Monday, October 24, 2022

A Cheer for British Democracy

Soon and very soon, British Prime Minister Liz Truss will leave 10 Downing Street for good, and some other Conservative party politician (perhaps the Establishment candidate she defeated for the leadership last time, or perhaps even the PM she replaced) will accept the King's commission to move into Downing Street and try to clean up the mess the Conservatives have created. Truss has the distinction of being the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. That distinction was famously captured by a certain YouTube post which featured a head of lettuce and asked, “Will Liz Truss outlast this lettuce?" As we now know, the lettuce won. 

We also know that it was Truss's total faith in and commitment to a Thatcherite-Reaganite ideology that was her immediate undoing. She who worshipped at the altar of the free market has now been vanquished by that very same free market. Amen! 

Watching the travails of the UK from the west side of the Atlantic, one is tempted to highlight how bad things seem to be over there, what a shambles British society and politics have become, and what a governing failure the Conservative party (which won an amazing majority and a major mandate only three years ago) has proved to be. And there is something to all that, of course. On the other hand, Truss's fate demonstrates that British democracy still works - and works way better in some ways than our American variant.

It is, of course, in the nature of a parliamentary political system to be more responsive to the public. That is why it is called "responsible government." (Queen Victoria supposedly once lamented in a letter to her daughter, the German Empress, that it seemed to her unfortunate that there should have to be a change of government from one party to another for no better reason than the number of votes!)

The American presidential-congressional system with its rigidly fixed terms and other institutional constraints is intended to function differently and is explicitly designed to be much less responsive. And so it has been, and obviously not at all to democracy's advantage. In the modern U.S., only the President can provide effective political leadership. Hence the importance of a political party's winning the presidency, which remains, as JFK famously put it, "the center of action." For such action to happen, however, the president must have effective cooperation from Congress. But a party can win the presidency without winning control of Congress, and our bizarre political culture makes it more likely than not that the party in power may well lose control of Congress midway through a president's term, a prospect we may experience again with the new Congress that will convene on January 3. For the majority party to acquire effective control of Congress, it must also overcome such institutional obstacles as gerrymandering of House districts and the absurd institution known as the U.S. Senate, which, unlike the Canadian Senate or the British House of Lords, retains sufficient power to be a permanent obstacle to enacting anything remotely resembling the popular will. And even nominal majority-party control of  both houses of Congress runs against certain recently created obstacles with no basis in the constitution, such as the Senate filibuster.

All this is exacerbated, of course, by the "Great Sort" and the resulting affective political polarization in American society. (According to recent polling, approximately 80% of each party believes it would be catastrophic for the other party to win.) Not only British political institutions but British political culture foster a more unified society and electorate than in the United States. Here, there are now, in effect, two different societies coexisting side-by-side, characterized by their mutual disdain for each other, informed by separate sources of information, and motivated by contrasting moral codes. As a result, even if the institutions of American government were not already prejudiced as they now are in favor of a reactionary rural minority, a genuinely democratically representative Congress would likely be close to evenly divided much of the time, with ensuing perilous consequences for democratic governance. 

At least Liz Truss wanted to govern, albeit in an unfortunately bad way. The U.S. Republican party has no ambition to govern per se, only to wield power to damage its enemies, which, of course, happen to represent the growing and more productive portions of society. This is not a recipe for solving any of the serious social problems which beset this country and the wider world, such as, for example, climate change and the next pandemic, or even a united front against our foreign foes in Russia and China.

Whether the next British government will rise to the occasion, or whether another party will have to take charge with a new electoral mandate, only time can tell. What one can say, however, is that effective democratic governance remains within the realm of possibility in the U.K. in a way and to a degree which at present completely eludes us in the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment