Deaf to History’s Questions
Britons mourned the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and understandably so. The outpouring of affection for their long-serving monarch was more than commendable, it was touching. Yet count me among those mystified that so many Americans also professed to care. With all due respect to Queen Latifah, we decided way back in 1776 that we’d had our fill of royalty.
Mere weeks after the death of Elizabeth II came the demise of another Elizabeth, better known as Liz, whose tenure as British prime minister shattered all previous records for brevity. Forty-four days after Her Majesty had asked her to form a government, Liz Truss announced her decision to step down. Cries of “No, Liz, stay on!” were muted indeed, while she herself seemed to feel a sense of relief that her moment at the pinnacle of British politics had ended so swiftly.
As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States. Even so, I confess that I found the made-for-tabloids tale of Truss’s rise and fall riveting — not a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps but a compelling dramedy offering raw material — most memorably in the form of lettuce — sufficient to supply stand-up comics the world over.
That Truss was manifestly unsuited to serve as prime minister should count as the understatement of the month. Her perpetually wide-eyed look seemingly expressed her own amazement at having high office thrust upon her and gave the game away. Along with the entire Tory party leadership, she was, it seemed, in on the caper — a huge joke at the expense of the British people.
Here was so-called liberal democracy in action. And not just any democracy, mind you, but an ancient and hallowed one. In American political circles, the notion persists that our own system of government somehow derives from that of Great Britain, that despite the many historical and substantive differences between the way Washington and Westminster work, we both share the same political space.
We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians. The legitimacy of the British democratic system affirms the legitimacy of our own. To others around the world aspiring to liberty, it proclaims: This is how it’s done. Now, go and do likewise.
In this particular instance, passing the torch in that ostensibly great democracy occurred in a matter of days. Notably, however, the British people played no part whatsoever in deciding who should succeed Truss. Of course, neither had they played any role in installing her as prime minister in the first place. Roughly 172,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party had made that decision on their behalf. And when her government abruptly imploded, even party members found themselves consigned to the role of spectators. In a nation of some 46 million registered voters, a grand total of 357 Conservative members of parliament decided who would form the next government — the equivalent of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives deciding it had had enough of Joe Biden and choosing his successor.
British Conservatives dismissed out of hand suggestions that a general election might be in order, that ordinary Britons should have some say in who would govern them. They did so for the most understandable of reasons: opinion polls indicated that in any election the Tory party would suffer catastrophic losses. It turns out that, in the hierarchy of values to which members of Parliament adhere, self-preservation ranks first. Students of American politics should not find that surprising.
To be clear, all of this falls completely within the rules of the game. Were the situation reversed, Britain’s Labour Party would surely have done likewise.
In the United Kingdom, this is how democracy works. “The People” play the role allotted to them. That role expands or contracts to suit the convenience of those who actually call the shots. In practice, liberal democracy thereby becomes a euphemism for cynical manipulation. While the results may entertain, as the saga of Liz Truss surely did, they offer little to admire or emulate.
The entire spectacle should, however, give Americans food for thought. If extreme partisanship, greed, and hunger for power displace any recognizable conception of the common good, this is where we’re liable to end up.
Charles to the Rescue
But give the Brits this: when faced with a crisis at the heart of their politics, their politicians dealt with it expeditiously, even ruthlessly. In announcing economic policies to which their financial markets objected, Truss had seemingly forgotten whom she was actually working for. Because of that, she was promptly sacked and then just as quickly dispatched to the political wilderness.
Credit the sovereign with saving the day. Advised to invite Conservative MP Rishi Sunak to form a new government, Charles III did just that and then returned to Windsor or Balmoral or whichever royal property he and the queen consort are currently using.
Granted, the action by the new-to-the-job king was purely symbolic. Yet its importance can hardly be overestimated. Charles affirmed the legitimacy of what otherwise might have looked suspiciously like a bloodless coup engineered by panicky MPs less interested in governance than saving their own skins. He thereby more than earned his generous paycheck, just as his mother had over the course of seven decades when inviting pols of varying distinction to form governments.
Of course, little of this has anything to do with democratic practice per se. After all, no one elected Charles king, just as no one had elected his mum queen. And while Charles inherits the title “Defender of the Faith,” no one has ever looked to a British monarch to serve as a “Defender of Democracy.” The role of the monarch is to sustain a political order that keeps at bay the forces of anarchy, thereby enabling some version of representative government, however flawed, to survive.
By that measure, Britons have good cause to proclaim, “God Save the King.”
