Democracy at crossroads in the heartlands

by Feb 11, 2020

31st January 2020 was a momentous day on both sides of the pond (Atlantic Ocean).  Brexit happened and the United States (US) Senate, controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, voted that no witnesses or additional documents were needed for President Trumps his trial by that body following his impeachment by the US House of Representative, controlled by Democrats. Subsequently, on Wednesday, 5th February, the senate acquitted Trump of both charges that he had been impeached for by the house of representative.  Brexit was the decision by the United Kingdom (UK) to break away from the European Union (EU) after 47 years as part of the EU.  President Trump had been impeached on two counts, namely, for abusing his power by withholding funds that the US Congress had allocated for military aid to Ukraine as that country fights off Russian attacks.  The second count stated that Trump had prevented Congress in its oversight role of investigating the president’s actions in his refusal to comply with the congressional budget mandate.

The two countries have been in the forefront of the democratic project. The UK’s parliament as the mother of all parliaments, having initiated the modern democratic process that has spread around the world and the US having initiated a written constitution mandating this process with powerful representation in Congress, an independent judiciary and press.  It should be noted that there are significant caveats, notably, there were other experiments such as the Greeks, Romans and other less known and/or documented democratic projects around the world.  Britain had colonies where the democratic rights, particularly for the native populations did not apply and even in the UK itself there were restrictions based on property and women were excluded until the early part of the 20th century.  In the US African Americans and indigenous (Indian) Americans were excluded, the former as slaves and when that ended numerous restrictions, particularly in the south, were applied to prevent African Americans from fully participating in the democratic process until well into the 20th century.  And even now efforts, mostly by Republican controlled state governments on restrictive voter rolls, effectively disenfranchise African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the US. Despite these caveats the two projects have been beacons of the democratic process.

In the UK Brexit, the country’s break from the European Union has happened because of the country’s ambivalence towards the EU project, as noted in a previous paper of mine and, recent developments and plans spearheaded by the two key drivers, namely Germany and France, for a more integrated union.  The freedom of movement clause which resulted in high levels of immigration into the UK from other EU countries in the last decade and half was a key factor in the Brexit decision but other issues had always irked the British public, notably, the European court’s decisions, seen by many as undue meddling in the affairs and sovereignty of the UK.  For many Britons this proud country that once dominated much of the world is now free from the shackles of the Brussels bureaucrats.

The UK has been sharply divided and for remainers who make up nearly half of the country, the benefits of EU membership far outweighed the drawbacks.  The issue is complicated by the fact that the UK is made up of four nations, namely, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  While the majority (52%) of Britons voted for Brexit, support was not overwhelming for the UK as a whole, as the remainers are a sizable (48%) portion of the population and cannot simply be dismissed.  The Brexit support in Wales was less than that thin UK-wide vote and, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, by a significant majority in the former.  This indeed is one of the negative repercussions of Brexit.  The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which runs a devolved parliament and increased its majority in that body the last general election significantly, strongly believes that Scotland has been taken out of the EU by the UK government against the wish of Scotland.  In Norther Ireland where the electorate voted to remain in the EU, Brexit could unravel the peace process because the Republicans are very much against restrictions imposed by Brexit with Eire while their opponents, the Unionists, are aghast at restrictions placed with the rest of UK by Brexit.   Brexit in dramatically increasing these tensions has the potential to break up the UK, with the SNP demanding another referendum to become independent and the Republicans in Northern Ireland increasing their demands for a united Ireland, joining Eire.  Democracy in this heartland has won in the form of Brexit but it has rekindled a democratic process that is shaking the foundations of the United Kingdom.

This EU is not exempt from this turmoil because if the Scottish and Northern Ireland nationalists get their way, it might encourage fragmentations of other nation states, namely, Catalonia in Spain, the Basques straddling France and Spain, the Flemish and French regions of Belgium that have had a fractious relationship.  The EU has a part to play in this potential fragmentation of nation states by its policy of engaging regions rather national governments in many projects.   Interestingly, when the UK government took back control from Brussels, the Scottish and Welsh governments demanded those powers that they had ceded to Brussels.

