Democratic government and the ‘unwritten rules’

Why We Wrote This

Democratic governments have survived not just because of their rulebooks, but because of their understood code of behavior. Now, that code is being challenged.

UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the Prime Minister's Questions session in the House of Commons in London on September 4.

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Democracies have survived because of their rulebooks, as well as a shared belief that constitutional structures are inherently worth preserving – and while certain actions may not violate formal strictures, they’re simply not done.

A “coup” charge against U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson came after the move that triggered this week’s unfolding power showdown: his break with long convention to suspend Parliament for up to five weeks to allow free rein for his Brexit strategy. His calculation seems to be to portray legislators as blocking the will of the people.

In less-established democracies, the examples are especially striking: moves by the leaders of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey to neuter the independence of the judiciary and the media. Much of their conduct has fallen within legal powers. But opponents say such actions don’t happen in a healthy democracy.

The international tide may well be with them. In Hungary and Poland, leaders who have breached tacit conventions have won support at the polls. Turkey’s leader has notched up three victories. The longer-term question is what might reverse that tide. Some in the United States and Britain have suggested a return to civics education to start what could prove to be a long process.

“Stop the coup!”

The refrain of British protesters against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s readiness to crash his country out of the European Union without agreeing to the withdrawal terms has been undeniably arresting. It is also – in stark, factual terms – simply wrong.

And the distinction between what Mr. Johnson has and hasn’t done matters, not only for what’s going on in Britain.

It’s a window into a broader challenge facing other constitutional governments at a time when the tide of populist politics is on the rise – whether in established democracies like the United States, nascent European ones like Hungary and Poland, or increasingly tenuous ones like Turkey.

It has highlighted a crucial fact about democratic governments. They’ve survived not just because of their rulebooks, but due to a tacitly understood code of behavior. That code has been rooted in a shared belief that these constitutional structures are inherently worth preserving – and the view that, as a result, while certain actions may not violate any formal strictures, they’re simply not done.

The “coup” charge against Mr. Johnson came in response to the move that triggered this week’s dramatic and still unfolding power showdown between the prime minister and Parliament: his decision to prorogue, or discontinue, parliamentary sittings for up to five weeks and allow him free rein for his Brexit strategy.

But this was no junta-like usurpation of power. It’s not even clear whether it violated any legal boundaries. That issue is now working its way through the courts.

The ‘unprecedented’ factor

His critics’ anger lay in the fact that a prorogation of this length, at a time when Britain faces what all sides are calling its most important decision since World War II, was unprecedented. Unfair. Transparently designed to circumvent the legislature. In other words, it was something that just wasn’t done.

Brexit-era Britain is a special case. Under the U.K. system, Parliament, not the executive, is ultimately sovereign, but a 2016 national referendum voted narrowly in favor of leaving the EU. As a result, the showdown also mirrors another important aspect of what’s going on in a number of other democracies: Mr. Johnson’s populist argument that he’s speaking for the broader will of the people and is simply taking on politicians determined to frustrate it.

Like Mr. Johnson, the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, President Donald Trump, has been accused by critics and political opponents of breaching serial legal boundaries. That still remains to be determined, whether by Congress or the courts.

But take one of the most serious cases at issue: his firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey at a time when it was probing possible ties between his presidential campaign and Russia. It can be argued, as he and his supporters have done, that he was acting within the powers of his office. Still, at least since the days of former President Richard Nixon and Watergate, the action did fall under the category of things that, by long-standing consensus, weren’t done.

The same applies to Mr. Trump’s decision not to release his personal tax returns, for instance. There is nothing illegal about that. It is, however, something that for many decades hasn’t been done.

In less-established democracies, the examples are especially striking: moves by the leaders of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey to try to neuter the independence of the judiciary and the news media. Much of their conduct has fallen within their legal powers. But their opponents, as well as human-rights watchdogs, have argued that they represent actions that, in a healthy democracy, just aren’t done.

The implicit argument in Britain’s “stop the coup” chants is that the erosion of long-embedded assumptions of what political leaders should or shouldn’t do poses a challenge to properly functioning democracies. Or, to borrow the title of the venerable 1940s American newspaper comic: There oughta be a law!

Parliament and the people

But Mr. Johnson’s calculation, in now trying to secure a snap general election before the October 31 Brexit deadline, seems to be that he will be able in effect to campaign against Parliament, portraying legislators as trying to block the will of the British people as expressed in the referendum. President Trump has been making a similarly populist argument against U.S. institutions including the Justice Department, the FBI and, more recently, the Federal Reserve Board.

And the international tide may well be with them. In Hungary and Poland, in part due to an appeal to nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments, leaders who have been breaching tacit conventions to shield their governments from scrutiny have won support at the polls. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has notched up three national election victories over the past nearly two decades, increasing his vote each time, though local elections earlier this year did suggest his hold on the electorate could be waning.

The longer-term questions remain what, if anything, might swing the pendulum back in the other direction; and whether the informal conventions of democratic government, once breached or abandoned, can or will be restored.

One reason for skepticism is growing popular disenchantment with, and disengagement from, institutions of government in democratic countries across the globe.

In both the U.S. and Britain, with many citizens unable to pass the naturalization tests given to immigrants, one suggestion has been a renewed focus on old-style civics education. The aim would be to reengage people, whatever their beliefs or allegiances, with how their countries’ democratic structures were designed and built, how they’re supposed to work, and why they matter to the lives of individual citizens.

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