According to an old Jewish tradition, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Adam turned to Eve and said, “You know my dear; we are living in an Age of Transition.”
And here we are.
The United States is experiencing the presidency of Donald Trump, an administration unique in almost 250 years of United States history. And yet the democratic and institutional limits formed to corral such a presidency are now working, making his rule far harder as they are designed to.
China has ended a thirty-year period during which the United States was the world’s only superpower. And yet its declining economic growth is slower and uneven compared to the economic transformation of South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and other neighbouring countries over similar periods of time. Arguably they have formed superior wealth creation and citizenry engagement channels that foster and regulate superior quality growth.
In Russia under Vladimir Putin, we see the end of the global impotence it has experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But its 2010-2018 gains are mere toeholds of diplomatic and military influence compared to its previous Soviet empire that President Putin so longs for. Sure, Russia cannot be ignored, and it seeks to undermine legitimate franchise. But it has a shrinking, stagnant economy and society. It’s a ghost in a shell.
And to Brexit, the United Kingdom is determined to leave the European Union, no matter the political, social economic chaos that is causes. But there will be no change of government until 2022 and the positions of the Conservative and Labor leadership are getting closer by the week as both of them run out of moves to actually having to stop fucking around and actually talk about the future of the country as if they are not politicians but leaders.
Maybe we should worry that these movements signal the end to liberal democracy – that is, societies based on universal human rights, rule of law, strong regulatory institutions, and fully participatory democracy.
And sure, the world is not going to go back to the way it was before Trump, Xi, Putin, or May. It means that it has moved two steps forward and is now moving one step back. Institutionally similar countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada may well be disappointed by the febrile foolery of Trump, Xi, Putin, and May, but the best chance for another step forward is to let the virtues of our own institutions shine. Arguably, Ardern is our best exponent at that in a long time. Trudeau is at least as good as his dad at exemplifying liberal democratic values too.
The video commentaries we have seen from people on the British street show how proud they are of their franchise.
They are clear that their ability to be heard, now that their representatives in Parliament have failed to represent them clearly, is central to their citizenship.
I find this deeply impressive. They don’t just want a vote, they want a refreshed mandate about their exchange of individual autonomy into the state, if and only if they see what they are getting out of it.
You cannot persuade the British public (no more than you can persuade the Swiss) that sharing sovereignty on domestic issues is anything other than a loss of self-government and accountability unless there are major benefits that would fully compensate for it.
There are dozens of democratising activist reforms in British history that repeat that message. They include the Magna Carta in 1215, appointment of the first Speaker of the House in 1376, subjugation of the King to the law and to parliament in 1688, the Reform Act of 1832, Emily Davison’s Derby death in 1913, the Representation of the People Act of 1918, and further reforms in 1969 and up to the year 2000.
The UK’s international influence will indeed diminish a little. It will not sit on the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU after this year. It will no longer be able to block the EU from deciding on a foreign policy or security initiative that France and Germany have agreed upon.
Yet Britain, France and Germany have a shared view on the Iran Nuclear agreement, on the need to support Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia, on opposition to the American transfer of their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, on climate change, and in support of a rules-based order. They also agree on Russia sanctions, policy towards Saudi Arabia, how to deal with China, and much more.
To cut to it, Brexit need not diminish the united international impact of the EU and Britain in international diplomacy and influence, if the will is there. There is the precedent of the P5+1 when Germany was invited to join the permanent members of the Security Council in order to put maximum pressure on Iran. It worked.
It also remains up to the EU to demonstrate a very similar equation of loss of individual state autonomy in exchange for supranational benefits in the upcoming European elections. If the EU hasn’t figured out how to demonstrate its virtues after Brexit, well, here come the other nationalists to remind them of why they owe their existence to the re-energised citizen. It is in the existential interests of the leadership of the EU to show humility and treat Brexit as a democratising lesson before the nationalists gut them like fish at the upcoming polls.
We certainly have fundamental threats to democracy as a system of government, and threats to human rights, occurring in many countries right across the world occurring right now.
Brexit is not one of them.
No fresh institutions have needed to be formed. Barely a drop of blood has been spilled. Britain is doing its domestic arguments far better than France, with far less volatility than Spain, with nowhere near the extremism of Italy or Germany, and it is likely to get to cross-party parliamentary discussions in short order. Brexit is the global model of civil argument.
Brexit is a self-eradication of Britain in to a smaller country in every sense. It is “right-sizing” to a scale appropriate to its economy and to its cultural impact in the world, a further rebalancing of its ego to its superego. That’s a good thing.
So Brexit need not upset how it shines as a modern democratic state exemplifying good institutions strongly corralling their government and holding its government accountable again and again until the actions of government reflect the will of the people. This will of the people is reflected in well-tooled institutions interacting to refine and perfect that will. That system is certainly flexing, but that flex is designed.
Brexit is not a threat to democracy as a system of government or a threat to liberal values. I would argue that the entire Brexit process from referendum to election to leadership contest to protracted negotiation to parliamentary vote, to whatever institutional process occurs next, is one of British democracy’s best modern exemplars to the world of institutionalised democracy and the rule of all under the law since universal franchise was first granted there.
I don’t agree with Brexit, but it’s a very good thing.