CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

THE BRITISH ELECTION: DEMOCRACY WORKS!

Britain is in existential crisis. The union is in danger of breaking up. The country is exiting the European project of partnership. The duty of the government of the day in difficult times is to guide nation and people through. This government has instead tried to manipulate the crisis for party political gain and in defiance of its own population. That population has struck back to deny the government its reckless “mandate.” Democracy is a brutal affair. Governments that do not do the people’s work are supposed to be punished. It is democracy at work when they are.

It’s all about Brexit. The referendum settled the question of membership or not: Britain has decided to leave the European Union. But it settled nothing else, nothing about the terms of exit. All matters about Britain’s future relations to the EU are for Parliament to decide (as far as Britain is concerned).

The government, however, created a narrative according to which the referendum had also settled the terms of exit, a hard Brexit narrative. That narrative has no basis in the population which is divided down the middle on hard vs. soft Brexit. It then triggered an election in a scheme to get a majority in Parliament to allow itself to pursue its own Brexit without scrutiny. That was an attempted elective coup – and the electorate has rightly struck it down.

Before the snap election, the government had a majority in Parliament but not so much of a majority that it would not have to accommodate a range of opinions on how to take Brexit forward. That was a good political constellation for the nation in the circumstances. It was conducive to a compromise line on Brexit, corresponding to and respecting the deep divisions in the population on the matter, and to a cautious process under Parliamentary oversight. It was a godsend for a leader of stature to take the population as much as possible along in a difficult transition.

But that was not enough for this government. It turned on the people, lecturing them that it had the right to do Brexit on its own terms and that they had a duty to give it the “mandate” it demanded. Opposing views on the terms of Brexit were to be disqualified from influence.

It is a good day for democracy when the people punish a government that tries to subjugate them.

Of course, there are reasons why there is an existential crisis to manage in the first place, and those reasons are political. Britain was plunged into crisis by the unnecessary decision of then Prime Minister David Cameron to trigger the Brexit referendum (and before that the Scottish referendum). This was a gamble in which there was everything to lose and nothing to win, and a gigantic moral and political mistake. In triggering the snap election – another unnecessary election which I at the time described as “abusive” – Prime Minister Theresa May exasperated the crisis with another moral and political mistake.

Of course also, there are reasons why such grave mistakes could be made. Both the referendum and the snap election had to be ratified by Parliament. In both cases, the House of Commons did that in rapid knee-jerk fashion without putting any work into the decisions before it and their consequences, without giving itself any time for reflection and without anything like proper deliberation and debate.

So what we have here is a story of leadership failure under two prime ministers and of decision-making failure under a House of Commons that does not do its job. But also a story of the glory of democracy. When there are free and fair elections, in the end the people decide and cannot be taken for granted.

BRITAIN’S ABUSIVE ELECTION

Another election in Britain now is unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister says the country needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations. But what we need is not stronger leadership but better leadership.

The government has had all the mandate it needs and all the parliamentary majority it needs. But the Prime Minister does not want to work in collaboration with Parliament. She wants to govern without a Parliament she has to pay attention to. That, however, is the kind of strong leadership that invariable leads a government astray. We know that in this country. It is the way of political decision making that leads to, for example, invasion of Iraq.

A reasonably balanced hand between government and Parliament is to the country’s advantage. It makes for deliberate compromise governing, which is the spirit of democracy. In the case of Brexit, the population is divided down the middle. There will be Brexit but it should be on terms that heed both sides of popular opinion. With a setting in which the government had to pay attention to a, at least somewhat, assertive Parliament, we could have had a practical Brexit.

The government has invented a straw man called “the will of the people.” The people have spoken in a referendum and its “will” is a hard Brexit. But that is an abuse of public opinion. There is no such “will of the people,” the population is divided. The referendum was not about the terms of Brexit. The government has hijacked the referendum for a design of its own making. It is setting itself up to impose an ideological Brexit on the country.

It will be able to do that. But it will be the kind of mistake that is typical of its vision of strong leadership. The country will remain divided. We will get a costly Brexit. Britain will cause further damage to European friends.

Parliament had to decide the snap election with two thirds majority. It should have said “no” to an unnecessary election and told the government to get on with its business. Instead, the House of Commons voted to make itself irrelevant, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It happens while this is going on that I am reading Machiavelli. A constant in his writing is about the risk to rulers that they make mistakes and cause detriment to both the people and themselves. That risk is particularly high when rulers have unrestrained power. But another constant is this: there is a price to be paid for the abuse of power. The strong leader may get his way today, but history will take revenge and deny him a good reputation. Mrs. May might look over her shoulder to the reputations of her predecessors who also wanted strong leadership: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blair.

 

IS DEMOCRACY COMING TO AN END IN AMERICA?

This ought to be a frivolous question, but it no longer is. No less of an authority than President Barack Obama has issued the warning. In his final State of the Union Address in early 2016, he called on his fellow Americans to “fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.”

Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections has caused more observers to question the health of democracy in America, such as for example Professor Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the American government. However, the challenge to American democracy does not come from the election of an anti-establishment outsider, however outrageous he may be, but from a combination of two circumstances: the coming to power of a president with disrespect for democracy at a time when democratic institutions are already weakened.

What has eaten into the democratic foundations in America, more than anything else, is the power of money. The system is rigged in favour of the rich and of special interests. Washington perverts into collusion between big politics and big money. There is gridlock in government and anger in the heartlands. What is broken is finally we-feeling in the population and trust between people and government.

