Are the US and the UK political systems converging?
By Scott Sumner
[The ideas in this post are tentative, so please correct me on any errors regarding the UK political system.]
As an outsider, the parliamentary system in the UK always seemed quite different from the US system, mostly due to the different roles of the president of the US and the prime minister of the UK. In the UK, voters elect a party, or a coalition of parties, and the party elects a leader. The leader would sometimes be changed in midstream if things were not going well.
In the US, maverick politicians such as Goldwater and McGovern could almost “hijack” their parties, and take control against the wishes of the party establishment. Trump and Sanders are more recent examples of maverick politicians.
In the UK, ordinary party members (i.e. voters) have recently been given increasing clout in the selection of leadership. Corbyn staged a sort of internal coup with grassroots support, taking control of the Labour Party against the wishes of many Labour MPs. Boris Johnson is somewhat more mainstream, but did oppose party leadership on Brexit. Increasingly, the Conservatives seem to be being reshaped to reflect their leadership, rather than vice versa. UK voters increasingly are choosing between people like Corbyn and Johnson, rather than Labour vs. Conservatives.
In contrast, US voters are much more attached to their party in presidential votes than when I was young. But in both countries, blue-collar voters in smaller cities are moving right, and highly educated voters in bigger cities are moving left.
Many Americans prefer our three-branch system of government, with all its “checks and balances.” One often hears the suggestion that the UK government is little more than an “elected dictatorship”. But based on what I’ve read, the UK government is gradually becoming a bit less of an elected dictatorship, as the British courts are increasingly likely to push back against a government initiative.
Meanwhile, the US president is increasingly becoming an “elected dictator”:
When the Pentagon announced this month that it would divert billions more dollars in military funding to the construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall, bipartisan outrage ricocheted across Capitol Hill.
Republicans and Democrats alike issued fiery statements in defense of both their congressional districts, some of which stand to lose valuable work making military equipment, and their constitutionally enshrined power of the purse. But the howls of protest are unlikely to amount to much in a Congress where lawmakers — many of whom once prized their spending prerogatives almost above all else — acknowledge their power to steer federal dollars has been severely eroded.
The dysfunction has taken hold in large part because of decisions that members of Congress themselves have made. But it has become particularly pronounced under Trump, who has moved aggressively to divert government money when it suits his agenda.
“Congress’ appropriation power, which is pretty much the last unchallenged power that Congress has, has very significantly eroded,” said Sean Kelly, a professor of political science at California State University Channel Islands.
The root of the problem predates Trump.
That final sentence is important. Although I am strongly opposed to certain authoritarian tendencies in the Trump administration, it’s important to note that this has been going on for years, and recent events are merely an acceleration of trends that began at least as far back as WWI.
Here’s a tentative hypothesis. In a globalized world, countries like the US and UK are buffeted by similar forces, involving changes in everything from technology to cultural norms. Over time, they gradually evolve in the same way. If the US Constitution seems to prevent our system from resembling another, then those constitutional restraints will be sort of brushed away. Don’t count on our Constitution to protect us from an elected dictatorship:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
That train’s already left the station. The US Constitution says Congress declares war, Congress sets tariff rates, Congress votes on spending money for a wall. There is no taking of land except for public purposes. Those traditions have all been brushed aside.
PS. This also fits in with the famous “end of history” hypothesis. Increasingly, it seems that all over the world the debate over fundamental questions has ended, and it’s now a question of which elected dictator will be chosen. You have Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Abe, Orban, Duterte, etc. If China ever became a democracy, I wonder if they’d elect a dictator like Xi Jinping? Is China really that different from India? A 1984-style surveillance state is being created almost everywhere.
No one knew it at the time, but Silvio Berlusconi and his farcical party entitled “Forza Italia” was the canary in the coal mine for global democracy. Berlusconi took control of Italian media, and then the entire country.