How did the world’s two most venerable and influential democracies – UK and US – end up with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson at the helm?

Jeffry Sachs ponders over the question:

There is an obvious answer to the question of how two venerable democracies installed disordered minds in power and enabled them to pursue unpopular policies. But there is also a deeper one.

The obvious answer is that both Trump and Johnson won support among older voters who have felt left behind in recent decades. Trump appeals especially to older white male conservatives displaced by trade and technology, and, in the view of some, by America’s movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual rights. Johnson appeals to older voters hit hard by deindustrialization and to those who pine for Britain’s glory days of global power.

Yet this is not a sufficient explanation. The rise of Trump and Johnson also reflects a deeper political failure. The parties that opposed them, the Democrats and Labour respectively, failed to address the needs of workers displaced by globalization, who then migrated to the right. Yet Trump and Johnson pursue policies – tax cuts for the rich in the US, a no-deal Brexit in the UK – that run counter to the interests of their base.2

The common political flaw lies in the mechanics of political representation, notably both countries’ first-past-the-post voting systems. Electing representatives by a simple plurality in single-member districts has fostered the emergence of two dominant parties in both countries, rather than the multiplicity of parties elected in the proportional representation systems of Western Europe. The two-party system, which then leads to a winner-take-all politics, fails to represent voter interests as well as coalition governments, which must negotiate and formulate policies that are acceptable to two or more parties.

Consider the US situation. Trump dominates the Republican Party, but only 29% of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, with 27% identifying as Democrats and 38% as independents, not comfortable with either party but unrepresented by an alternative. By winning power within the Republican Party, Trump scraped into office with fewer votes than rival Hillary Clinton but with more Electoral College delegates. Given that only 56% of eligible Americans voted in 2016 (partly owing to deliberate Republican efforts to make voting difficult), Trump received the support of just 27% of eligible voters.

Trump controls a party that represents less than one-third of the electorate, and governs mostly by decree. In the case of Johnson, fewer than 100,000 Conservative Party members elected him as their leader, thus making him prime minister, despite his approval rating of just 31% (compared to 47% who disapprove).

Political scientists predict that a two-party system will represent the “median voter,” because each party moves to the political center in order to capture half the votes plus one. In practice, campaign financing has dominated US party calculations in recent decades, so the parties and candidates have gravitated to the right to curry favor with rich donors. (Senator Bernie Sanders is trying to break the chokehold of big money by raising large sums from small donors).

In the UK, neither major party represents the majority who oppose Brexit. Yet the UK political system may nonetheless enable one faction of one party to make historic and lasting choices for the country that most voters oppose. Most ominously, winner-take-all politics has enabled two dangerous personalities to win national power despite widespread public opposition to them.

No political system can perfectly translate the public will into policy, and the public will is often confused, misinformed, or swayed by dangerous passions. The design of political institutions is an ever-evolving challenge. Yet today, owing to their antiquated winner-take-all-rules, the world’s two oldest and most venerated democracies are performing poorly – dangerously so.

Hmm..

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