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Many loud voices have proclaimed the dangerous situation of Western democracies in the past few years. Extreme right-wing parties, which question the foundations of democratic politics, have suddenly grown stronger, such as the Alternative for Germany and the Fidesz party in Hungary.

Democracy Deadlocked

Neither the US nor Great Britain have been threatened by new neo-fascist parties. But in both of the world’s oldest democracies, governments have simultaneously been brought to a standstill by the most extreme forces in established conservative parties. The path back to normal politics is unclear.

The United States currently has no functioning national government, due to the shutdown brought on by Trump’s insistence on funding for a wall on our southern border. Although the immediate conflict pits Republican Trump against a Democratic majority in the House, lack of unity within his own party prevented Congressional funding for a wall for the two years when Republicans had complete control of Congress. Republicans could have used their slim Senate majority to give Trump the $5 billion that he has demanded, but they would have had to eliminate the filibuster.

Although some of the most conservative Republican Senators advocated eliminating the filibuster when they first took over the Senate in 2015, enough Republicans are against that “nuclear option” that it won’t happen. Congressional Republicans have been satisfied up to now with giving Trump only $1.6 billion a year in funds for building barriers at the border. Now that Trump has made building the wall a do-or-die issue, he has more support within his own party, but cannot do anything without support from the Democrats in the House.

In London, the ruling conservative party also could not overcome a deep split within its ranks to push through a plan for Great Britain to leave the European Union. The agreement that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU failed by an unprecedented margin last Tuesday, because more than one-third of Tory Parliamentarians voted against the rest of their party. Various members of her Conservative Party support the whole range of Brexit possibilities, from the “no-deal” option to holding another referendum.

The politics of the extreme right wings of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in the UK are based on ideology, not reality. They appeal to a minority of voters. They have already damaged both economies and have stopped both governments from dealing with actual political issues.

In both countries, the extreme wing of the ruling conservative party has pushed a “populist” policy that is widely rejected by the public. Various polls at the end of 2018 showed most Americans do not support building a wall. Although wide margins of Republicans support the wall and Democrats take the opposite view, the majority of independents who are opposed tip the balance. A significant majority wanted Trump to compromise on his anti-immigration stance in order to prevent a shutdown. In fact, a border wall never attracted majority support: an exit poll after the 2016 election gave the wall only 41% support.

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In England, the situation is more complex, because there are many options on the table besides the deal that May negotiated. On the far right is the “no-deal Brexit”. On the other side are those who would like to remain in the EU. And another form of compromise choice is the hope that a different deal could be negotiated, even though the EU leaders have clearly said they would not do that. The no-deal Brexit favored by the most extreme Tories does not have majority popular support. A poll in July 2018 gave that option only 28%, and the same result occurred in November. The great dilemma in Britain is that none of the options garners a majority of either voters or Parliamentarians. But as in the US, a majority of the Tory “base” favors the most extreme plan, the no-deal Brexit.

In both cases, these extreme policies are based on false claims. Much of what Trump says in support of his border policies is not true. Despite Trump’s assertions about invasion, the number of illegal border crossings has been lower since he became President than at any time since before 1990. He claims that a wall would lessen the dangers posed by heroin illegally coming in from Mexico, but the Drug Enforcement Administration says that 90% of heroin, and 87% of cocaine and methamphetamines come across at ports of entry, not where a wall would be constructed. Despite his alarming statements about how “thousands of Americans” have been killed by illegal immigrants, studies show no link between immigration and crime. He claimed that all the previous Presidents told him they supported a wall, but all living Presidents deny that.

The Tories who favored leaving the EU during the referendum in 2016 made many significant claims about the process that they have since repudiated, including that leaving the EU would be simple process and that no transition deal would be necessary. They tried to frighten the English about massive immigration from Turkey if that country’s efforts to join the EU were successful.

More significant, the Brexiteers promised a great financial boon to the population. Instead the opposite will occur. A bright red bus for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 proclaimed that Britain sent the EU 350 million pounds a week that could be spent on the National Health Service, a wildly inflated estimate of how much Britain contributes to the EU budget. In October, a survey found that most Leave voters still believe that figure. In fact, the British economy is already about 2.5% smaller than it would have been if the Remain voters had won, a cost of about 500 million pounds a week. Britain will have to pay a 39 billion pound “divorce bill” if it leaves the EU, and one study shows that the British economy will continue to be negatively impacted for at least another decade, costing each person on average about 1000 pounds. Even May’s government accepts that the costs of Brexit will be enormous: an economic hit to the economy of between 2% and 4% by 2035 under May’s plan and at least 8% under a “no-deal” Brexit.

The politics of the extreme right wings of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in the UK are based on ideology, not reality. They appeal to a minority of voters. They have already damaged both economies and have stopped both governments from dealing with actual political issues.

The ability of extremists in both cases to win some popular backing for their ideological schemes is based on an appeal to insular nationalism and fear of foreigners. These dangerous forces remain powerful in the 21st century, stoked shamelessly by right-wing politicians whose economic policies are most dangerous for those people to whom anti-foreigner sentiments have most appeal – less educated whites.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives