‘Free world’ on slippery slope with Trump and Johnson at the helm

Birds of a feather: US President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson have triggered   unprecedented political crises in their respective countries. Picture: Stefan Rousseau / getty images
Birds of a feather: US President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson have triggered unprecedented political crises in their respective countries. Picture: Stefan Rousseau / getty images

Lenin once wrote an article entitled Combustible Material in World Politics in 1908, but the amount of combustible material in the world today dwarfs anything the Bolshevik leader might have had in mind.

Everywhere one looks in the world there is a crisis.

Into this explosive world scene step UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump.

Watching the crises in the two countries – regarded as “advanced democracies” – one is reminded that democracy is never a thing done.

This apt assertion was made by American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish, who says democracy is a goal that we must always seek.

“What is necessary now is one thing and one thing only ... that democracy become again democracy in action, not democracy accomplished and piled up in goods and gold.”

When his government was only two days old, Johnson had already managed to lose his majority and rack up two defeats in the House of Commons.

No government in history has faced such an immediate losing streak.

This showed just how weak the Conservative leader and his regime were, and they still are.

The UK’s Supreme Court last week made a sobering judgment declaring the suspension of Parliament as “unlawful”.

It held that Johnson’s government acted illegally when it “prorogued” Parliament, a process that was intended to temporarily suspend Parliament and prevent the passage of any legislation.

Technically, the power to prorogue Parliament rests with the Queen, but, as the court explained, the Queen’s assent is “a formality”.

As Parliament resumed last Wednesday everything was balanced on a knife edge. The situation is changing by the hour.

Events could rapidly swing in either direction.

This reflects the instability and volatility that is inherent within this deep crisis of Britain’s entire political and constitutional system.

Painted into a corner, Johnson is going for broke. He is pinning everything on the question of Brexit, using demagogic rhetoric, appealing to the rabid rabble that makes up the Tory membership, and attempting to outflank Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

But this is a high-risk strategy. For every vote Johnson hopes to gain from Leave voting areas, he will potentially lose one to the Liberals or Labour elsewhere.

Already, the Conservatives look set to lose all their Scottish MPs, with Ruth Davidson jumping ship before it sinks.

Into this explosive world scene steps Trump whose rise to power was greeted with dismay by the establishment politicians both in the US and on a broader international scale.

He is widely blamed for plunging the world into an ever-deepening political and economic crises.

How did the world’s two most venerable and influential democracies – the UK and US – end up with Trump and Johnson at the helm?

In the week of the UN General Assembly, the US stock market sank more than 800 points on fears that a recession was in the offing.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House was launching a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump after it was revealed that he sought foreign assistance in order to deal with his political nemesis, former US vice-president Joe Biden.

This has been described as setting up a dramatic constitutional clash just more than a year before next year’s presidential election.

Well, it isn’t just a moment of crisis for the leaders of the “free world”. It’s moments, plural.

How did the world’s two most venerable and influential democracies – the UK and US – end up with Trump and Johnson at the helm?

Trump may not be wrong to call Johnson the “Britain Trump” (sic).

Nor is this merely a matter of similar personalities or styles: it is also a reflection of glaring flaws in the political institutions that enabled such men to win power.

Both Trump and Johnson have what the Irish physicist and psychologist Ian Hughes calls “disordered minds”.

Trump is a chronic liar, purveyor of racism and large-scale tax cheat.

US special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his 22-month investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign described repeated cases of Trump’s obstruction of justice.

Trump stands accused by more than 20 women of sexual predation, a behaviour he bragged about on tape and directed his attorney to make illegal payments of hush money for, which constituted campaign finance violations.

Johnson’s personal behaviour is similarly incontinent.

He is widely regarded as a chronic liar and as unkempt in his personal life, including two failed marriages and an apparent domestic altercation on the eve of becoming prime minister.

He has been repeatedly fired from jobs for lying and other disreputable behaviour.

He led the Brexit campaign in 2016 on claims that have been proven false.

As British foreign secretary, he twice leaked secret intelligence – in one case, French intelligence about Libya and in another case British intelligence about Iran.

Like Trump, he has a high disapproval rating among all age groups and his approval rating rises with voter age.

There is an obvious answer to the question of how two venerable democracies installed disordered minds in power and enabled them to pursue unpopular policies.

But there is also a deeper one.

The deeper answer should forewarn countries that are yet to face similar crises of democracy so they are able to prevent it from rearing its head again.

The rise of Trump and Johnson also reflects a deeper political failure in those countries

The obvious answer is that both Trump and Johnson won support among older voters who have felt left behind in recent decades.

Trump appeals especially to older white male conservatives displaced by trade and technology, and, in the view of some, by the US’s movements for civil, women’s and sexual rights.

Johnson appeals to older voters hit hard by deindustrialisation and to those who pine for Britain’s glory days of colonial power.

Yet this is not a sufficient explanation. The rise of Trump and Johnson also reflects a deeper political failure in those countries.

The parties that opposed them, the Democrats and Labour, respectively, failed to address the needs of workers displaced by globalisation, who then migrated to the right.

Yet Trump and Johnson pursue policies – tax cuts for the rich in the US and a no-deal Brexit in the UK – that run counter to their bases’ interests.

The common political flaw lies in the mechanics of political representation, notably both countries’ first-past-the-post voting systems.

Electing representatives by a simple plurality in single-member districts has fostered the emergence of two dominant parties in both countries, rather than the multiplicity of parties elected in the proportional representation systems of Western Europe.

The two-party system, which then leads to a winner-takes-all politics, fails to represent voter interests as well as coalition governments, which must negotiate and formulate policies that are acceptable to two or more parties.

Read: Mondli Makhanya: A very rough ride ahead with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in charge

Most ominously, the winner-takes-all politics has enabled two dangerous personalities to win national power despite widespread public opposition to them.

Here lies the important lesson for emerging democracies such as ours.

Those calling for reforms in South Africa’s electoral system need to be wary of the developments in both the UK and the US.

No political system can perfectly translate the public will into policy and the public will be often confused, misinformed or swayed by dangerous passions.

As MacLeish said, the design of democratic institutions is an ever-evolving challenge.

Yet today, owing to their antiquated winner-takes-all rules, the world’s two oldest and most venerated democracies are performing poorly – and dangerously so.

Maxon is a social commentator

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