Impeachment, Brexit, and the battle to define democracy

Why We Wrote This

In two leading democracies, citizens’ visions of core principles of government have diverged sharply. That’s undermining confidence, and helping to feed nationalism and populism.

Matt Dunham/AP
Demonstrators protest outside the Supreme Court in London on Sept. 19, 2019, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed Parliament. The court ruled the dismissal illegal, and Parliament reconvened on Sept. 25.

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Crises in two of the world’s leading democracies are prompting sharp debate over what democracy looks like – or what it should look like – in a world in which nationalism and populism are on the rise, and where confidence in existing institutions has been on the wane.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to pull the country out of the European Union by the end of this month, leading to a historic showdown with Parliament. But who speaks for the people? Traditionally, it’s been Parliament. But the holding of a referendum in 2016 on Brexit has allowed Mr. Johnson to argue his approach truly expresses the popular will.

Across the Atlantic, as an impeachment inquiry intensifies, the debate is strikingly similar to that in Britain.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California has said the behavior of President Donald Trump is not how democracy is supposed to work. But Mr. Trump has presented himself as a president bent on unblocking a Washington “system” that’s trying to frustrate the will of millions of “real” Americans.

When Britain and the U.S. do next go to the polls, they’ll face an unprecedentedly explicit choice about what kind of democratic government they favor.

“This is what democracy looks like!” Those six simple words have emerged as the rallying call for countless political protests worldwide in the past few years.

But if you put a question mark at the end, they go to the heart of a crisis facing two of the world’s leading democratic countries: the United States and Britain. In the U.S., at immediate issue is the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump. In Britain, it’s the prospect of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s taking the country out of the European Union without any agreed-upon transition deal.

Both crises involve something even more fundamental: a clash of sharply divergent visions of government. They amount to a fight over what democracy looks like – or what it should look like – in a world in which nationalism and populism are on the rise, and where citizens’ confidence in the existing institutions of democratic government has been on the wane.

The Brexit clock

First, to Britain. Mr. Johnson has vowed, “do or die,” to get out of the EU by the end of this month, and that has led to a historic showdown between the prime minister and Parliament. Indeed, the head of the British Supreme Court, weighing in on Parliament’s side last week, cited a four-centuries-old legal judgment as precedent.

The battle boils down to who can claim the right to speak for the people. Traditionally, it’s been Parliament, which holds ultimate sovereignty under the British system. That’s why the court voided Mr. Johnson’s decision to disband it for a five-week period in the run-up to the Brexit deadline.

But the holding of a national referendum in 2016 on whether to leave the EU, which the “leave” side won narrowly, has allowed the prime minister to argue his full-steam-ahead approach truly expresses the will of the people.

In an increasingly febrile political atmosphere, it’s impossible to say when, how, and conceivably even whether Britain will leave the EU. The opposition parties in Parliament have been consulting among themselves on possible further action aimed at definitively preventing a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister has persisted in keeping that option open if he can’t get the EU to accept amendments on the agreement it reached with his predecessor, Theresa May.

Yet one thing is clear: There will be a new general election long before it is currently scheduled, in 2022, and the battle over defining British democracy will loom large.

Mr. Johnson’s rivals and critics argue that Parliament has simply been doing its job: acting in good conscience and centuries-old tradition to prevent a form of Brexit that would cause the country real harm. Mr. Johnson portrays Parliament as embodying an out-of-touch elite, arrogantly seeking to override the referendum result. The solution, he suggests, is strong and determined leadership, a readiness to shake things up, get things done, and deliver on the popular mandate.

The impeachment debate

If that sounds familiar, of course, it’s because on the other side of the Atlantic, it was much the same argument Mr. Trump made when campaigning for the U.S. presidency. And as the Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives accelerates moves toward his possible impeachment, the debate over what democracy is, or should be, is strikingly similar to that in Britain.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee will be a central figure in the impeachment investigation, drew the dividing lines starkly in remarks last week.

Accusing Mr. Trump of having violated the trust of his office by trying to get the government of Ukraine to investigate his potential rival in the 2020 election, Joe Biden, Representative Schiff said this behavior was not how democracy is supposed to work. “This is democracy,” he declared, with a nod toward the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California. “What you saw in this committee is democracy, as ugly as it can be, as personal as it can be, as infuriating as it can be. This is democracy.”

But is it? Mr. Trump, not just in his intervention with Ukraine but on issues ranging from tariffs on China to a border wall, has presented himself as a president bent on unblocking an out-of-touch Washington “system” that’s trying to frustrate the will of the millions of “real” Americans who voted for him.

And unless he’s actually impeached, and removed from office by the Senate, that argument – as in Britain – will soon be fought out through the ballot box.

In countering it, his opponents will rely on centuries-old examples of the importance of core democratic principles like constitutional checks and balances and a universally applied rule of law. But even before Mr. Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, a constellation of concerns had soured many voters on the entire political system. They were disheartened especially by disparities in wealth and opportunity, frustrations only magnified by the world economic crash of a decade ago. Mr. Trump’s election victory, and the Brexit vote, were less causes than symptoms.

When Britain and the U.S. do next go to the polls, they’ll face an unprecedentedly explicit choice about what kind of democratic government they favor.

And whatever the outcome, it’s wise to keep in mind one key lesson from the Brexit referendum. That exercise turned out not to be a contest for voters’ hearts and minds. Instead, it often seemed to pit hearts against minds. The “remain” campaign did make a forceful and articulate case for the benefits of staying in the EU, and the potential risks of leaving. The pro-Brexit camp seemed far more successful, however, in tapping into the passions – anger and resentment, nationalism and patriotic pride – of voters who had ceased to feel represented, or in some cases understood, by their government.

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