In the US, there was some relief this week as the British parliament devolved into chaos following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's attempts to block lawmakers and force through a no-deal Brexit. For a brief moment, the spectacle of US politics was eclipsed by a bigger farce. While few Americans had ever heard the word "prorogue" before last week, they were nonetheless grateful that people were rolling their eyes at a different wild-haired world leader.
That reprieve was as short-sighted as it was short-lived. Britain's Brexit fiasco isn't a distraction from the unravelling of other Western democracies: it's a part of it. The failure of representative governments to handle the challenges of our time - and, in fact, their tendency to make those challenges worse - is one of the driving forces behind the current crisis of democracy, and the biggest roadblocking to resolving it.
Brexit and Donald Trump were a one-two punch at the ballot box in 2016, emblems of both a deeply dissatisfied electorate and a partly corrupted electoral system. Both narrow victories happened against the backdrop of Russian interference and co-ordinated disinformation campaigns, casting their legitimacy into doubt.
At the time, the election results were evidence of a world gone mad, not just because they were a surprise but because the consequences were somehow both dire and uncertain. But to focus on that moment in 2016 is to miss the breakdown that led to those elections, as well as the evidence, three years later, democratic institutions seem woefully unable to do anything to address it.
The Brexit referendum and 2016 presidential election were evidence of failure even before voters went to the ballot box. By turning the decision about membership in the European Union into a non-binding referendum item, the Conservative Party abdicated its governing responsibilities and introduced a wildcard into British politics that was at once too powerful to ignore and too impotent to act. By summer 2016, the British people had spoken and yet to date, nobody has acted.
Likewise, Donald Trump's nomination signalled the inability of the Republican Party and political media to respond to a neophyte politician who built a campaign on spectacle, ignorance, lies, and racism. While the November election was the ultimate failure of a system riddled with voter disenfranchisement and disinformation campaigns, Trump's appearance on the ballot was a sign that something had already broken down in US politics.
Those shocks to the system were one thing, but three years of scandal and crises and gobsmacking incompetence have made clear something much worse is happening. Not only have the intervening years done little to stabilise these countries, they have seen the situation deteriorate. Brexit has already claimed the scalp of two prime ministers and, with Boris Johnson threatening an election just 40 days into his term, is poised to claim another. In the US, the turnover is happening within the executive branch, where cabinet secretaries cycle out at unprecedented rates, and the president changes his mind more often than most people change socks.
Moreover, three years after the 2016 earthquakes, the economic chickens are coming home to roost. In the US, the signs of an impending slowdown have multiplied: manufacturing growth has slowed, the housing market has slumped, and short-term bonds are outperforming long-term ones. President Trump has squandered the recovery he inherited, rapidly transforming it into a recession. Meanwhile, British shoppers are hoarding goods as they prepare for the economic shock of a rapid exit from the European Union. If you buy the argument that Brexit and Trump votes were spurred by economic anxiety, then the remedy is proving to be worse than the disease.
What's so troubling about these (entirely foreseeable) consequences is that they are not the product of accidents of history. They are a feature of a new era of unpopular populism, an emotion- and identity-driven politics that has strained the limits of our institutions and eroded confidence in self-governance. And while Brexit and Trump are the exemplars of this era of illiberal democracy, they are not the only evidence of it.
One small example from elsewhere in the US: a new study released this week revealed that Republicans rush to weaken gun laws whenever there's a mass shooting. The study, conducted by scholars at Harvard Business School, found that in the year following high-profile mass shootings, states with Republican-controlled legislatures loosened their gun laws at twice the rate of years without mass shootings.
It's an astonishing finding, not because it demonstrates that Republicans favour looser guns laws - that's been the case for decades - but because it shows that mass shootings trigger a push to make guns even easier to acquire, accelerating a catastrophic escalation of mass shootings.
Why do right-wing politicians have such a counterproductive response to the public policy crisis of mass shootings? Because gun ownership has become a powerful political identity in the United States, one that somehow overrides the widespread popular support for gun regulation.
This perversion of populist politics, which claims to speak for the people while advancing deeply unpopular policies and people, has exposed a serious flaw in democratic institutions. And that's why those looking to Brexit for a distraction from problems back home are making a mistake: the fiasco overseas is just another sign of the fiasco at home.
- Nicole Hemmer is an SMH/The Age columnist based in the US.