Britons and Americans alike woke up Friday to something they hadn’t expected 24 hours earlier: a mild rebuke of the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May called early elections with the idea the Tories could strengthen their hand by picking up some marginal seats which were held by the left-wing Labour Party but last summer supported Britain’s exit from the European Union. Instead, the Tories narrowly lost their majority and, in Britain’s multiparty system, are trying to win support from Northern Ireland’s unionist party to form a government. May, rather than bolstering her bargaining position with the EU, could be forced out as party leader and thus prime minister.
It’s a turn of events as stunning as last summer’s Brexit vote … and Donald Trump’s victory a few months later … and the 2010 U.S. midterm elections … and, to a lesser extent, the 2014 midterms. Less stunning, but equally sharp in terms of its departure from the status quo, was Barack Obama’s win in 2008. If Jon Ossoff can pull off a win in Georgia’s previously deep-red 6th District that’ll go on the list, too.
Is there anything more to politics today than the backlash?
Consider this condensed history of the past several years: Obama rode a tide of anti-Dubya sentiment (and, in his besting of Hillary Clinton in the primary, anti-establishment sentiment) to the White House and filibuster-proof congressional majorities. Within a year, the filibuster was back in play in the Senate. Within two years, the House majority was lost. Obama hung on in 2012, but the Senate was in Republican hands two years later. It’s not just a phenomenon between the two major parties: A revolt within the House Republican caucus cost John Boehner the speaker’s gavel. Then came Trump, and a Washington that could hardly be more different than it was eight years earlier. And yet, already, Trump faces the kind of dissent — both externally and to some extent within the GOP — that might produce an opposite wave come November 2018.
From Bush to Obama to Trump, Pelosi to Boehner to Ryan (to Pelosi?), the common thread in the shifting of the tide is simple opposition to whatever was going on at the time. And the more vague that opposition, the better. Obama rose to power promising “change” without very many details; the details created the tea party — and a Republican majority voters sent chiefly to put a halt to the Obama agenda. Trump promised a sharp departure from the Obama trajectory but not too many policy specifics; his rhetoric combined with the stumbling start to his presidency has yielded “the resistance,” which in turn promises little more than to obstruct Trump. One can imagine a scenario, à la the tea party in 2010, in which the Democrats regain some measure of power but lack the mandate to do more than stand in Trump’s way. And on it goes.
And so it goes, from what I can tell, in Britain, whose politics I used to cover closely from my perch in Brussels but now follow only loosely from afar. Brexit was nothing if not a cry for change from the EU status quo; Thursday’s elections appear to have been driven by voters taken aback by last summer’s results and what (they believed) it portended for their future. Yet it’s far from clear what happens next. There was just the backlash to the backlash.
The problem with backlashes is they’re rather inchoate when it comes to offering what comes next. There may be no better example before us right now than the campaign Ossoff has run. He offers a stream of pleasant-sounding but ultimately empty platitudes about being an “independent voice” who will “work with anyone” to accomplish … what exactly? Oh, yeah: To “fix” this or that. How exactly would that work out? Er … you’ll have to elect him to find out*.
In a way, all of this reflects a deep-seated problem — with America’s two major parties, anyway — of staleness. There is precious little Democratic creativity when it comes to policy, just the faith that eventually they’ll win enough elections and make enough heave-hos to accomplish the objectives they’ve been pursuing for nearly a century. The problem is the opposite on the right: The conservative policy apparatus produces reams of ideas about how to reform, shrink and limit government, but hardly any of them are adopted by Republican leaders. Neither makes for dynamism in elections or political debate.
They have, however, generated cynicism in the public, which has evolved into the tribalism we see now. Why simply pick a side and defend it/attack the other regardless of events? In part, because the events don’t lead either party to do anything differently. There is what there always was, which the voters had at one time or another already rejected. So what do they do? Reject the one in place currently, and begin preparations for turning against the next in line. Plus ça change.
Voters have traditionally gotten tired of going too long in one direction but, as with everything else it seems, the pendulum swings faster today than ever. You can blame that on lousy politicians, but in large part they simply hold mirrors up to the electorate reflecting ourselves back to us. You can say they need to act more like leaders, but we also have to come to some kind of consistent agreement about where we’re willing to be led. Right now, the only consensus is we’d rather stay on course for nowhere.
*Don’t point to his “plan” to cut $60 billion a year in “waste.” Not when he’s changed his position on at least one item after it was pointed out it would hurt Georgia (and not save as much money as he was claiming anyway), and not when he’s indicated the money would simply go to other spending items. His “plan” is the essence of faux budget-hawkery and the kind of vacuous politics I’m talking about.