James Tilley and Sara Hobolt examine losers’ consent and the Brexit referendum. Their new research, published in West European Politics, finds that anger is an important cause of withholding losers’ consent (where those on the losing side of a vote doubt the fairness of the process).
For democracy to work effectively, people on the losing side after an election, or referendum, need to accept the result. This acceptance has become known as losers’ consent. While it is easy for winners to be satisfied with election results, those on the losing side tend to find it more difficult to accept the outcome. But without such ‘gracious losers’, the democratic process as a whole is called into question after every electoral contest which inevitably undermines trust in democratic institutions.
Yet losers’ consent is not always easy to come by, especially in highly polarised situations. The Brexit referendum is a good example. Following the referendum, many Remainers questioned aspects of the process that led to the Brexit vote. For example, during a large anti-Brexit march in London in 2018, the criticism was not just of the handling of the referendum outcome, but also of the process that led to the result. One placard read ‘37.5% is not the voice of the people, let alone the will of the people’ and another, more succinctly, simply read: ‘Lies, lies, lies’. In fact, over half of the people who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 have consistently said that the decision to leave the EU in 2020 was not based on a fair democratic process.
In a recent article, published in West European Politics, we ask what distinguishes the half of Remainers who worry about the fairness of the referendum outcome from the half who do not. Specifically, we look at anger as an important cause of withholding losers’ consent.
Why is anger so important? First, anger makes people less open to factual information about political events and therefore more receptive to arguments that the electoral process was rigged. Second, anger makes people more committed to their in-group (in this case, other Remainers) and less conciliatory. Thus, angry people cling harder to their pre-existing views, but they are also more hostile towards people and ideas that undermine them. Combine these processes and angry losers are less ready to accept the possibility of defeat being real and, ultimately, less likely to consent to that defeat.
In our research, we find that there is a clear correlation between anger and losers’ consent. Angry people are more likely to be ‘sore losers’ and this association is rather strong. 85% of Remainers who were most angry about the result (and thus scored 9-10 on a 0-10 scale of anger) thought that the referendum was unfair in some way, compared to only 43% of Remainers who were less angry (and thus scored 0-5 on the same scale). However, the direction of causality remains unclear: is anger causing people to withhold their consent or are ‘sore losers’ simply angry about the result?
To test the causal effect of emotion, we induced specific emotional responses in people. By asking people to reflect on either an angering or a happy experience, we shifted people’s emotions and their emotional response to political events. Someone who was asked to think about a time in which they got angry (to use a real example of an anger-inducing experience given by one of our respondents: bad roundabout etiquette by other drivers) became more angry about the referendum result than someone who was asked to think about a happy time in their life. In that sense, anger is contagious: from the everyday to the political.
More importantly, anger also caused the withdrawal of losers’ consent. People who voted Remain and were made angrier in our experiment were more likely to think that the referendum was not ‘based on a fair democratic process’ than Remainers who were made happier. The difference between the anger and happiness groups is over 11 per cent. Given the brief, and apolitical, nature of our treatment, these are large effects.
Thinking about the Brexit vote specifically, the lack of losers’ consent among Remainers several years after the referendum illustrates the potentially corrosive effect of referendums on trust in democratic institutions. But our findings also provide evidence that anger can cause a loss of faith in the democratic process for people on the losing side more generally. This has important implications beyond the Brexit referendum for the understanding of the fragility of democracy and political trust, particularly during times of heightened polarisation.
Ideologically polarised voters tend to be angry voters. This suggests that greater polarisation can decrease losers’ consent via greater levels of anger. Politicians are also important drivers of voter anger. Some losing politicians may deliberately try to incite anger among their supporters to cast doubt on the result.
Similarly, if winning politicians refuse to acknowledge the concerns of those who have lost the electoral contest, this can also contribute to a feeling of anger and potentially create losers’ discontent. Given ideological polarisation is increasing in many countries, we should perhaps be encouraging politicians of all colours to look for ways to defuse the anger of those on the losing side and thereby safeguard the legitimacy of democratic process.