The world’s two most prominent and venerable democracies, Great Britain and the United States, are both experiencing severe strains in their political fabric and institutions.
Two fundamental developments of the last decade or so have profoundly challenged traditional democratic institutions and processes. The first is rooted in the info-tech revolution and the advent of a digitally connected world. Connectivity not long ago meant the ubiquitous availability of information. More recently, with the advent of social media, it has also included a capacity to almost instantaneously organize and recruit large groups of erstwhile strangers in the name of a particular political or social objective. Even more recently, malcontents, criminals and hostile governments have discovered they can manipulate social media to make/steal large sums of money or destroy reputations and livelihoods with allegations of evil conspiracies — even if those allegations are entirely false and concocted out of nothing. This sort of malign activity has become a pervasive fact of 21st century life.
The second development has been the recurrent failure of established political elites/governments to buffer large portions of their societies against the impact of economic globalization. In the United States, the ranks of factory workers and the working middle class have been depleted by the shift of manufacturing to low-cost sites overseas. In Britain, membership in the EU has subjected the population to regulatory diktats from Brussels and an inflow of Central European migrants that has been deeply unsettling to many British citizens.
The political consequences have been dramatic. U.S. voters elected (albeit with a minority of the vote) a President who exploited blue-collar discontent under the banner of narrow economic nationalism (“Make America Great Again!”). In Britain, the prime minister launched an ill-fated referendum on the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain in the EU — or leave. The unexpected result endorsing “leave” by a narrow margin forced the resignation of one prime minister and the installation of another.
At this point, it was possible for the new leadership in Washington and London to respond effectively to political mandates that were compelling but vague and ill-defined. Trump’s slogan could have translated into a series of tough but intelligent policies designed to: (1) rebalance the costs of the Western alliance; (2) contest China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its cynical use of economic ties to steal critical technologies and disadvantage U.S. corporations; and (3) confront Russia over its attempt to re-establish Soviet-era domination of regions in Eastern Europe. Combine these measures with a substantially larger investment in U.S. research and development and serious efforts to arrest climate change and you have the basis for a real “America-first” program. In Britain, the new government could have recognized the Brexit referendum for what it was — a deeply flawed, nonbinding snapshot of public opinion. The results actually meant next to nothing because the campaign around the referendum was rife with false claims of an economic bonanza that would come to Britain upon leaving the EU. Add to this Moscow’s active social media campaign to sabotage the poll. Prime Minister May could have gone to Parliament with a message that the British public wanted a serious look at the implications of a Brexit and some relief from EU regulatory constraints and migration policies — and her government would initiate negotiations with the EU to achieve just that — even if Brexit ultimately seemed unwise.
This, it turns out, was just a pipedream. What we have seen instead is dramatically different and deeply destructive. In Washington, we have seen a mindless shutdown of part of the U.S. government and in London the paralysis of Parliament — both illustrating the abject failure of political leadership. In a world beset with profound and dangerous challenges, the U.S. President is obsessed with building a “wall” on the border with Mexico. Why? Because he made it a mantra in his campaign, promising to build the wall with repeated assurances that “Mexico will pay for it.” No serious expert on border security believes the wall is anything but a colossal waste of money. Local officials, including mayors of border towns, almost universally oppose it. The wall would do next to nothing to curtail the flow of narcotics or migrants. It would, however, have a devastating effect on wildlife — including the hemisphere’s iconic big cat, the jaguar. In recent years, jaguars from Mexico have begun to reappear in the Southwest after two centuries absence. A wall will put an end to that. However, for this President the wall has become a fetish beyond the reach of rational discussion.
In Britain, Theresa May has created her own fetish around “the will of the British people” to implement Brexit. That “will” has become a kind of sacred incantation that cannot be compromised or tested in any way — including a second referendum. So, we have America effectively extorted by a President willing to inflict pain on the public and wreak havoc on government institutions to get his “wall.” [Trump has threatened a renewed shutdown if he does not get his way after a three-week reopening of the government expires]. In Britain, we have a government effectively paralyzed for nearly two years by the inability of the leaders of either the ruling Conservatives or opposition Labour to offer a viable way forward.
It is not easy to make democracy work and the multiple pressures of the contemporary world make it ever more challenging. At critical junctures in the past political giants arose. During World War II America had FDR while Britain had Churchill. But today, when we again need giants, we have pygmies.