending it might. The other agreements that the guillotine clause would end alongside free movement help Switzerland’s economy immensely; a study from Swiss consultancy and research bureau Ecoplan found that the severing of treaties with the EU would lead to a 4.9% lower GDP by 2035. Although it and the Brexit referendum risked similar economic consequences, the recent Swiss referendum failed where the Brexit one succeeded. If the economic projections were the same, why were the outcomes so different?
The real difference in public support came from how detractors of the referendum framed their arguments and, consequently, the popular narrative. While proponents of the Swiss referendum like the SVP made arguments similar to those supporting Brexit, centering their campaign around immigrants taking jobs and straining public services, the Swiss opposition to the referendum did not simply repeat the bland and ineffectual economic arguments of British remainers. One of the most effective parts of this opposition was Operation Libero, a non-partisan political advocacy organization that primarily focuses on drumming up opposition to SVP-backed referendums. Founded after a SVP victory in an immigration referendum in 2014, they haven’t let a single SVP-backed referendum succeed since. They don’t focus on refuting the emotionally-charged appeals of the SVP, but instead attempt to reframe the debate. For example, in an effort to oppose a 2016 SVP-backed referendum that would automatically deport immigrants found guilty of any crime, Operation Libero presented the referendum as “against fundamental Swiss values[, a]gainst the constitution as a pillar of our liberal democracy; the rule of law; equal justice for all,” according to co-president Flavia Kleiner. She realized that “if we talked about criminal foreigners, we’d become the defenders of criminal foreigners.” Their campaign against the referendum was a resounding success, with 59% rejecting it. Even the SVP’s leader had to acknowledge the power of reframing the narrative: “One moment we were talking about immigration and doing just fine. The next, everyone was talking about rule of law. I don’t know what happened.”
In Operation Libero’s campaign against this year’s referendum, they didn’t focus on false claims that immigrants took Swiss jobs. Instead, they again reframed the referendum’s narrative, this time around the humanity of immigrants with a campaign that showed pictures of people with captions such as “no one is just a student,” “no one is just a mechanic,” or “no one is just an origin.” They also approached the debate from an angle that sounded more like the arguments about greater control made by British Brexiteers than the economic points made British Remainers. They suggested that ending free movement (and triggering the related guillotine clause) would strain relations with the EU and destroy any influence Switzerland had in Brussels. It’s crucial that Switzerland can advocate for its interests in European policies and regulations, things which would ultimately affect it regardless of its relationship with the EU. Operation Libero’s press release after the referendum’s failure alludes to both of these strategies: the models from their humanizing campaign are standing together below the caption, in German, “no Switzerland is an island.” Due to their campaigns, the public no longer saw this referendum as about foreigners taking jobs, but about sympathetic immigrants’ right to work and Switzerland’s influence in Europe. These two issues are much more compelling than economists’ predictions, even if all were good reasons to vote “no” on the referendum. Operation Libero succeeded where the British Remain campaign failed by refusing to address nativist arguments on their own terms and reframing the debate in favorable ways.
To ensure economic growth, more than sound policies are needed; those policies need popular support. A sober consideration of economic pros and cons simply isn’t enough to win that support. What ultimately captures the hearts and minds of voters is more immediate, sensational appeals. In Britain’s 2016 referendum, Remainers allowed Brexiteers to turn the conversation to one about British control of Britain, while they kept on about technical policy considerations. In Switzerland’s recent referendum, the SVP initially framed the conversation about a similar concern. However, Swiss supporters of EU freedom of movement didn’t stick to discussing the economic benefits. They turned the debate into one not about stolen jobs but about real people and Swiss influence. Even if the economic arguments opposing both of these referendums were completely valid, they weren’t completely effective. Politicians and advocacy groups alike should take heed of this comparison. In a democracy, the best policies don’t always win out. The best sold ones do.
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