Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 15 February 2022

No one should be impartial when it comes to defending democracy on either side of the Atlantic


Two recent events, one in the US and one in the UK.

In the US the Republican National Committee, in its annual meeting in Salt Lake City, declared the riot where protesters invaded the Capitol, roaming almost at will as members of Congress were barricaded into rooms for their own protection, a “legitimate political discourse”. A resolution approved unanimously said two Republicans, Cheney and Kinzinger, were engaged in the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” for taking part in a House investigation into the episode. 7 people died and 100 officers were hurt during the riots.

In the UK, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fighting for his political survival as a result of lying to MPs about his knowledge of numerous illegal parties held at No.10 Downing Street, picks up a far right meme suggesting Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, personally failed to prosecute Jimmy Saville’s cases of child abuse. The claim was false, as the Prime Minister later admitted, but he has not apologised for making it. Last Monday Starmer had to be protected by police against a far right mob that shouted Savile’s name.

The far right often uses physical violence to intimidate opponents. What we are not used to in either the UK or US is one of the two main political parties resorting to far right tactics or trying to legitimise them. The reaction to these events will determine whether they become routine. In the UK, for now at least, the independent media has departed from type to frame Johnson's smear as false, illegitimate and something he should apologise for. This departure from normal two-sided impartiality is welcome, and helps illustrate what should be the reaction to threats to democracy and what should not.

In the US the Republican National Committee’s embrace of the Capitol Rioters met a muted response from Republican politicians. The most notable was Mitch McConnell, who said the decision was wrong and outside the committee’s jurisdiction, but he wasn’t going to make a big fuss about it. This and more muted responses meant the news story faded away, and we went back to the normal ‘two sides’ political discourse.

It is this last step that is the most worrying. Essentially you have an extremely influential part of the Republican party siding with a violent attempt to overturn the legitimate result of the last election, an attempt largely orchestrated by the President who lost that election and who intends to run again as the Republican candidate. We know that a majority of the Republican base believe the last election was stolen from them, and may therefore support attempts to steal any future election. Finally, as I have noted earlier, Trump himself has been busy making sure that his people are in positions of power to at least sow confusion about the validity of any general election result in key states, and perhaps do worse, something he failed to pressure Republican officials to do last time. Trump’s position, even among voters, is far from guaranteed, but it would be equally foolish to ignore the threat he poses, or just as importantly what he has revealed about too many Republican legislators.

If public discourse in the US ignores this most of the time, and conducts a normal two-sided political debate about other issues, then they are playing into Republican and Trump’s hands. The Republicans, with the help of substantial gerrymandering supported by a right wing Supreme Court, will win back control of one or both the Senate and House, ensuring Biden becomes a lame duck, vetoing president. Forget any chance of US progress on climate change, among other issues.

That gridlock will pave the way for a Republican President in 2024, who could well be Donald Trump again. He will have learnt his lessons from 2020. What might follow does not bear speculating about. This all stems from the normalisation of the Republican Party’s anti-democratic turn in public discourse, both by the media and to a large extent the Democratic party itself. In a recent post, John Quiggin describes this normalisation as ‘the end of hope for US democracy’.

The situation in the UK is different in many ways. In particular the post-Brexit Conservative party or its leader has never disputed an election result. But assaults on democratic values take many forms, especially when we recognise our democracy has always had a plurality of centres of power and is not just about elections. It is in attacking these alternative centres of power to the government, like parliament, the courts, an independent media, that Johnson's government shows its anti-democratic zeal. In addition democracy requires that party leaders do not flaunt their own laws, do not leave themselves willingly open to moneyed interests and do not lie incessantly (without correction) to a sovereign parliament.

Sometimes these differences between the US and UK are less than they first appear. For example we do not hold primaries to decide who represents a political party in an election, with instead MPs chosen by local party members behind closed doors, with often a large steer (or more) from the centre. That would seem to limit the ability for private money and right wing media to quickly create an apparently bottom up movement to shift MPs to the right as the Tea Party so successfully did in the US. But the far right’s influence is still there in the UK, albeit more gradual and difficult to track. Many former UKIP members have joined the Conservative party. Furthermore I have argued that the influence of Brexit, widely pushed by right wing media and some private money, has allowed Conservative party members through their choice of MP to largely transform the Conservative party, both in terms of the quality and political position of a majority of MPs. That is why we often see common cause between positions taken up by the Republican Party and large groups of Conservative MPs (like being anti-mask during the pandemic).

Once he became Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not shied away from using the populist, right wing tabloid language of the far right to undermine our pluralist democracy. The impact on the far right has been predictable. Paul Mason describes the Starmer intimidation as “the third iteration of a phenomenon Johnson introduced to British politics: a far-right mob, inspired by words he’s said, harassing politicians in the streets around Westminster.” He goes on: “Hannah Arendt once described fascism as the “temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. Well, that’s what the Prime Minister has created.“

The good thing about the Savile affair (and what was missing in so much commentary around the prorogation of parliament for example) is that the broadcast media has not resorted to both-siding what Johnson has done. Instead they clearly describe Johnson’s allegation about Starmer as false, and have made the issue about whether Johnson should apologise, and his responsibility for the mob’s attack on Starmer. Here Ros Atkins is typical.

Does the PM deliberately undermine UK democracy? Perhaps we can say he is naturally intolerant of it. You don’t prorogue parliament if you believe it is sovereign, and constantly pass legislation that seeks to avoid parliamentary discussion of ministerial decisions. Johnson behaves like a typical populist, believing it is only his view of what the people want that matters, and in any moment of accountability he can lie with abandon and without consequence.

His party is now little better. It has collectively decided to start gerrymandering, using the excuse of almost non-existent voter fraud and while at the same time railing against ID culture. Conservative MPs in their own wisdom seem for the moment to have decided to give Johnson another chance.  We can only conclude that they think breaking the law and lying to parliament are a price worth paying for their belief that Johnson can regain some magic with voters. (The evidence is that his 'magic' has a marginal impact, but this Conservative party tends to prefer convenient myths to evidence.) 

Behind all this, in both the US and UK, is rampant corruption by money (from corporations to Russian oligarchs), fed to politicians for a return. It is far from exclusive to the right, but it has become endemic in both right wing parties to an extent that, when they are in government, they act as plutocracies for the rich in general, and those who give them money in particular. This may continue with the formal apparatus of general elections in place, but private money wants a return more than it respects democracy, which means democracy is never safe in an elected plutocracy.

This is the threat that public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic should remorselessly focus on. It should never become normalised, by supposedly savvy journalists who convince themselves of the lie that this is nothing new and both sides do it. The events of the last few months should not be forgotten in favour of blind impartiality coloured by campaign money and personal charisma. The threat to democracy is one-sided and comes from the right alone.

The US media can champion the truth rather than remain impartial when it chooses to, as it did when Trump first started disputing the 2020 vote count during the election. As I noted above, the UK media is doing the same over the Savile slur. In addition, for better or worse, a non-partisan media is capable of constantly reminding people about a political party's flaws when it chooses to. In the US it did so when Sanders became the Democratic front runner. We saw the same relentlessness in the UK with the broadcast media over Labour and charges of antisemitism. Public discourse could be relentless in a more noble cause and serve as our collective memory, keeping past violations of democracy at the forefront of debate. If it fails to do so there is an acute danger that democracy as we know it in the US and UK will whither away.

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