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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Orange is Not the New Brexit: Why America and Britain Face Very Different Challenges

Since Donald Trump's shock victory in the US presidential elections many commentators have compared his rise with the victory of the anti-EU Leave campaign in the 23 June referendum over Britain's membership of the European Union. Throughout 2016 the ups and downs of America's tangerine titan and the chaotic aftermath of the UK's date with European destiny have often been portrayed as part of a global populist wave undermining the established post-Cold War order. And undoubtedly there are parallels between both cases. The impact of deindustrialisation on many communities entrenched discontent with the political status quo in both countries. Specific parts of the British and American voter demographic were also drawn to themes that played on fear of migration as well as nostalgia for a mythical golden age in which their society seemed to operate autonomously from the wider world.

But if you dig deeper there are major differences between two political earthquakes that will shape how 2016 will be remembered. In Britain the anti-EU Leave campaign was made up of a disparate coalition of factions from across the ideological spectrum. Left Exit socialists, who believed the EU was holding the UK back from becoming the Marxist utopia they hoped for, worked hand in hand with so-called Liberal Leavers, who are convinced EU regulation is keeping Britain from achieving its economic potential as a global trading power. While both of these groups are not bothered about immigration, the referendum debate was often dominated by UKIP anti-immigrant isolationists who are as hostile to Scottish or Irish aspirations as any other society or culture they see as endangering their definition of English (not British) identity. The story since the referendum has been about the struggle by anti-EU Brexiteers to keep this coalition together even as the realities of Brexit come to undermine its cohesion. With clear majorities of voters below the age of 45 voting for Remain, British eurosceptics also face a demographic trap over the next few years as many elderly Leave voters who helped sustain their majority gradually disappear from the electoral roll. Faced with these pressures, Theresa May (who campaigned for Remain) and other politicians now committed to leaving the EU are desperate to complete the negotiation process as quickly as possible before demographic change and disagreement over models of departure weaken the Leave coalition and plunge the Brexit project into doubt.

The uncertainties surrounding Brexit in the UK stand in great contrast to some of the ideological and structural trends that helped bring about the rise of Donald Trump. Until David Cameron announced the EU referendum in 2013, absolutist euroscepticism that aims for a complete break with European institutions was the primary goal of only a particular faction within the British Conservative Party. Agreement that the UK needed to leave the European Union often masked very divergent views about what kind of social order should take shape in the aftermath. By contrast, Trump's rise is the culmination of long term ideological trends in the United States that came to reshape the political outlook of much mainstream thought within the American Republican Party. Trade wars, isolationism mixed with hyper-imperialism, a penchant for courting authoritarian regimes rather than less ideologically (in GOP terms) reliable democracies, hostility to the principles of the EU and the emergence of China, all of these themes have been floating around the heart of US Republicanism for twenty years. 

Attempts to suppress the votes of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and other minorities while trying to peel off culturally conservative elements of those communities have also been core elements of the GOP approach towards electoral politics since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy of the early 1970s. Moreover, Paul Ryan's Randian war on state institutions provided the foundations for his alliance with Trump's populist machismo. Though many Republicans have promoted free trade, the use of America First rhetoric by many mainstream GOP leaders also paved the way for Trump's bellicose threat to initiate trade wars with China and the European Union if foreign leaders do not bend to his will. As a movement hostile to the extension of electoral rights to minorities and preoccupied with the defence of the economic privileges of specific social groups, the GOP has evolved into a Far Right party since the 1990s. The key to Trump's success was his ability to ideologically outflank very right wing GOP candidates in a way that made it difficult for them to respond without alienating a base they have been cultivating for three decades. The only crucial difference between pre- and post-Trump Republicanism is that Russia's Vladimir Putin now plays the role of friendly conservative authoritarian that the Saudis or Pinochet once did under Bush and Reagan. 

