Hyperbole has flowed fast and free during the past three years. If some of it can be attributed to the pearl-clutching instincts of those who championed the inevitable trajectory of liberalism, it is also the case that politics across Western democracies has become dramatically less predictable, and far less constrained by the norms that most of us had long taken for granted.
Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that the next G7 summit be held at his own resort in Miami, the Trump Doral, going against the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Over the same period, he also attacked the independence of the Federal Reserve by urging it to lower interest rates and comparing the Fed chairman, Jerome Powell, to China’s dictator Xi Jinping. It has also been reported that the President promised pardons to officials who break laws in order to expedite the construction of his border wall.
The endless news cycle of outrage is exhausting, and contributes to what some see as a “normalization” of behavior that would have been all but unthinkable only a few years ago. Setting aside Trump’s mercurial character, these developments arguably reflect a deeper erosion of the division of labor envisaged by the framers of the Constitution—an erosion that precedes the President. Over the years, Congress has abdicated many of its traditional responsibilities, allowing the Executive Branch to de facto legislate or to conduct trade policy. The role of the judiciary has also become much more political, dramatically raising the stakes for judicial appointments, most prominently on the Supreme Court.
Brexit Britain finds itself in uncharted territory, too. Over the past three years, the country has seen the largest government defeat in British political history, the longest parliamentary sitting in 200 years, a major piece of government legislation defeated three times without the government collapsing, cross-party crisis talks in Number 10, and the parliament seizing control of the legislative agenda. In late August, the Queen was asked to grant approval to the Prime Minister to prorogue parliament for the longest period since the Second World War, and in response, former Prime Minister John Major joined legal action against his own party of government.
As Britain’s famously uncodified constitution comes under strain, the country’s institutions work overtime to keep things afloat, and to limit the permanency of these developments to a smudge rather than an imprint. Journalists and their Twitter feeds swing wildly between astonishment and despair, the endless hysteria numbing the impact of yet another unbelievable transgression. Yet every old convention broken, every norm superseded, leaves an indelible trail of precedent that could haunt British politics for generations to come.
Paradoxically, while our political systems seem to be on life support, traditional indicators of prosperity and wellbeing do not paint a picture of a world in crisis. Notwithstanding the current slowdown, both Europe and the United States have seen decent rates of economic growth and employment. The waves of immigration across the Mexican border and the Mediterranean Sea, which caused such alarm amongst anxious populations, have plateaued. The wave of terror attacks that plagued major cities in Europe over recent years appears to have receded. The menace posed by China, Russia, and Iran is real, but, for the most part, the world remains at peace.
Yet if we have learned anything from 2016, it is that the insecurities trembling beneath the surface are not mechanical responses to any single political event or economic crisis. Rather, they have been building over decades in the face of profound social, demographic, and cultural change, which has fractured the basis for social trust. The emergence of effective populist campaigners on all sides has given voice and legitimacy to existing frustrations, while depicting the battle for the country’s future as an existential choice.
Although Britain as a whole remains deeply fragmented about the best path forward on Brexit, a survey of Conservative Party members ahead of Boris Johnson’s triumphant leadership election found that they were willing to gamble almost anything—including potential economic ruin, the dissolution of the Union, or the Northern Ireland peace process—in exchange for achieving Brexit by October 31. For these previously small-and-large-C conservatives, Brexit has come to symbolize so much more than the sum of its parts, encapsulating a worldview and an identity that must be defended at all costs.
Focus groups in England make clear that the capacity to forge common ground across political divides is rapidly being eroded. While in the past participants would moderate their behavior in the service of a kind of community, they now spout newspaper slogans about “traitors” and “saboteurs.” Leaders depict their opponents as enemies, and so do ordinary citizens, who see themselves as competitors, and their elected representatives as agents of betrayal. In May this year, the Metropolitan Police declared that threats against public officials had reached “unprecedented levels”, with 342 crimes committed in 2018 alone.
In the United States, Pew Research has demonstrated that the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans has never been greater. Not only do they disagree on policy solutions, they are also deeply suspicious of one another’s character, and fearful of the opposing party’s plans for the nation’s future. If Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” provided a blueprint for Republicans who saw politics as an existential struggle in which “winning” becomes an end in itself, the same mentality is spreading to the progressive left.
Infuriated by Republican Party gerrymandering, the denial of President Obama’s putative right to a Supreme Court appointment, and the fact that Hillary Clinton lost the election while winning the popular vote in 2016, an increasing number of Democrats appear to be giving up on the system altogether—a dynamic that is bound to worsen should President Trump be re-elected. Denouncing America’s political institutions as irreparably flawed, they are calling for the end of the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court to ensure conservative jurists can never find themselves in a majority.
In the United Kingdom, in turn, parliamentary opponents of a “no deal” Brexit conspire with the supposedly neutral Speaker to seize control of parliamentary business and subvert the will of the Executive Branch. Undoubtedly, leaving the European Union without a deal would be an extraordinary act of self-harm, with profound consequences for wellbeing, prosperity, and social cohesion. Extraordinary times necessitate extraordinary acts. Yet in the name of democracy and liberalism, some seem too ready to rush to the pilot’s cockpit without considering the distinctly illiberal outcomes that could be achieved should the same tools be deployed under a different parliamentary majority.
The two most venerable English-speaking democracies appear to be following in the footsteps of countries they once sought to inspire. As the experience of Argentina, Hungary, or even Italy make clear, once unhinged politics becomes the new norm, escaping the normalized chaos and nihilism that ensues is difficult. As of now, both the British and American political systems are being stress-tested—not only by the most prominent demagogues, but also by the centrists who seek to follow the lead of their adversaries in undermining the democratic conventions they feel are working against them.
The radicalization of former moderates conceals a naive, private hope that somehow, not too far away, there will be a system-level correction back to the comfortable climes of center-ground politics. But the train has left the station, and the only question is in which direction it will go.
In one sense, the desire to renegotiate the norms, standards, and structures underpinning liberal democracies is understandable. Political institutions have to adapt and evolve to the demographic, economic, and social realities of modern times. The conversations that many “left behind” voters on both the Left and the Right have started by means of their unconventional choices are important and should be taken seriously. The new generation of politicians are right to call attention to injustices and outrages at the heart of our political systems, such as the legacy of slavery in the United States or undemocratic efforts of voter suppression. It is one thing, however, to call for reform and quite another to champion the dissolution of the codes of conduct and institutions that have granted us prosperity, security, and freedom over so many years.
President Trump has sought to consolidate his power through the pernicious erosion of trust in the watchdogs of democracy, and to ensure that even if he isn’t re-elected, the next President will lead a nation that could be virtually ungovernable. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s advisers are war-gaming a fast and brutal election to be fought on a “Parliament versus the People” theme. As he stood on the steps of Downing Street last Monday, railing at the dissent within his party and with angry crowds at the gates chanting “Stop the coup!,” it felt clear that we are only at the beginning of a much larger fight for Britain’s future.
The erosion of trust in democratic institutions is pernicious—not only because it makes it harder to credibly push back against genuine violations of constitutional norms, but also because it risks turning our politics and our societies into fundamentally combative spaces, in which compromises are neither possible nor desirable. While there is undoubtedly much at stake, moderates must avoid the temptation to follow the populist playbook and allow those with illiberal intentions to reshape the very nature of our democracies. Rather, they must find a meaningful way to re-imagine these institutions that once served us so well, and reinstate the foundations of our peace and success.