Watching the parallel paralyses of the British and U.S. governments, it’s easy to see why Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin might think democracies were cooked.
The two great Anglo-Saxon democracies have sharp structural differences — a parliamentary party system versus a constitutional republic — yet both have ground to a screeching halt.
On the one hand, the British parliament is tied in knots, unable to agree how to implement a 2016 referendum calling for London to Brexit the European Union by a March 29 deadline. Even more astonishing, the U.S. government has been shut down for weeks, longer than ever before, over President Trump’s unmet demand that Congress approve funds for his border wall.
There is a chance – although most experts claim it is small – that London will “crash out” of the EU with no deal, causing potential economic catastrophe. Yet the divisions in parliament, and the weak leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May, create total uncertainty on how to prevent that disaster. Meantime, back here, a stubborn president and an angry Congress can’t find a realistic compromise.
So would a Xi or a Putin be correct in surmising that these dual paralyses are symptomatic of a common disease that has crippled the world’s two oldest democracies? I put that question to Sebastian Mallaby, a noted British journalist and economics fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In brief, the answer is a yes, but the disease isn’t fatal – yet.
“The situations are parallel, because the two countries face a set of challenges that have common roots,” says Mallaby. The first challenge, of course, is the forces of economic stagnation and growing inequality, especially geographic, with once prosperous industrial and coal mining regions in Britain sharing the same fate as much of America’s rust belt.
“There is a lot of bitterness,” says Mallaby, that finds expression in antipathy to immigration and nostalgic nationalism. “Older Britons voted heavily to leave the EU, because they dream of getting back to Churchillian greatness.”
This Make Britain Great Again wave is well captured in HBO’s recent movie Brexit, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the top Leave strategist Dominic Cummings, who has an aha moment when he devises the 2016 campaign slogan “Take Back Control.”
One can imagine how he British and U.S. systems could meet this first challenge if government was properly working. “We do understand a set of policies that could address those inequalities, with health, education, and regional development,” says Mallaby. If ideological extremists or a base-obsessed president wouldn’t block the bipartisan compromises that once were possible in Washington, on immigration or healthcare for example,U.S. inequalities could be lessened. At least, in principle.
But it is the second common challenge that makes it much harder to get these two democratic governments back on track.
“There is a common weakening of government’s ability to deal [with the economic bitterness] because of a change in the method of communications,” Mallaby contends. Historical changes in those methods have had a major impact in the past, as when radio enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to reach the masses, or TV enabled John F. Kennedy to charm America.
But since the 1980s when partisan cable shows replaced the “bully pulpit” with the “bullying pulpit,” media has been more and more outside governmental control. That reality has been exponentially expanded by the powerful impact social media – and by a U.S. president who mobilizes that “bullying pulpit” on his side.
In 2016, says Mallaby, the Leave campaign could “speak to the embittered part of the population and could get away with inflammatory propaganda because the channels of communication were so different. They deliberately bypassed professional media and involved a lot of lying.”
As we now know, Leave strategists used data-mining tech firms to design campaign tactics that targeted disaffected segments of the population that had never voted. “They not only used clever targeting,” says Mallaby, “but spread stuff that is untrue.”
One example in the HBO film: prominent Leave activist and cabinet minister Boris Johnson admitting that a campaign claim that about 70 million Turks were poised to invade Britain under EU rules was rubbish. That number equals the entire population of Turkey; moreover, Britain did not admit any of the Muslim refugees from the 2015-2016 flood arriving in Europe.
“How do you create a consensus around facts, when everyone denies those facts,” Mallaby asks.
That point, to me, is what makes the dual British-American breakdowns so scary. In Britain, some consensus builders are trying to press May, and hardline leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to compromise on a Brexit plan (a second referendum still seems unlikely). But they, too, must contend with a media environment that spews lies and undermines pragmatism.
And in America, the partisan divide is fuelled by a president who disdains facts, and ideologues who reject consensus. By spreading confusion – mainly via the web and Fox News – they prime the public to blame “enemies” when nothing gets done.