There are also other, if less dramatic, institutional distortions. During the last two or three administrations the balance of power between the main branches of government has been upset so that Congress has gradually lost authority. From one side, a politicised and unrestrained Supreme Court has usurped powers it should not have and made itself not just a guardian of law but a maker of law. From the other side, the Presidency has usurped other powers to govern without the collaboration of Congress such as in the widespread use of “signing statements” to limit his duties of implementing Congress’s laws and “executive orders” to govern without the consent of Congress.

The remarkable thing in the destruction of political equality and the pincer movement by the other powers against Congress, is that Congress itself is entirely passive. President Obama said that elected representatives are “trapped” by their dependency on raising ever more “dark money.” Congress has made itself an observer from the side-line to the deterioration of the Constitution.

Into this morass of institutional weakness steps a radical anti-politician. The inclinations of the person who becomes president, although constrained by checks-and-balances, matter enormously for the character of governance. American democracy is in need of repair. It has instead got a wrecker at the helm.

President Trump is not a man of democratic instinct. Of course, we observers from afar cannot know much about his true personality but it is to take him seriously to listen to what he says. He ran an outrageously ugly campaign based on anger, on fear of the other, on stimulating base mob instincts, on prejudice, on misogyny, on disregard of truth and facts, on disrespect for disagreement. He threatened his opponent with retribution and violence and held up the spectre of mass, possibly armed, action, having refused to commit himself to accepting the election result were it to go against him. He has been described, by competent expertise, as a world-class narcissist.

On the substance of his policies, we are starting to see the outlines, which are consistent with the persona we saw in the campaign.

  • A continuation in government from his habit in the campaign to disregard the truth and to use untruths as a method of working. The denial of truth and the propagandistic use of untruth is the method of dictatorship.
  • A systematic assault on the country’s free press. Journalists are collectively “dishonest” and what they produce is “fake news.” This is damaging. We are already into a Kafkaesque nightmare where the very meaning of truth and fact is being destroyed.
  • A continuation of disrespect for disagreement. An actress who speaks her mind gets clobbered, from the position of the Presidency, as “overrated” in her profession. A judge who rules according to the law, is branded a “so-called” judge. The White House spreads fear in the country.
  • An apparent uncontrollable urge to pick fights: with those who might disagree, of course, but also with his own administration and the intelligence services, and internationally with allies, such as the European Union, NATO and the neighbouring country of Mexico. A disregard for the duty of a powerful nation’s leader to make himself informed about matters he pronounces on. Washington spreads fear in the world.
  • A blustering use of executive orders, fortifying a precedent for governing without the collaboration of Congress. The deterioration of the Constitution continues.
  • And more drip-drip use of dictatorial methods. A lack of willingness to answer and inform, such as on his and his administration’s possible relations to an internationally aggressive Russia. Governance by prejudice, such as his (failed) attempt to ban all citizen from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

The administration is being ridiculed for being a mess. But that is to underestimate what is happening. This president came into office in an American democracy of institutional fragility. He has started to govern in ways that render the institutional foundations yet more fragile. The American polity needs an injection of trust but is getting ineffective and unsafe governance.

And whose fault is that? The American Constitution is designed to prevent any single president from doing much harm. But when President Obama says “fix our politics” he is really saying that the constitutional institutions are not what they should be. The Trump Presidency is unattractive, but it is Congress, finally, that is not doing its job.

BREXIT – FLAWED PROCESS MEANS FLAWED RESULT

Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making. Important decisions are made unilaterally by the government, the prime minister really, with Parliament having next to no role, except to finally ratify the government’s decisions. Prime ministerial whims prevail.

It is a law of public policy that good decisions depend on good process. If the process is flawed, the outcome is likely to be flawed. If you want good decisions, take care of the process.

The reason the British system is unsafe is that governmental decisions are not adequately deliberated on, scrutinised and tested. That’s why public policies are a parade of blunders, small and large.

In preparing for Brexit, the prime minister’s whim is to protect the prime ministerial system of government. This is the system once famously branded an “elective dictatorship” (by Lord Hailsham, in 1976). It is the system that allowed Britain to stumble into the invasion of Iraq on the then prime minister’s whim. In this system alternative views to that of the government count for nothing. Public policies are the government’s dictate rather than the outcome of national compromise.

In her Brexit speech yesterday, the prime minister made clear that decision-making is to be in the government’s hand and that Parliament’s role will be to ratify the outcome. This is an unsafe process towards a likely flawed result.

The process has already caused visible damage. Brexit is being made infinitely more confrontational than needs be. The divisions at home from the referendum campaign are not being healed. The views of the 48 percent count for nothing. Britain is causing a monumental fall-out between the democratic countries of Europe in an acrimonious divorce. Once Brexit was a fact, a coming together at home would have been possible, as would a rational collaboration between European friends towards an amicable settlement. But the process the prime minister is clinging on to is leading us to conflict on both fronts.

It is not too late to improve on the process. But it depends on Parliament not accepting yet again to be side-lined. It is for Parliament to temper the prime minister’s whim. It is not good enough for MPs to sit around on their backsides, sulk, and beg to be consulted. Parliament needs to assert itself.

THE STATE OF DEMOCRACY AFTER 2016 – YEAR OF REACTION

Brexit. Trump. In Britain, the country’s membership in the European Union is rejected in a referendum. In America, a maverick anti-establishment political outsider wins the presidency. These results are monumental political upheavals in the two countries, with consequences that reach beyond their shores and throughout the world.

Britain and America are the world’s core democracies. These countries have been bearers of a political-economic venture that has come to define the meaning of modern democracy. In 2016, to the surprise of winners and losers alike, the idea that the future is liberal and that history is moving in that direction, has suffered a defeat from which it may not soon recover. What was lost in these tests was finally a set of ideas.

Read the article in the Cairo Review.