WINSTON CHURCHILL ONCE famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.”
These days, voters in the United States and the United Kingdom are sorely testing that maxim.
Both countries are advanced and mature democracies and both are seemingly taking turns shooting themselves in the foot.
And as crazy as things are in the United States, the British arguably have done more long-term damage to their country since approving their now nearly three-year-old decision to support a national referendum to leave the European Union (or as it’s popularly known, Brexit). While there is a viable path out of the Trump nightmare, the UK seems increasingly stuck in a political dilemma from which there is no easy escape.
The rise of Trump and the adoption of Brexit are both products of the same sort of political delusion — a toxic nostalgia for the way things used to be.
“Make America Great Again” harkened back to a different, less diverse, more traditional era in America. The Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control” message spoke to a nationalist fantasy that Britain can go it alone, free of the supposed constraints of the European Union. Just as Trump’s American voters were seeking to hold back America’s multicultural future, the Leave electorate seemed wedded to maintaining the notion of England as an island off the coast of Europe, rather than an integral part of it.
The Leave camp and Trump relied on the support of white, working class, older, and rural voters, as well as a healthy dose of traditional Republicans in the US, and the “gin- and Jag-belt” prosperous UK voters (gin and Jag is short for “gin and tonic” and “Jaguar”) living just outside of London.
Both groups were motivated by long-building anti-establishment and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as frustration over economic policies that had disadvantaged the working class. To the latter point, it is the height of irony that the proponents of these policies were the same reactionary conservative forces that benefited from Brexit and Trump’s election.
One key difference, however, between Brexit and Trump’s election is the political resistance to these developments.
Say what you will about Trump and the complicity of the Republican Party, at least in the United States there is a viable political opposition and a presidential election in 20 months that could potentially end the failed Trump experiment.
The backlash to Trump has been nothing, if not robust.
In the UK, public opinion polls have moved against Leave, but only by a few points. Even after a series of unprecedented parliamentary humiliations, Prime Minister Theresa May stubbornly holds on to power. And while May campaigned for Remain, she has fully embraced Leave, in part out of fear that to do otherwise would cost her the support of the pro-Brexit group in her Conservative Party. But it’s apparent that she has little clue how to solve the Brexit riddle.
The opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is nominally in the Remain camp but in his heart is sympathetic to Leave, has not offered any viable solutions either. Many British political observers blame Corbyn’s lackluster campaigning for Remain as a crucial reason why that position lost the original referendum vote.
Since Brexit, Corbyn and Labour have demonstrated more interest in keeping Leave Labour voters in the party fold to strengthen the party’s position ahead of the next parliamentary election than in being a voice for Remain voters. Indeed, there is nary a prominent political leader in the UK who is enthusiastically advocating for a position ostensibly held by the majority of Brits.
The result is a perfect storm of a delusional electorate and a craven set of political leaders more focused on their political ambitions than doing what’s best for the country.
The situation makes the US Congress look like a smoothly running democratic institution. May has sought in vain for a parliamentary solution that will satisfy her own party, win Labour support, and also not alienate the European Union, with whom Brexit must be negotiated to prevent a calamitous hard UK exit from the EU.
At this point, 12 days out from the March 29 Brexit deadline, no one knows what’s going to happen to the UK. We could see an agreement from the EU to delay Britain’s departure; or a second referendum vote (though there’s little political support for that); or parliament could embrace May’s soft Brexit plan that they rejected in January. Or we could see a hard exit on that day.
Whatever the outcome, the choice for Brits is more dangerous uncertainty, near-term economic chaos, or utter calamity.
At least in the United States, one can faintly see a path forward out of our own mess. We’ve reached a rare moment in the last two years in which Americans can take some national pride in the fact that there’s at least one democratic electorate in the world who have messed up things worse than us.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.