Tag Archives: British politics

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.

The Nightmare of the Brexit Debate

What hope can a lesser nation have if the storied reasonableness of British civil society seems to count for so little?

Anyone following the agony of the United Kingdom’s efforts to deliver a workable plan of action on Brexit is bound to be horrified.  The ill-considered referendum to leave the European Union has shaken British politics to its core. Two years have past with little progress and increased public polarization over what may be the catastrophic withdrawal of the U.K from its integration in to the European Union.

Have our British cousins lost their minds?  The idea of Brexit is seriously flawed; the effort to put it into effect has been even worse. With all their advantages as a venerable democratic forum, why have members in the Mother of Parliaments not been able to find a pathway to a workable solution? In the face of even more trenchant problems, what hope can marginal democratic systems have if the storied reasonableness of British civil society seems to have counted for so little?

The news out of the Palace of Westminster is unusually disheartening. The country seems almost evenly split between those who want to stay within the European Union and those who want to leave. Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has demonstrated a staggering lack of initiative in finding a middle course that the Commons can accept.  In the meantime, the Leader of the Scottish National Party keeps threatening to demand a new vote to allow Scotland to be an independent state within the E. U.  Some Lifelong members of the Conservative Party have abandoned it. And many Labor Party members are privately doubtful that their leader would be any better as Prime Minister.

Ironically, whatever exit “plan” that finally gets enough votes will leave most of the details of the U.K’s departure to be decided later. An evidently bad deal will surely look worse as new stalemates arise over the need to reimpose dreaded border controls between the two Irelands, the loss of British rights to freely travel and work in Europe, and the temptation on both sides of the English Channel to come up with new restrictive tariffs.

Rarely has fecklessness had greater consequences.

It turns out that Brexit has been a disaster from the moment years ago when a cocky David Cameron carelessly asked for a national referendum to “solve” a Conservative Party political problem. Rarely has such fecklessness had greater consequences.  Even if Ms. May’s plan is approved in the House of Commons, it’s likely that Britain will still be dealing with the crippling effects of disentangling from the common market and the shared customs union for decades to come, with Britain’s youth likely to pay the cost.

It simply doesn’t work to cling to an island fantasy when your history and modern global markets are built on the free flow of goods and people.

It’s not that we Americans have it figured out. Many of us have come to the view that our own constitutionally divided government is poorly suited for policy-making in the 21st Century.  Compromise and conciliation are out of style and rarely photogenic. Even so, it’s a shock that to see a venerable parliamentary system fail so completely. Parliamentary systems usually seem better suited to the faster pace of 21st Century political life.

In Britain and the United States we are in an era where the expressive chances of debate seem to have greater rewards than actually legislating.

The endless of hours of debate over brexit offers some lessons and cautions to all democracies that always use deliberative bodies to formulate policy:

  • Leaders who can’t build coalitions and find political allies seem to find greater comfort in what they say that what they actually do.  Neither  Prime Minister Theresa May and her opposite in the Labor Party have the political gifts of a Clement Attlee or even Tony Blair. Ms. May has been especially hard pressed to find compromises or graceful ways to abandon losing positions, the reason she has finally agreed to step down. And the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, seems to have the same tendency for dithering.
  • Dissolving complex cross-national alliances is a nightmare that should never be put to a popular vote. The illusion of making a simple binary choice is completely deceptive. Citizens should expect that their elected officials will see the effects and consequences of complex policy choices.
  • Triumphant patriotism and exceptionalism are infections that are bound to leave a country vulnerable and divided. Ceding some power and money to the E.U. Headquarters in Brussels was all that nativists needed to agitate for withdrawal.
  • We are in darker political era in Britain and the United States, where the expressive chances in public discussion seem to yield greater personal rewards than actually legislating through shared decision-making.
  • Finally, sometimes even the best opportunities for deliberation are not enough to yield a conclusive result.

Those of us who have counted on orderly British discussion and decision-making as the deliberative model are left scratching our heads.  Is the increasing fragmentation of most complex societies to be duplicated in ways that cripple their governing bodies as well?  The available evidence from Britain and the United States is not encouraging.