Observations of a ex pat: Goodbye democracy?

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It has become a political fact of life that democracy on both sides of the Atlantic is under severe threat.

The latest proof of this danger is the Senate acquittal of Donald Trump in a judicial exercise that makes Stalin’s Moscow show trials look like paragons of legal transparency and justice. The Conservative British government is going in the same direction, albeit by a different route.

The root of the problem is respect —or lack of respect— for the rule of law. For democracy to work it needs clear legal parameters and elected political leaders who accept that their responsibility is to represent their constituents within a legally binding constitutional framework.

The importance of working within the law is emphasised by the fact that the American president, vice president, all cabinet members, senators, congressmen, judges, military officers, diplomats, civil servants from middle-rank and above, and all local elected officials right down to dog catcher are required by law to “solemnly” swear “to support and defend the constitution of the United States.” They cannot start their job until they have made the oath. And for the word “constitution” you may substitute “law” because the constitution is America’s legal framework.

Britain has a similar arrangement, although the monarch’s name is substituted for the word constitution. This is because the Queen is a constitutional monarch and the UK’s constitution is unwritten. Therefore, the oath takers swear allegiance to the Queen and “Her heirs and successors” as the physical embodiment of the nation’s laws, history, traditions and culture. Again, before an MP can take his seat in the House of Commons they must take the oath of office. The same is required of judges, diplomats, military officers, senior civil servants and most of the police. Newly naturalised citizens are also required to take the oath. Sinn Fein MPs do not sit in the House of Commons because if they took the oath they would explicitly recognise the law that separates Northern Ireland from Éire.

The US presidential oath has been around since the first draft of the constitution was written in 1787. It was extended to everyone else during the Civil War. The British oath of allegiance dates back to the Magna Carta and has gone through innumerable variations. The current wording has its roots in Victorian England.

At no time are American oath takers required to swear a loyalty oath to any individual, political party or ideology. In fact, the founding fathers made it abundantly clear that was a definite no, no because they associated personal political loyalties with the monarchical-dominated feudal system from which they had crossed the Atlantic and fought a war to escape. The national interest and the law as set out in the constitution transcend all other loyalties.

The problem is that in today’s America, Donald Trump has managed to conflate the national interest with his personal interest. And he has dragged the Republican Party, the Christian Right and other conservative Americans into the same political quagmire. American conservatism is now tied to an individual who is prepared to solicit foreign governments for his personal political advancement and to withhold US government money as if it is his own to secure their cooperation. On top of that, he refuses to provide Congress with witnesses or documents so that they can properly investigate this abuse of power. Meanwhile, the Senate Republicans, after taking another oath to act as impartial jurors, refused to allow witnesses to be called in the president’s trial so that a full and transparent hearing could be held. Instead, they acquit the president after hearing from Trump’s own lawyers that he did what the House of Representatives said he did. Their defence? So what, he is the president, and besides, it wasn’t that bad.

In Britain the issue was not one of personal loyalty. Boris Johnson is not the sort of person to inspire a faithful following among Conservative party ranks. Instead it is born out of frustration created by the inevitable restrictions imposed by the law. Brexit and the issue of parliamentary sovereignty were the catalysts. Having gone down the referendum route, the government was faced with a parliament who thought that the anti-EU referendum result was a mistake and, constitutionally-speaking, parliament had the final say.

Boris Johnson tried to circumvent this constitutional nicety by proroguing parliament so that he could use his executive powers to enact Brexit while the Commons was in recess. The UK Supreme Court declared the move illegal. His next move was perfectly legal. He called an election and won it with an overwhelming majority. Brexit is done. Or at least the basic framework is. The sinews, muscles, tendons and vital organs of trade are yet to be negotiated. Johnson has set a tough deadline of 31 December 2020 for a trade deal. If it is not met, he will, as he has threatened before, go for no deal.

The Prime Minister’s 80-seat majority and total disarray in the Labour Party means that parliament is no longer a problem. The only potential opposition is from foot-dragging civil servants, the courts and the press. Johnson’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is working hard to politically castrate all these camps. He has replaced career civil servants with political appointees; barred journalists from press conferences; threatened the BBC and Channel 4 over the renewal of their licenses; banned ministers from talking to the press and talked of curbing the power of the courts. Constitutional protections related to freedom of speech, press, and the independence of the civil service and the judiciary are under threat from an un-elected official who is more interested in pursuing a political agenda than protecting the rule of law.

What value is a trade deal if our democracy loses the protection of the law?

Homepage featured thumbnail image: Donald Trump by Shealah Craighead (Public domain) via Wikimedia

* Journalist Tom Arms is a member of Wandsworth Liberal Democrats. He is a regular contributor to Lib Dem Voice as well as broadcasting for US radio.

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29 Comments

  • John Marriott 7th Feb '20 - 12:55pm

    Both the US Constitution and what purports to be a British Constitution are products of a different age. They are both in need of urgent reform. Besides managing to weaponise them to their own ends, both Trump and Johnson are blest with a weak opposition, in the case of the former it’s the inability of the Democrats so far to come up with a candidate to give him a run for his money and in the case of the latter a collection of parties, who were suckered into giving him what he wanted in the form of a General Election and who, despite representing well over half of the electorate, just can’t get their collective act together against the common enemy.

    As far as the Democrats are concerned I did say “so far”, because perhaps not all of the potential candidates have shown their hand yet. A certain Mr Bloomberg may come into the reckoning and, while we could have one ex Republican standing as a Democrat, who knows, following his brave move, what’s to stop Mitt Romney switching sides? After all, his future as a Republican Senator must surely now be in jeopardy and, wasn’t Trump a Democrat supporter once?

  • Just like in the Reagan and Thatcher years – when the liberal left lose at the polls it’s the end of democracy. Stop crying because you lost and offer the voters an alternative to the Trumps and the Johnsons of this world. At the moment Trump is odds on to win 4 more years and the Tories are a million miles ahead in the polls. Except for remaining in the EU and a few issues on minorities what do the Lib Dems even stand for? No matter what the opinion is on Lib Dem sites most people don’t think Johnson is a lying bigot, in fact (as his ratings show) most people like him. Stop attacking the man and telling us the “end is nigh”. Very few people will change their opinion of Trump and Johnson unless you offer something better and at the moment all we hear is silence.

  • I am no fan of Trump but from the moment he entered the White House the Democrats have been trying to find a reason to impeach him. The current flimsy case was always going to fail but they pressed on with it anyway. They succeeded in making Trump a winner and themselves to be a bunch of losers. That’s politics, American style.

    Our own politicians managed to turn parliament into a circus, entertaining the world with their tantrums while the public looked on in embarrassed shame.

  • The problem for the Dems is the same as the problem for Lab/Lib Dems. They are on the wrong side of history.

    People want migration control and civic nationalism as a key part of creating economic and, in some ways, cultural security.

    You either engage with the process or you lose.

    The political horseshoe is being transmogrified. Globalism of both the left and right are now the prongs that are beginning to morph into each other while the different forms of civic nationalism are becoming the default mainstream big picture ideas.

    Down the bottom of that horseshoe will be `Johnsonian liberalism` that embraces both `social capitalism` and `Liberal nationalism`. It’s the Lib Dems that are looking old hat.

    People understand that if you want to help those at the bottom you have to have a migration system that lifts up the aspiring unemployed and the aspirational people at the bottom of the heap. Of course it’s not the only thing – just a key part of the jigsaw.

    The Lib Dems are comically out of touch. They haven’t even reached base camp in their self-analysis.

  • John Marriott 7th Feb '20 - 7:32pm

    @Kit Ingolby
    I think that the Impeachment attempt was perfectly justified even though it could be argued that it was mere posturing from the Democrats as the chances of getting a two thirds guilty verdict in the Senate were as good as zero.

    The Senate itself is an interesting institution. Each of the 50 US states elects two senators, regardless of population size. So California, with a population of just under 40 million has the same clout as does little Wyoming with a population of just over half a million.

    Add to that the fact that Trump clearly lost the popular vote, as George W Bush did sixteen years earlier, and yet was ‘elected’ by the so called Electoral College. Even here there isn’t a level playing field. While the vast majority of states allocate all their votes to whoever wins the state, (winner takes all, like FPTP) at least two, Nebraska and Maine, allow their votes to be split in proportion. A few years back there was an attempt to change to a proportional system in California; but it got nowhere.

    The situation over here is not much better. The Tory popular vote, I believe, hardly increased in last December’s GE compared with two years before and yet they gained a comfortable commons majority, thanks largely to the inability of the opposition parties to get their collective acts together.

  • Alex Macfie 7th Feb '20 - 10:49pm

    james: Actually it’s the Trumps and Johnsons that are on “the wrong side of history” as their supporters tend to be older than supporters of the Democrats in the US or of Labour/Lib Dem here. Look at the differences in voting patterns by age cohort. And while it’s often said that people become more conservative as they get older, that relates specifically to attitudes on the traditional economic left-right scale. There is no evidence that people become more *culturally* conservative with age, and if they did there’d be no social progress. And as the political divide nowadays is not so much about traditional class-based left-right politics, but about cultural attitudes and values (including on things like immigration), this suggests that Trump and Johnson are on borrowed time.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Feb '20 - 9:29am

    “I think that the Impeachment attempt was perfectly justified”

    Indeed, the procedure that allows for the impeachment of a President is a part of the same democratic system that elected the President in the first place. In a democracy, being elected doesn’t put anyone above the law.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Feb '20 - 10:02am

    @John
    It’s not the “so called” Electoral College. It’s just the Electoral College. It’s been there a while and HRC knew the rules as well as DJT.
    James is right. The deliberately non- populists have proven to be unpopular. Quelle surprise? The task will be to construct a vision of the future that does not descend to the most ugly elements but still captures the hearts of the masses. Not easy but it does not begin by telling people “this is what you ought to believe”.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Feb '20 - 1:11pm

    The issue as I see it is that though The Supreme Court got involved during Brexit, its invidious task was to interpret our non-existent constitutional law. It did its best but we need more clarity through a written constitution that clearly delineates the powers of different parties of government. This will only happen when the people demand it that does not seem likely at present.

  • John Marriott 8th Feb '20 - 4:18pm

    @Innocent Bystander
    Might I suggest that you look up the meaning/ definition of ‘so called’ before laying the law down😉? In fact, you can either use it to show how something is usually designated or you can use it to cast doubt on its description. I’ll leave you to guess which one I was meaning. (I might have been thinking of both). As for knowing the rules, that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them especially when they can affect the result in tge way they have done on at least two occasions in the past twenty years.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Feb '20 - 6:56pm

    John,
    I am sure you are right but I have never heard a traffic announcement of the form ” there is a crash on the so called M25″, even though that is the usual name for the London Orbital. I would venture that the term most often has a pejorative element.
    But HRC, like remain and Kinnock, was too certain of victory and underestimated the opposition. The system (or the opponents) can’t be blamed for that.

  • Alex Macfie 8th Feb '20 - 8:45pm

    There was nothing inevitable about Trump’s victory. For sure, HRC was too ‘establishment’, and her campaign too complacent. A more dynamic Democratic candidate could have defeated Trump in 2016, and could do so in the election this year, whatever his approval ratings at the moment.
    Likewise, the Remain campaign seemed too establishment. Of course, most Leave campaigners were every bit as establishment as their Remain opponents, but successfully hid it.
    Kinnock in 1992 was a different matter; he just didn’t seem Prime Ministerial, and there was still a lot of fear of what a Labour government would do. Likewise in the 2019 election, by far the biggest reason for the Tory victory was Jeremy Corbyn. A more electable Leader of the Opposition would have roundly defeated Johnson.

    So there is nothing inevitable about right-wing populism succeeding electorally. Macron defeated Le Pen in France (although one reason Le Pen did as well as she did was the self-indulgent Corbynista-equivalents in France who seemed to have preferred Le Pen over Macron once their candidate was knocked out, similar to how Momentum in the UK prefer the Tories to win rather than the Lib Dems) In Canada, the Liberal Party held onto power in the recent election against a right-wing populist Tory leader. What we opponents of the populist agenda need to do is learn from these successes.

  • MALC – “At the moment Trump is odds on to win 4 more years” – no, he is not. With such a high growth rate, his approval rating is far too low. And, first, trade war, and if that is not enough, then the new Coronavirus will take toll on the global economy including the US economy. If the US growth suffers, he will lose. In terms of polling, he is still trailing Biden and Bernie, the two main Democratic candidates.

    “Very few people will change their opinion of Trump and Johnson unless *you* offer something better and at the moment all we hear is silence.” – if *you* here refer to the Libdems, I may agree, but if that is about the Democrats, you haven’t been paying attention at all.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '20 - 8:44am

    Whether Mrs Clinton deserved to win or not, the problem for democracy is actually what form of ‘democracy’ you use. Some would argue that a straight % fight should sort it out, which might well work when you are, in effect, choosing between two candidates; but that doesn’t take into account local circumstances, population density etc, which is probably why the founding fathers chose what they decided to call the ‘Electoral College’, although what it had to do with a ‘college’ I do not know (hence the ‘so called’, Mr ‘Bystander’). Just like the EU, it might have worked when there were only a few states, but not today, with 50 states (in the EU’s case 28).

    You could also argue that FPTP might work if you only had two parties to choose from; but you don’t. Either way, there are going to be some very disappointed people on both sides of the pond.

  • Alex Macfie – “In Canada, the Liberal Party held onto power in the recent election against a right-wing populist Tory leader” – and note that, Trudeau won despite Lavalin and Blackface. But, there is a huge difference. Unlike us or the Democrats, the Liberals governed and their policies actually delivered material results. And, don’t forget, Trudeau’s success (with Lavalin and Blackface and a hostile right-wing dominated Canadian press he should have lost outright) clearly supports the case for a social-liberal centre-left platform with active state intervention (in line with FDR’s New Deal). A wishy-washy “centrist”, “market-based” Orange Book platform is doomed.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '20 - 9:04am

    …and, further more, Trump could again triumph because the ‘opposition’ has so far failed to get its act together. “Remind you of someone?” as our former PM once asked JC in PMQs.
    @Thomas
    No problem with your comment; but the Liberal Party of Canada, like the so called (here we go again, Mr ‘Bystander’) Liberal Party in Australia is a very different animal from its namesakes over here. I use the plural because, as we know, there are two parties in the U.K. that have ‘liberal’ in their title.

  • Johnny McDermott 9th Feb '20 - 9:05am

    Interesting read – good to see some more detailed articles, too. It’s a recognition of the threat that many of those concerned with the rise of populist authoritarianism/ preserving what they see as a cosmopolitan rules-based int. order have been too slow to act on. But we need to look at why it is so many have felt left behind by the progress others have felt in ever more connected globe, and rejected international order in favour of majoritarian rule. You’re right, they want to hollow out democracy, but as we see it. We forgot “democracy” in itself has different conceptions, and that is not something the likes of the EU, a body with the power to make law beyond the state (but with their consent) should have rejected in the way it might be accused of (and was, by eurosceptics). Cosmopolitan academics just didn’t recognise that. Their fundamental beliefs regarding sovereignty were just a misunderstanding; ideological opponents simply in need of re-educating. That condescenion was turned on us.
    Last point – again, with courts, there is an element of blame to be laid at the feet of the “Avenging” spider-emoji toting QCs and celebrity philosophers dragging them into politics. The bus lie stands out as particularly pointless, also some of the funding cases. But it was the way they crowed at Lady Hale’s perfectly correct, and apolitical decision to defer to parliament, despite it not looking very apolitical to Brexiteers, that was really unhelpful. It has put them firmly in the cross hairs of the likes of Cummings and this was reckless. That kind of failure to give loser’s consent may inspire similar behaviour from pop. authoritarians. It’s their MO afterall. Lady Hale’s response to questioning on her brooch should put to bed the notion she was making any kind of political statement. Like Trump, who easily dodged procedural legal attack, we need to beat Johnson at the ballot box.

    Great debate to start. Looking forward to the book!

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Feb '20 - 9:27am

    @John
    I don’t defend the US system but it applies to all candidates the same. My impression of the Democrats (and the LibDems) is that they are wasting too much of their energy excusing away a defeat rather than laying the foundations for a victory.
    FPTP is not inherently unfair to the LibDems either. It applies to the other parties. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Farage has shown that one man with no seats at all can bounce an entire nation out of the EU (almost) against its will. He succeeded because he had something to say and said it with eloquence.
    When small parties blame FPTP for their lack of impact one has to respond with – what did ‘Change UK’ have to say? (for example) – and to be honest what do the LibDems “say” to the voters that could make them switch? All the policies are worthy and virtuous but stale – aren’t they?

  • Peter – “The current flimsy case was always going to fail but they pressed on with it anyway” – oh no, blackmailing a foreign ally to get political opponents’ dirt for electoral gain is a blatant abuse of power and violation of US laws.

    Campaign finance law states: “It shall be unlawful for a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a federal, state, or local election.” Also, independent campaign finance experts clearly confirmed so.

    In addition, not pursuing impeachment will make the Dems look weak and turn off their base, and, turning out Democratic base is MORE IMPORTANT than winning over a few “independents” (or shy Trumpists to be more accurate).

    “Just because Trump is a vulgar boorish oaf, it does NOT justify trying yo overturn the result of an election on totally spurious pseudo-legalistic grounds.” – Just because it is likely to fail, it does not mean that it is wrong and we should not do it. I have stated clearly above that Trump’s action is illegal. This simply shows that the Republican Senators are power hungry and utterly corrupted.

    Btw, he will not escape the State of New York once he is no longer President.

    Innocent Bystander – “My impression of the Democrats (and the LibDems) is that they are wasting too much of their energy excusing away a defeat rather than laying the foundations for a victory.” – the difference is that in the US, there are problems of gerrymandering and voter suppression, both are mostly if not only conducted by one side. The issue of shady campaign finance is also a big problem, especially after Citizens United, and Republicans clearly benefit more from dark money.

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Feb '20 - 12:33pm

    @Thomas
    I hear what you say about gerrymandering but the Democrats have won before and were close last time. They may have won if they had targeted the states correctly.
    I retain my former view. Endless post mortems and blaming the system may be comforting but (like the LibDems) it shows a greater obsession with the party rather than the voters, who I am sure have watched the impeachment process as a pure waste of time and tax and to be just the political class, squabbling with each other rather than looking after them..
    The task is to win in the future, the past is beyond reclaim.
    Bernie looks like the only one with a clear view and should be the nominee. I am equally sure that the DNC will make sure he isn’t (like they did last time).

  • Alex Macfie 9th Feb '20 - 1:23pm

    John Marriott: You are right about the Australian so-called “Liberal” Party, but not about its Canadian namesake. The Liberal Party of Australia (as officially named) is a sister party to the Conservatives, and has provided us with several spin-doctors, including Lynton Crosby. It is not, and does not claim to be, a small-l liberal party, and Australians always make a clear distinction between “small-l liberalism” and the politics of their Liberal Party.
    The Liberal Party of Canada is a bona fide small-l liberal party, and like our Liberal Democrats (and unlike its Australian, Japanese and Russian namesakes) is a member of Liberal International. It also provided help in our doomed general election campaign.

  • Thomas

    “MALC – “At the moment Trump is odds on to win 4 more years” – no, he is not”

    Perhaps I should have made it clear that it is the bookmakers who make Trump odds on to win 4 more years not me. That said I do I think Trump will win easily against Biden, Warren or Sanders. Bloomberg may make it a closer run race, if only because he is richer than anyone else.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Feb '20 - 1:27pm

    “College” comes from Latin “collegium” meaning a club, society or association. The most common usage of the word in modern English is an educational institution, but “electoral college” is another such meaning. However, the US Electoral College is still something of a misnomer, as it never meets as one body.

  • Innocent Bystander 9th Feb '20 - 2:52pm

    @Alex and John,
    Why don’t you write to them and tell them that their name is misleading and that they should change it?
    Please post their reply.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Feb '20 - 3:04pm

    Innocent Bystander: If one were to complain about every misleading name on grounds of pedantry, then one would have little else to do.
    I don’t quite get your idea that Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ only hope of defeating Trump. To me, he seems a little too much like Jeremy Corbyn (although at least he doesn’t have JC’s foreign policy obsessions).

  • Innocent Bystander – “Bernie looks like the only one with a clear view and should be the nominee. I am equally sure that the DNC will make sure he isn’t (like they did last time).” – alas we found a common ground. Even though I am no socialist, I support him over Biden and I hope that he will win. And unlike the last time, moderate votes are now divided, while progressives and liberals have largely united under Bernie after Warren tanked. Being a real populist, Bernie is the only one who can expose Trump’s fake populism.

    “I am sure have watched the impeachment process as a pure waste of time and tax and to be just the political class, squabbling with each other rather than looking after them” – I disagree. The Dems were kinda caught between a hard rock and a scissor. If they did not do so, their base would have considered them weak. On the flip side, impeachment was always risky, as we can see. For me, discouraging their own base is even worse.

    “They may have won if they had targeted the states correctly” – I know, but if you look at the latest Pennsylvania mid-term, when the Democrats won 10% more vote than the GOP and only captured 9 out of 18 House seats, there are big problems.

  • Alex Macfie – “I don’t quite get your idea that Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ only hope of defeating Trump. To me, he seems a little too much like Jeremy Corbyn (although at least he doesn’t have JC’s foreign policy obsessions).” – the big difference is that Sanders is popular, whereas Corbyn by 2019 is not. He is the best campaigner right now with strongest grassroot support. He can win back lots of white working-class votes in the Rust Belt with his trade stance, especially after the Joe Rogan endorsement. He can also turn out young voters in a way that others cannot. In addition, there is no Brexit-like quagmire against him, whereas his proposals are supported by the majority of Americans (they do not even have UHC, they are crushed under student debts). Finally, unlike in Britain, the overturn window now is moving left again.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '20 - 7:16pm

    @Alex Macfie
    My wife and I ‘emigrated’ to Canada (Edmonton, Alberta, to be precise) in 1970 and spent three very interesting and largely happy years on the Prairies. Back then, the ruling provincial party went under the name of ‘Social Credit’ – too complicated to explain in the measly space afforded by the LDV editors!

    Canada at federal level had been ruled back then largely by ‘Liberal’ adminstrations, except for a period at the end of the 1950s by John Diefenbacker’s ‘Progressive Conservatives’. The new kids on the block were the New Democratic Party, which could be compared to a slightly left wing Labour Party.

    Much has changed since then, of course; but I still maintain that the Liberal Party of Canada is a far broader church than, say the British Liberal Democrats. Membership of the so called (here we go again, Mr B) ‘Liberal International’ must cover a multitude of sins.

    Thanks for the Latin lesson, although you would seem to be agreeing with me regarding this particular nomenclature.

    PS Goodness me, we must be short on real news this weekend!
    PPS Social Credit lost power in Alberta to Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives in 1971 and more or less disappeared. Lougheed remained in office until 1985.

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