Donald Trump, the best golfer ever to set up shop in the Oval Office, announced in London this week that because of departing Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts, the Brexit deal is “teed up.” Teed up? With this remark, Mr. Trump gives new meaning to “mulligan,” golf’s infamous do-over for a failed shot. Britain’s politicians are at least 40 shots over par on Brexit, having shanked, hooked or topped every ball they’ve tried to hit.
In truth, there’s nothing funny about the British elites’ hapless efforts to make good on voters’ decision in 2016 to separate the United Kingdom from the European Union. The referendum was a classic expression of democratic will: Brexit won narrowly (with 51.9%), but in a democracy that still counts as a victory. More troubling is the possibility that the great and the good of Britain’s elected political leadership will simply fail to execute the referendum’s mandate, raising the possibility that the very idea of governance is approaching a dead end in one of the world’s oldest democracies.
One can find similar evidence of dead-end governance in the results of last week’s European Parliament elections, in which established center-right and center-left parties suffered losses to recently formed factions. Meanwhile in the U.S., notwithstanding Mr. Trump’s larger-than-everything presidency, the 535-member Congress sits in gridlock.
Four years ago, no one would have predicted that the winner in the U.K.’s EU elections would be Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The puckish, impatient Brits are sending the foxes to occupy the Brussels henhouse.
The optimistic view is that the democracies will somehow muddle through. But maybe not. Maybe it’s time to figure out why citizens in some of history’s greatest nations, all at the same time, have become fed up with muddling as usual.
By chance, I spent this past Sunday with friends in Barcelona, watching commentators on Spanish television trying to decipher the results of the EU elections. It was an odd experience for an American accustomed to watching U.S. elections quickly defined by the blue and red of Democratic and Republican candidates. Spain’s results were depicted as a color-coded wheel of five parties from right to left. This spray of parties swirled across the rest of Europe with one constant: the absence of majority support. Factionalism—and gridlock—reigns.
Why is this happening?
I don’t disagree that some of it involves hard issues of sovereignty and national or cultural identity. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech last month to the Claremont Institute, linked Mr. Trump’s elevation of America’s interests to the idea that countries “all over the world are discovering their national identities and we are supporting them.” That’s fine, but how come his own great country, with or without Trumpian nationalism, can’t fashion a functioning immigration or health-care system?
In Europe, battles such as Brexit are presumably pushback against the centralization of authority in Brussels and its threat to national identity. But let us pause to consider what these sanctified nation-states have done with their sovereignty—in Europe and the U.S.
Across the half-century after World War II, governments of left and right compromised their way to building and expanding vast networks of programmed public dependency (and constituencies) that have reached their financial carrying capacity. There aren’t enough young people to fund the promised payments inside these demographic time bombs.
The debate now over socialism versus capitalism conceals the cruder reality that the parties of the left—whether in the U.S., U.K., Germany or the nation-state of California—have come to regard the private sector as an alien tribe whose only function is to finance the public machinery that runs welfare, health and now climate protocols.
In the U.S., Democratic presidential candidates say they’ll fund their utterly fatuous gazillion-dollar health-care and climate programs with higher corporate taxes and surcharges on private-sector profits.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s proposal to lower tax rates to incentivize private-sector activity is denounced as a threat to funding public obligations.
The parties of the left and right have never been further apart on the question of government’s role and size, and the window for compromise is nearly closed. Europe’s new factions are mostly collateral damage.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the public and private tribes in any of these fractious countries to work out a modus vivendi. Social media has displaced that possibility.
Something called “transparency” has become a consensus virtue. What it means in practice is that the normal give-and-take of governance isn’t working anymore because factions can leverage social media to strangle any proposal in its crib—whether to rationalize immigration laws or accomplish Brexit. Modern media has transformed politics, making the game itself more addictive than the accomplishments of governance. With their legislative role diminished, many politicians simply provide media commentary on the spectacle.
The future could turn out to be a succession of hard Brexits—simply blowing up the status quo and then seeing whether democratic governments can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
This article appeared in wsj.com on June 6, 2019.