Europe, America, problems, and scale

Yesterday was local elections day in the United Kingdom, and today was analyze-the-results day.

First of all, I find it charming how the coverage I’ve looked at—admittedly national coverage, mostly from The Guardian—disregards actual local conditions and individual candidates and approaches the results entirely as a proxy referendum on the national parties/leaders.

Naturally I perceive eerie echoes of American politics, as I usually do with British politics. Before and since Thursday’s UK local elections, they felt particularly like America’s 2018 midterms. On Wednesday, one person forecast that voters would thump Britain’s party of the right but only about as much as the head of government’s party usually experiences—rather than any extra punishment for Boris Johnson’s shameless lying, scheming, and abuses of power. Oh, much like (I realized a few years later) US voters did in 2018?

Today’s coverage and analysis has featured a wide range of interpretations, from “disaster for the Conservatives” to “entirely inadequate results for Labour.” Like here in 2018, though, the picture improved for the center-left party as more result came in. There is of course the fact that these local elections don’t actually impact the UK’s national government, but the truth is that America’s 2018 “blue wave”* didn’t really do so either. (Republicans kept control of the Senate, ignored the Democratic House, and basically carried right on as before.)

Despite the similarities, however, in combination with the recent French presidential election I feel like a sense of scale is really important and often missing when comparing America’s political travails to “peer countries.”

After the French runoff, I could only shake my head at how many American reactions perceived equivalent peril to our country’s own—in a disliked centrist incumbent defeating a fascist challenger with “only” a Ronald Reagan in 1984 margin of victory. No one in America, as far as I can tell, looked at Walter Mondale’s 1984 defeat and said “he got very close, that’s a lot of support for the left, that vision will very possibly capture the country soon.” I detest Reagan, but come on. Either 42% is a powerful showing of strength or it’s a swan-dive into history’s ash heap. I think it’s the latter.

But people are terrible at appreciating scale.

Which makes the eerie transatlantic similarities which recur in Anglo-American politics thought provoking but also thought requiring. In a sense, the British public is fed up with Boris Johnson, and Labour bested the Conservatives this week, but not by a vast margin, and attempts to extrapolate national election results from the same patterns of party support actually forecast slightly more Tory MPs than Labour MPs owing to e.g. parliamentary districts. (Or “ridings,” whatever.) In this regard, Labour’s exciting results in London seem worryingly like the same pattern by which Democrats are trading support in rural areas for support in cities, which is a bad trade in geography-based representation.

But there are important differences of scale and detail. While Britain has geography-based representation, I think that they have contained gerrymandering more than we have, and in any event the absence of anything like our senators elected from entire states also limits the problem of a center-left vote concentrated in large cities. Britain does have a House of Lords, but while it’s ridiculous I think that (like Canada’s ornamental Senate) if the Lords carried out anything like the obstruction of popularly elected government which the U.S. Senate does, it would be received as a constitutional crisis rather than ho-hum routine.

Then there’s the fact that Britain has multiple parties. The Sky News extrapolation from Thursday’s results, which forecasts 278 MPs for the Tories and 271 for Labour, forecasts more than 340 total for all the center-left parties. The Guardian noted that “a general election outcome like this would almost certain lead to Keir Starmer [the hopelessly uninspiring Labour leader] becoming prime minister.”

For all that I read about British politics partly for comic relief, all of this looks like a poorly designed but ultimately functional democracy compared with the United States. Compared to a “blue wave”* election after which Republicans gain seats in the overly powerful Senate. Compared to Trump essentially losing no support at all after four years in office (unlike Boris Johnson’s public standing collapsing after just three). Compared to zero-sum battles between the same two parties over and over, with nowhere for “bipartisan” dissatisfaction to go except staying home or mindless nemesis voting.

A lot of the same kinds of problems which afflict America seem to afflict Europe, including specifically within politics. Arguably European politics are mostly a disreputable mess. But the intensity of the American equivalents just seems far worse.

* British references to “red” and “blue” always throw me for a loop because America adopted opposite color codes for the left/right parties.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation