If you are bored with endless news reports about the sundry dysfunctions of American politics, one option is to tune into the BBC and hear all about the political wreck of the good ship Britain. As you may have heard, in a national referendum held in 2016, a majority of the British electorate expressed their desire for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the supranational political and economic system that has been the cornerstone of the post-war European consensus.
Two years and three prime ministers later, Britain is set to leave the union on Oct. 31—“no ifs or buts about it,” said the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, this week. The trouble is that there are quite a few “ifs” and “buts.” The British political establishment is divided among three factions: those who want Britain to remain in the European Union; those who wish to leave it—but with certain political and economic safeguards—a so-called deal; and those who want to exit come hell or high water, even if it means a risky no-deal departure.
The factions do not neatly align with the major British parties, and they are represented across the partisan lines of the House of Commons. The result is a looming constitutional crisis. William Hague, the former British foreign secretary and former leader of the Conservative Party, writing in The Telegraph on Sept. 2, put it this way: “The root cause” of the crisis “is not the actions of any one individual or party, but the historically unprecedented inability of a Parliament to agree on, let alone implement, any course of action at all.”
If that sounds familiar, it is because those words could well describe the U.S. Congress. According to a study conducted last year by ProPublica and The Washington Post, the tradition of “forging compromises on the biggest issues of the day while asserting its authority to declare war, spend taxpayer money and keep the presidency in check”—which for centuries characterized the work of the U.S. Congress—“is effectively dead.” It has been replaced, say the study’s authors, “by a weakened legislative branch in which debate is strictly curtailed, party leaders dictate the agenda, most elected representatives rarely get a say and government shutdowns are a regular threat.”
The fact that the national legislatures of both the United States and the United Kingdom are unable to govern properly cannot be a mere coincidence. As for the United States, the ProPublica study concluded that a “transformation has occurred relatively fast—sparked by the hyperpolarized climate that has enveloped politics since the 2008 election.” During that time, the study says, “as the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative deal making have given way to partisan gridlock.”
The fact that the national legislatures of both the United States and the United Kingdom are unable to govern properly cannot be a mere coincidence.
That seems like an accurate description—as far as it goes. The better question is what are the larger forces that are driving our politics throughout the West? Nationalism is surely one of several factors. In this issue, Bill McCormick, S.J., rightly identifies nationalism, and specifically the project of the Bannon-esque right, as a “spiritual sickness” that pervades European politics, even and perhaps especially in those countries, like the United Kingdom, which seek to distance themselves from the continent.
But this sickness also clearly afflicts the U.S. body politic as well; and its principal symptom, as I have mentioned before in this column, is the insidious influence of ideological partisanship. As Father McCormick notes, “political ideologies designate in-groups and out-groups for the benefit of ‘us versus them’ politics. In the United States, the language of exclusion often involves race and ethnicity. For European populism, identity has more often been about religion, and especially an opposition to Islam.”
The institutions that are the safeguard of Western democracy are failing us. Can they be saved? And if not, what might take their place?
In both cases, the national politics, then, is defined by who we are not, rather than who we are in light of a shared set of values. This phenomenon, which involves both the left and the right, is a mortally dangerous one, for it enables the rise of factions, which transform the “one” in e pluribus unum, into a “many.” It is not a coincidence that our founding fathers repeatedly warned us about this phenomenon, which they viewed as the fatal mistake of all democracies, whether republican or parliamentary.
What will happen in London and Washington is anyone’s guess, but the notion that we are simply mired in a protracted fight to the death about this or that public policy ignores the deeper, more disturbing truth: The institutions that are the safeguard of Western democracy are failing us. Can they be saved? And if not, what might take their place?