Despite structural similarities in certain respects, it is likely that Brexit Britain and Trump's America will find themselves on quite different paths over the next decade. The success of the Leave campaign was the product of an ideologically diverse alliance of convenience that was able to sell leaving the European Union as all things to all people. This enabled a referendum campaign that claimed it was both open to the world as well as defending England from the rest of the world to achieve a victory that seemed unlikely only six months before. Yet the very ideological diversity of the Leave coalition is also its greatest long term weakness. As the tough business of establishing which specific institutional forms Brexit should take consumes the energies of the British state, divisions within the Leave camp over what Brexit actually means have the potential to grind the whole process to a halt even before Remainers can organise a coherent alternative model for Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe. By contrast Trump took advantage of internal contradictions within the GOP to isolate and marginalise factions within the US Right that promoted an internationalist outlook divorced from the hyper-imperialist isolationism of much of the Republican Party's base. Trump's ability to build his rise on long term ideological trends demonstrate that he does not represent a profound break with established trends in American society. By taking pre-existing institutional dysfunction and ideological polarisation within the American political system to its logical extremes, Trump was able to outmanoeuvre political opponents unwilling to believe that the US constitutional order was no longer able to guarantee stable social outcomes. 

That so many commentators emphasise parallels between Brexit and Trumpism while ignoring fundamental differences between these two moments of crisis arises from a tendency to narrowly focus on economic pressures that helped fuel their rise. For all the similarities between both cases when it comes to the impact of deindustrialisation, the importance of key institutional factors that opened up the space for such major political shocks have been given much less attention. Yet the impact of economic transformation on a society is often shaped by the particular state institutions and constitutional frameworks that sustain its political order. In this respect both Brexit and Trumpism are symptoms of distinct forms of state crisis unique to the respective constitutional orders through which they have emerged.

The roots of the state crisis that culminate in Brexit lie in the years between the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and the return of the Stone of Scone, a key symbol of Scottish sovereignty, from Westminster to Edinburgh in 1996. Along with the emerging foundations of the devolution settlements that reshaped the internal politics of the United Kingdom, those ten years saw the adoption of a Maastricht Treaty that bound the UK into transnational legal and political structures in a much more systematic way than was the case in the 1960s or 1970s. By the early 2000s, the unwritten constitutional order of the United Kingdom had been fundamentally transformed. With the shift from the Law Lords to a Supreme Court and an increasingly firm convention that the Prime Minister has to consult Parliament before declaring war in the wake of Tony Blair's disastrous blunders in Iraq, the constitutional order of the United Kingdom on New Year's Eve 2015 had experienced an extraordinary transformation from the political world that Margaret Thatcher dominated in 1985. 

Despite these clear indications of a constitutional transformation of the United Kingdom, large swathes of the British political elite in the UK parliament and London-based news media continue to behave as if nothing has changed since Thatcher's time. Many leaders of the Leave campaign blithely ignored the complex nature of overlapping political jurisdictions within the United Kingdom as well as how the British state has become deeply intertwined with transnational institutions in crucial policy areas. At the same time many prominent figures within the Remain campaign glossed over the extent to which the imbalances of a devolution process that gave parts of the UK more power than others and a relationship with the EU in which the British were merely observers of Eurozone and Schengen decision-making processes were inherently unstable. Even if some kind of return into the EU can be engineered, it will be most likely under very different conditions determined by the Copenhagen Criteria than the ones the UK enjoyed before 2016. Looking back at the referendum debate, what is so remarkable is not the polarisation between the two sides but rather the extent to which both Remain and Leave leaders shared assumptions about the stability and power of the British state rooted in a constitutional order that ended thirty years ago.

It is this sense of complacency that lost the Remain campaign the Brexit war before the referendum and is losing Leave the Brexit peace after it. Prominent journalists demanding that pessimism over leaving the EU must end compound an unwillingness within much of British society to recognise how a fundamental process of constitutional change already underway before 2016 necessitates a basic reconsideration of how political life is organised in order to sustain a stable and democratic United Kingdom. Yet an illusion of continuity, perhaps reinforced by the  sheer longevity of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, has slowed this much needed reassessment of British politics. Trapped by the twin cult of Attlee and Churchill, Theresa May risks being crushed by the same unrealistic public and elite expectations of the office of Prime Minister that helped destroy the careers of David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Despite an illusion of near absolute power symbolised by the worship of Margaret Thatcher in much of the British news media, in reality the role of Prime Minister has come to more resemble that of the German Chancellor. Just as Angela Merkel can at most arbitrate between rival power centres within the Federal Republic and balance conflicting interests within the European Union as first among equals, a British Prime Minister will have to contend with a whole range of policy areas where power is shared with actors as diverse as the Secretary General of NATO, the First Minister of Scotland or the Irish Taoiseach whether the UK leaves the EU or not.

A Remain campaign that built its strategy around an outmoded understanding of the power and influence of the Prime Minister was therefore as culpable for fuelling this crisis of the British constitutional order as Leave politicians are now doing in expecting Theresa May to suddenly find a quick solution to their Brexit problems. While the shock of the Brexit referendum and the institutional chaos that immediately followed it made the impact of the transformation of the UK's constitutional order clear, there is no guarantee that the outcome of this long-standing crisis will be a positive one. The London riots of 2011 and the assassination of Jo Cox act as a warning that institutional breakdown and economic pressures can often foster a recourse to violence by social groups that feel they have nothing to lose. A successful effort to restructure the UK's relationship with the European Union as well as Westminster's relationship with the British nations and English regions could complete the transformation of the British constitutional order in a way that secures stability and democracy. But a failure to harness the forces of constitutional change unleashed in the early 1990s could just as well lead to a break up of the United Kingdom and a collapse in relations with Europe that will have dangerously destabilising consequences.

In contrast to the decades of constitutional experimentation and improvisation that created the foundations for  the battles over Brexit, the crisis that has fostered the emergence of Trump as a political force is the product of constitutional stagnation and state paralysis in the United States. During the Cold War informal bipartisan conventions and shared experience of World War Two mitigated the institutional impact of vicious political conflict over US military intervention, civil rights and the expansion of the welfare state. By the early 1990s, however, generational shifts within the American political elite as well deepening ideological cleavages between Democrats and Republicans living in socially homogeneous geographical bastions began to undermine many of the informal procedural understandings that had enabled the US constitutional order to sustain stable and democratic government. Pat Buchanan's ferocious 'Culture War' speech at the GOP convention of 1992 and the takeover of the House of Representatives by New Gingrich and a Republican leadership focused on strategies of base mobilisation and voter polarisation marked the beginning of an era of aggressive winner takes all politics for which a US constitution designed in the late eighteenth century was not designed to cope.

In a zero sum environment where an embrace of ideological polarisation and the complete obstruction of the opposing party's agenda by all means possible seemed to promise the clearest path to political success, any attempts to change the US constitution to ensure that this change in political culture does not undermine stability and democracy has become impossible. The last major changes to the US system of government with the establishment of the Federal Reserve and introduction of elections to the Senate took place in 1913 and almost no further measures were taken to adapt the US constitution in the century that followed. A cult-like popular reverence of the eighteenth century gentlemen of means who became the Founding Fathers of the US constitution stifles debate about whether a political system that invests enormous foreign policy power in a president yet entrenches domestic political paralysis in its legislatures is stable or just. The deep public discontent in US politics that Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump managed to use in different ways to rise to political prominence is to a significant extent the product of this mismatch between public expectations of presidents, senators and congressmen and their inability to deliver within the confines of a dysfunctional constitutional order designed three hundred years ago. The extent to which such political frustrations from all parts of the ideological spectrum have reinforced a worship of the military as the only institution that seems to get things done should be of profound concern not just to officers and national security experts but to anyone who believes that the survival of US democracy is essential to global peace.

Donald Trump's victory in November's presidential elections was not a freakish outcome beyond the bounds of the established American constitutional order. His rise to power was very much the product of pre-existing ideological trends with the Republican Party that have accelerated the decay of the American political system. Though the Democratic Party's obsession with technocratic processes and its abandonment of large swathes of the United States to its political opponents have been major contributions to this crisis of the American state, it was a GOP drift to the Far Right that gained momentum in the early 1990s that enabled a figure with such authoritarian tendencies as Trump to gain control of the presidency. With his rise to power triggering existential struggles between and within both main parties, it is difficult to see how the root and branch reform needed to secure the survival of American democracy can take place anytime soon. 

Brexit and Trumpism are the product of an interplay between similar economic pressures and very different constitutional crisis. Though an examination of economic parallels between the two societies can provide a useful basis for reflection on the impact of deindustrialisation, the distinct political context of these two great crises of 2016 means that the search for stability, prosperity and liberty may go in very different directions. When it comes down to it, the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom in 2016 has been the difference between the death throes of a late Republic and the emergence of a new one.

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