Tag Archives: Brexit

Shredded Constitutions

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and customary rules.

If we wanted a convenient way to understand the fragility of some of the West’s most storied democracies, we could do no better to look at the nation that was the former leader of the Western world and the nation known as having the Mother of Parliaments.  Both the United States and Britain are in the midst of constitutional crises that can only please non-democratic states that have never attempted to invest sovereignty in their citizens.  Boris Johnson has tried to do end-runs around the House of Commons to avoid its judgment that Brexit should be delayed.  For his efforts he received a rare rebuke from the nation’s Supreme Court.  And his battle with factions in the Commons is only part of the problem. They have withheld a vote of no-confidence because it would trigger an election they fear could give him a free hand to impose a no-deal Brexit. They have cause because it would violate their rightful parliamentary sovereignty.

At this point Johnson has no majority and seemingly not much of a clear path forward, unless he can work out a compromise with the EU.  The traditional opposition, the Labour Party, has decimated itself with a leader many its members to not want. Jeremy Corbyn mostly dithered through the last years of Prime Minister May’s government, giving ordinary citizens fears that a Corbyn government could be worse. Even on Brexit he still manages to stand precariously on the fence. The British system assumes leaders will be supported by their own parties, and ready to take over when the current government has made a mess of things.  That’s not how it’s working now.

The situation is as bad if not worse on this side of the Atlantic.  Like Johnson, Donald Trump’s regime routinely trashes traditions by refusing to submit regular appointments to congressional oversight, ignoring subpoenas, ignoring long-standing ethics rules, self-dealing in ways that promote his businesses, courting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, and overreaching to assert executive privilege.  The impeachment process will be an interesting test. Will staffers and agency professionals be intimidated?  Will subpoenas be honored?  Will executive privilege be used as a smokescreen?  The Constitution is of little help on these questions.

Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the current president cannot be turned out through impeachment.

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and rules and long-standing courtesies.  The framers of the Constitution gave Congress legislative powers, but no police powers or workable ways to punish those they find in contempt.  And so Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the Republican Senate will block efforts to turn Donald Trump out.  What’s remains of the old GOP can been reassured that they are mostly safe under constitutional provisions that guarantee a skewed process for electing senators (two per state, regardless of their size).  In a more representative system California would have something like 36 senators to Wyoming’s 2.

There is a presumption in both nations that their constitutions are bright models for emerging democracies. The common view is that their problems don’t rise to a level that would demand change, though many in Britain now wish they’d bothered to write their’s down.  But the the sorry state of politics in both countries  suggests a need for more constructive criticism of these foundational documents.  Our problems are not just because of our leaders. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that the challenges we face are much more structural than we want to admit.

Nihilism Unbound

The authors call them “chaos voters.”

Watch enough You tube videos of Britons willingly severing ties with their European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into disrupting common political norms, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out a society’s various problems?  In 2016 I labeled this preference for disruption our “iconoclastic moment,” a conclusion since borne out by a recent study by several political scientists.

The research paper “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies” is the work of Danes Michael Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, along with  Kevin Arceneaux at Temple University. The paper’s thesis is that “chaos Incitement” has become its own political objective for some voters in western democracies.  This often means abandoning the value of consensus-building and at the same time demonizing enemies and violating long standing political norms.  While the conclusion of the paper isn’t surprising, it is sobering to see that many citizens, especially in the United States, are more interested in the destruction of institutional values than the refinement of them.  The authors found significant agreement among supporters of President Trump with the following kinds of agree/disagree items:

  • I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.

  • I think society should be burned to the ground.

  • When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”

  • We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.

  • Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.

Not everyone gave an affirmative response to all these assertions.  But nearly half did.  The authors call these folks “chaos voters,” who are ready to ignore the benchmarks and norms of a civil society.  Alas, in tight elections they can make a difference.

The question remains as to whether these democratic stalwarts will right themselves after having been steered onto dangerous shoals.

And it’s not just the United States. As we have noted, part of Britain’s civil life has been trashed by the never-ending serial drama of Brexit.  Boris Johnson’s purge of  20 MPs in his own party, including former Chancellors of the Exchequer Nicholas Soames and Ken Clark, was an unprecedented act in recent British history.  This act of putting a gun to his own feet, along with his inflexibility on a Brexit withdrawal date, has left the British leader with no governing majority: a fact made worse by the House of Commons reluctance to trust him to conduct a fair election.

Fault the “leave” campaign for hobbling the once powerful colonial power.  And forget the empire where “the sun never sets.”  A slim majority has begun to isolate the former powerhouse of Europe.  The nativism of mostly rural and older Britons now seems destined to make our closest ally the Dis-United Kingdom.

American nativism is playing out in much the same way, with increased tariffs, punitive immigration policies, and sabre-rattling that unsettles our friends.  Equally bad, there are signs that American businesses are becoming hard-pressed to find enough service workers: a former entry point for many emigres who aspired to live the American dream.

In different ways the yellow jackets of France are another manifestation of popular disruption disturbing the placid surface of French culture.  Immigration, jobs lost to mechanization, and a generally dystopian view of politics has humbled many western nations who could count on a degree of optimism to quell periodic rumbles of unrest.

France’s Emmanuel Macron clings to a vision of a thriving and diverse France. But Boris Johnson in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States seem to have become untethered from the usual obligation of a great leader to nurture their nation’s best values, among them: the pluralism that comes with being open societies.  Neither are even close to being institutionalists like former leaders George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, or John Major.

The question remains whether Britain and the United States will right themselves after falling victim to unsteady hands that have steered them onto dangerous shoals.