All of which should invite us Americans to consider this long-taken-for-granted question: When it comes to the legitimacy of our own political system, how are we doing? Given the startling proliferation of illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies in the American polity, how should we rate the health of our own liberal democracy? Indeed, does the phrase “liberal democracy” even accurately describe what goes on in Washington and in several dozen state capitals?
That such a question has acquired genuine urgency speaks volumes about American politics in our time. Nor does that urgency derive entirely – perhaps not even primarily — from the malignant presence of Donald Trump on the national scene, regardless of what panicky reporting in mainstream media outlets may suggest.
On all matters related to Trump, our fellow citizens — those who are sentient anyway — tend to fall into two camps. In one are those who see the former president as a transformational figure, whether for good (Make America Great Again) or ill (paving the way for fascism). In the other are those who view him less as cause than effect, his lingering prominence stemming from pathologies he’s skillfully exploited but had little role in creating.
I happen to inhabit that second camp. I loathe Donald Trump. But I fear a political, intellectual, and cultural elite that appears incapable of responding effectively to the crisis presently engulfing the United States.
Innumerable writers (including me) have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.
The resulting void explains the inclination to view Trump as the root cause of the nation’s troubles — or alternatively as our last best hope of salvation. Yet despite the palpable hunger in some quarters to imagine him locked up and in others to return him to the White House, Trump is neither a demon nor a wizard. He is instead a physical manifestation of the collective fears and fantasies to which Americans of all political persuasions have in recent years become susceptible.
Should Trump regain the presidency in 2024 — admittedly, a dreadful prospect — the crisis gripping our country would undoubtedly deepen. But were a benign storm to sweep the Master of Mar-a-Lago into the vast ocean depths never to be seen again, that crisis would persist.
Factors contributing to that crisis are not difficult to identify. They include:
Collectively, these add up to a Bigger Truth that easily eclipses in importance the Big Lie that presently dominates so much of American political discourse. While obsessing over the false claim that Trump won reelection in 2020 may be understandable, it diverts attention from the real meaning of that Bigger Truth, namely that liberal democracy no longer describes the bizarrely elaborate, increasingly disfunctional system of governance that prevails in the United States.
Reducing the existing system to a single phrase is a daunting proposition. It is sui generis, mixing myth, greed, rank dishonesty, and a refusal to face the music. But this much is for sure: It’s anything but governance by elected representatives chosen by an informed electorate who deliberate and decide in the interests of the American people as a whole.
Siri, Where Are We?
In my estimation, Joe Biden is a man of goodwill but limited abilities. In ousting Donald Trump from the White House, he performed a vitally important service to the nation. But President Biden is not just very old. His entire outlook is as stale as a week-old bagel.
Biden clearly believes that he has a firm grasp on what our times require. He regularly insists that we have arrived at an “inflection point.” Drawing on the familiar narrative of the twentieth century, he believes that he has deciphered the meaning of that inflection point. His interpretation, shared by many others among the current crop of the Best and Brightest, centers on a conviction that a global competition between freedom and unfreedom, democracy and autocracy defines the overarching challenge of our time. It’s us against them — the United States (with accommodating allies holding Uncle Sam’s coat) pitted against China and Russia, the outcome of this competition guaranteed to determine the fate of humankind.
Forty years ago, dealing with the array of concerns that defined the late Cold War era — avoiding World War III, outcompeting the Soviets, and keeping the gas pumps from running dry — Biden might have been an effective president. Today, he’s as clueless as Liz Truss self-evidently was, spouting bromides and advocating for programs left over from the heyday of American liberalism.
As Biden stumbles wearily from one verbal gaffe to the next, he embodies the exhaustion of that earlier political era. If reinvigorating the American political order defines the urgent calling of our present moment, he hasn’t the least idea where to begin.
At the risk of violating the prevailing canons of political correctness, let me suggest that we turn for counsel to Russia. No, not Vladimir Putin, but Leo Tolstoy. In the conclusion to his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote that “modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.” That pithy observation captures the essence of our own predicament: It’s the questions that go unasked that are likely to do us in.
Consider, for example, these: What if the vaunted “American way of life” doesn’t define the destiny of humankind? What if true freedom means something different than the conception promoted in Washington or New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley? What if Biden’s inflection point — should it exist — doesn’t come with a Made-in-the-U.S.A. label?
The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that. So are the tens of millions of Americans, whether angry or simply baffled, who vainly stare at their smartphones in search of answers or who look at the results of the midterm elections and ask: Is that the best we can do?
As a nation, we are adrift in uncharted waters — and we can’t look to King Charles to save us.