In the US Donald Trump’s acquittal by the Republican controlled senate is a travesty of justice because a mountain of evidence was provided that the president had abused his powers to pressure the Ukrainians to go after his potential rival and he prevented officials from cooperating with the investigation.  For the first time ever in an impeachment the Senate voted against allowing witnesses or documents in such a trial despite significant and growing evidence of relevant information from sources not used by the house in its impeachment proceedings.  John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Adviser had stated in a forthcoming book that Trump held up the Ukraine aid to pressure the Ukrainians to investigate the son of Joe Biden and indicated his desire to testify.  The Senate and Trump opposed testimony from Bolton as they did from his budget director who made a public statement to the media saying that the administration did exactly that, a position confirmed by many career and political staff in hearings in the House of Representative.  Trump’s personal lawyer who acted as his de facto representative to the Ukrainian government, Rudi Guliani and Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian born US citizen and former Trump operative, also confirmed the pressure by Trump on the Ukrainian government in media statements but were also not been called to give evidence; the former through his actions and information obtained from his correspondence with Ukrainian authorities.  Mr Parnas expressed a desire to give testimony and provided documentation that were very relevant to the trial but again was not called to give evidence.

The vote in the Senate against additional witness testimony and documents action was were key to the trial because Republican’s had argued that testimonies  during the House’s impeachment proceedings  had been from people who were not directly involved in the decision making process and there had not been documentation to prove the president’s guilt.  The Senate’s decision t prevented people directly involved in the decision making process or documentation to confirm statements made by officials in the House of Representative impeachment.  The Republican controlled Senate therefore effectively aborted the trial they were supposed to be conducting.  The positions of Republicans on the impeachment went from denying the allegations, sayings that statements made at the house proceedings were hearsay, to saying that even if the allegation of abuse of power (withholding congress mandated aid) by Trump was true it did not meet the standard of an impeachable offence; privately a number of Republicans admitted that Trump’s actions were not right but apart from one, Senator, Mitt Romney all of them voted to acquit the president on both counts.  Those arguments were not only flimsy but they had not addressed the second part, Trump stopping his staff from giving evidence and not providing documentation.  In accepting Trump’s decision to prevent staff testimony and release of relevant documents, the Senate effectively acquiesced to its emasculation as a co-equal branch of government.  One of Trump’s lawyers equated Tump’s alleged action to the national interest of the US and so it could not be an impeachable offense. 

Trump’s actions were, as Adam Schiff, the US House impeachment manager noted is “an insidious pattern of conduct – dating to Mr Trump’s embrace of Russian election interference on his behalf in 2016 – that continues to put the country at risk.” Candidate Trump called for Russia, at a public rally, to attack America’s electoral process when he asked Russians to hack and release Hilary Clinton’s campaign material and as President he pressured the Ukrainians to do the same on his potential opponent Biden as the phone transcript showed.  In a press statement he also called on the Chinese to mount such an attack and in NBC interview he stated that he would use material provided by foreign sources on his political opponents. 

The action by Republicans in Congress is just one of the many serious issues in American democracy, actively encouraged and perpetuated by a president who has no time for the democratic process.  It should be noted that Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin, which means that millions of Americans did not have a say in his election, if their votes had been counted he would not have won the presidency.  The Electoral College which was designed to prevent such a rogue and unqualified candidate from taking the country’s highest office, itself a flawed process, failed to do so.  The college which gives undue influence to small (population) states and under-represents large states could in theory have stopped Trump from attaining power but it did not.  The power of the Senate in the impeachment of Donald Trump highlights this major flaw in the democratic process; each state elects two senators irrespective of its population, which means that California with a population of 39 million has the same level of representation as North Dakota with population of 1.5 million.  Tump’s (and Republican Senators) base is disproportionately from these sparsely, predominantly White populated states. Since taking office Trump has ruled as though he only represents his base, predominantly White states.  The more populated, diverse fastest growing (in terms of population and economy) states, the modern and future America, are therefore grossly underrepresented in the Senate.

A review of the situation in both heartlands shows some similarities although there are also marked differences. Both Trump and Johnson are colourful characters that could not be more different from their predecessors.  Building on the politics of populism, resentment of their base, half-truths, lies, exaggerations of pitfalls of their opponents’ positions and benefits of their positions, they persuaded voters to support them to attain the panacea for all their troubles and make their countries great again.  They both weathered scandals, including sexual misconduct allegations, which would have crippled many politicians. 

Trump took over from no-drama, intellectual and cosmopolitan Obama.  The “billionaire” television star that had inherited vast wealth from his parents somehow falsely assumed the aura of a successful entrepreneur, persuading America’s White working class that he was on their side against the Washington elite, dastardly foreigners and would usher in much needed change to make America great again. His issues with women even when caught on tape were cast aside by his base, including White Christian evangelicals.  Johnson, taking over from the dour Theresa May who had lost control of her (political) troops,  promising to bring billions of pounds back to the UK from Brussels for “credible” projects like the National Health Service, end the dictates from Brussels and bring the Great back to the description of Britain and, strike new deals with countries round the world. 

Both leaders are media hounds, alternating between a friendly and open access to the fourth estate to a hostile relationship.  In Trump’s case even before he ventured into politics he courted the media to develop an image, often false, of himself and his achievements.  Since taking office he has been at war with the mainstream media who he often refers to as fake news while cultivating close ties with right wing news outlets, notably Fox News who have acted as a source of many of his policies.  Johnson, the former journalist has courted the media and because of his colourful lifestyle and statements has been of interest to the media.  He has started his premiership with a dark stain though, announcing restrictions on media access and making non-payment of TV license fees a non-criminal offence, a significant blow to the finances of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as this action is likely to reduce the BBC’s main income source.  A united media industry opposed his restrictions on access which he has backed away from but with Trump his war of attrition with the mainstream media continues unabated.

Unlike Trump, Johnson, a former Brussels based journalist, who won a scholarship to the exclusive Eton school and then to Oxford University, with a vastly superior intellect and grasp of policy compared to the lazy and intellectually challenged Trump, is a much slicker operator as he has demonstrated so far.  His recent address on Brexit avoided the triumphalism typical of Trump and he has taken an approach that alternates between caution and brinkmanship in his relationship with the EU.  His statements on domestic issues also suggests that he is keen to retain the newly acquired loyalty of working class voters, a significant proportion of whom jumped ship from the Labour party in his recent comprehensive electoral victory – in sharp contrast to Trump’s drubbing in congressional elections in 2018, losing record number of seats to Democrats as voters indicated their displeasure with Trump and the Republican party.  His retreat on media access may look like an example of Johnson’s adherence to the democratic process although it may just confirm that he is a slick operator and he was also faced with a combined media pushback unlike the situation in the US.

Both countries operate an adversary approach in the relationship between major political parties, a feature common to English speaking countries, something that Westminster has bequeathed to its former colonies.  This is far more pronounced in America and has been supercharged under Trump.  The move away from a bi-partisan approach in dealing with issues started before Trump but his tribalism and politics of hate has made politics and the relationship between the parties very toxic.  In the UK although the tension in the Brexit debate has heightened divisions in the political discourse it is nothing compared to the acrimony in America.  This is a markedly different scenario to the situation in continental Europe where coalition governments are the norm, largely as a result of proportional representation. This was evident in Trump’s impeachment in Congress and in his most recent  state of the Union address where he again made statements as if he is still fighting a war with Obama three years after taking over from his predecessor and as usual his speech was l filled with lies about the” economic mess”  he claimed to have inherited.  After declining a handshake from his host in the House of Representative, the Democratic leader of that body, Nancy Pelosi, she tore up his speech in public. 

The decisions in both countries hark to a mythical era, an essential ingredient in the mantra of populists, when White males ruled the roast in America, and in the case of Britain, when a third of the globe was controlled by the kingdom.  Over the last fifty years that the UK had been part of the EU, globalisation with significant shifts in production and supply chains, the rise of China and other states, the evolvement of the EU into a cohesive economic and political force means that the relative position of the UK as an independent actor in the world stage is likely to be more challenging.  In the US, the Senate’s pivotal role in the impeachment demonstrates the power of White America in a country that is much more diverse as reflected in the House of Representative, whose membership and their constituencies mirror the new America as distinct from the predominantly White male Senate; as noted above Republican control of the Senate which gives disproportionately high leverage to small (population) largely White states confirms the entrenched power of a diminishing demographic.  Trump is the embodiment of that era and his call to make America great again is really a call to make America White again and reverse the demographic shifts that he loathes.

The role of the media in the democratic process which has gone through significant changes in the last few decades in both countries, was pivotal, in particular the decline of mainstream media as a key driver and the corresponding rise of social media in shaping voter behaviour.  Social media played a significant role in the Brexit result and two issues come out of this new development as far as the democratic decision making process is concerned.  Firstly, as a result of the prominence of social media, the decision making process for voters is now determined more by peer pressure than objective analysis ,  with many voters taking their cue from friends and family rather than the mainstream media which provides a more balanced and objective view and avoids spurious claims not backed by evidence and credible sources.  Many of the half- truths and plain lies put out by both sides of the Brexit camps made lasting impressions because they came from trusted (family and friends) sources but Brexit points had a more sticking effect because of their emotional as distinct from their logical value.  Another issue is the origin of the messaging; much of the Brexit messaging was from foreign sources, notably those that had an interest in the break-up of the UK and EU, pushing the Brexit position without voters being aware of their origins. 

In the US while the mainstream media has on the whole provided useful information for the electorate which in turn puts pressure on Congress, the right wing media has either ignored the proceedings in congress or being very selective, focussing on aspects that were favourable to Trump.  Fox News, in particular, Trump and the Republican media of choice, refused to air live damaging testimony during impeachment proceedings and instead featured programmes totally unconnected to it.  A very high proportion of Republican voters have stated in polls that their primary sources of information are Fox news (which as noted ignored live coverage of damaging testimonies on the President’s actions) and social media, both of which peddled falsehoods and conspiracy theories.  If they had watched the live testimonies they would have seen the eloquent and compelling presentations made by witnesses and the House of Representative house managers.  Republican Senators were therefore pressured by ignorant and/or very biased voters, many of whom had not seen crucial information, refused to see it because they blocked mainstream media or were subjected to spurious social media feeds, no doubt some of which originated from foreign sources designed to inflame them.  Despite this flawed messaging, polls indicate that seventy five percent of Americans (including 49% of republicans) would have liked the Senate to call additional witnesses in the Senate trial. 

These developments in the heartlands have important implications for the UK, the US and the rest of the world.   In the UK a narrow majority of the country has taken a decision to end the country’s ties for half a century with its closest neighbours.  While Brexit is the fulfilment of the democratic decision of the majority of Britons, albeit a narrow one, there may be issues of whether voters were adequately informed of the complications involved, misrepresentations and outright lies by leaders in the Brexit camps and the effects of foreign players whose aims were not really in the country or EU’s interest.    The UK once more unleashed into world stage faces a very different situation from what it faced before it joined the EU and it remains to be seen whether the country will continue as a united country or whether bits of it will fall off.  The UK will lose the benefit of being a member of a union whose position in the world is growing. As a leading player in pushing for a liberal agenda in the EU, it makes that work harder for EU nations with similar beliefs as populism and illiberalism creeps in from eastern, central and southern EU member states.

Trump’s acquittal is a power play that emasculates the US Congress and emboldens a wannabe autocrat.  US Republican Senators have been complicit in Trump’s assault on the democratic process and their emasculation by a rogue president who many of the same Senators had noted during his election campaign was unfit for the role.  The decision will embolden him as he demonstrated in his “victory” speech after his acquittal by the Senate.  His rants, unscripted, unhinged and incoherent, blasted in the most uncouth way, Democrats, the sole Republican senator to vote for his impeachment, Mitt Romney, the FBI and all the people who he blamed for his impeachment, sounding like a mob boss, he threatened reprisals.  And sitting in the audience beaming at his patron was his enforcer, Attorney General William Barr who had already started taking action.  The day after that speech the reprisals started, with the sacking of the Whitehouse military official and the EU Ambassador (a Trump political appointee)who had given  evidence that contradicted Trump’s teams statements at the impeachment; watch out for lots more with the unleashing of this wannabe autocrat.  Foreign government will also be encouraged, possibly actively encouraged by Trump to meddle in America’s democratic process.  The Senate’s decision is bad news for America’s democracy and the world as a whole.

The impact of decisions in both countries will reverberate around the world.  As beacons of democracy and major players in various spheres, developments in the UK and the US will be closely watched around the globe.  The UK will have much less impact than before when it was part of the much bigger EU unit in pushing for a democratic agenda around the world.  Dictators and autocrats will welcome developments in America with glee as the country continues towards the banana republic path.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant of Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO)