The Johnson and Trump crisis offer lessons for emerging democracies

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Lenin once wrote an article entitled Combustible Material in World Politics (Collected Works, 1908) but the amount of combustible material in the present world situation dwarfs anything the bolshevik leader might have had in mind. Everywhere one looks there is a crisis. Into this explosive world scene steps United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United States President Donald J. 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 one Archibald MacLeish, an American poet and writer. MacLeish 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.”

By the time his government turned just two days old, Prime Minister Boris 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 was a demonstration of how weak the Conservative leader and his regime were, and still are.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom recently made a sobering judgement declaring the suspension of parliament “unlawful”. The Supreme Court held that Prime Minister Johnson’s government acted illegally when it “prorogued” parliament, a process that was intended to temporarily suspends parliament and prevents the passage of legislation. 

As parliament resumed on 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, Boris 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 Farage’s Brexit Party.

Into this explosive world scene steps President Trump whose rise to power has been greeted with dismay by the establishment politicians both in the USA and on a broader international scale. He is widely blamed for plunging the world into an ever-deeper political and economic crisis. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House is 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 deputy president Joe Biden. This has been described as setting up a dramatic constitutional clash just over a year before the 2020 presidential elections. 

Well, it’s 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 United Kingdom and the United States – end up with Donald Trump and Boris 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 that constituted campaign finance violations.

Johnson’s personal behaviour is similarly incontinent. He is widely regarded as a chronic liar and as unkempt in 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 ratings rise 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 as to be able to prevent it from rearing its head again.

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 America’s movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual rights. Johnson appeals to older voters hit hard by deindustrialization and to those who pine for Britain’s glory days of global power. Yet this is not a sufficient explanation. 

The rise of Trump and Johnson also reflects a deeper political failure. The parties that opposed them, the Democrats and Labour respectively, failed to address the needs of workers displaced by globalization, who then migrated to the right. Yet Trump and Johnson pursue policies – tax cuts for the rich in the US, a no-deal Brexit in the UK – that run counter to the interests of their base.

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-take-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.

Most ominously, winner-take-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 like ours. The calls for reforms in South Africa’s electoral system need to be wary of the developments in both the UK and US.

Moreover, there are other key lessons to be learnt. One of these is the fact that the people shall always govern. The two leaders have taken their citizens for granted and continued to undermine the will of the people. This stretches from stone walling parliament from holding the executive accountable (in the case of the US) to illegally suspending parliament in the UK.

We have seen these attempts in the continent where some leaders have gone to the extent of changing the constitution so as to keep themselves in power. We have also seen members of the executive, in our case, breaking their oath of office without fear of being reprimanded. It had to take the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to urge prospective MPs and members of the provincial legislatures not to betray the people of South Africa.

The cherry on top of a perilous state of democracies, especially in our case, is the capture of the state by parasitic criminal elements. The investigations, led by Special Counsel Mueller, were supposed to unearth collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian oligarch, but inadvertently unearthed a criminal syndicate that backed behind Trump.

Similarly, we continue to witness how the state coffers were looted by a connected syndicate operating without fear of reprisal. The cost of state capture hovers at around R1.5-trillion over the second term of the Jacob Zuma administration. That’s just short of the R1.8-trillion Budget for 2019. Put differently: State Capture wiped out a third of South Africa’s R4.9-trillion gross domestic products, or effectively annihilated four months of all labour and productivity of all South Africans, from hawkers selling sweets outside schools to boardroom jockeys. Again we ask, how could we have allowed such people to lead our country?

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-take-all-rules, the world’s two oldest and most venerated democracies are performing poorly – dangerously so. We better be ready!

Chris Maxon is the Deputy Manager at the Department of Health in KZN.