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Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Three Small Victories: A Turning Point?

Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).

So out of Germany’s sixteen states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD – but they didn’t win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past eighteen months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the Five-Star Movement found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote – the party is ultra-democratic – and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote – because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris –‘Al’ to his friends, family and many lovers, but he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable – is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out of the EU in a ‘no-deal’ exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit a Brexit far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted for it in 2016).

Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the ‘disaster capitalists’ who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the ‘United’ Kingdom, and especially Scotland, a perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election – which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past sixty years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany – the only question was ‘Who’s next?’.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some – and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Johnson…own”)

Brexit: Johnson Makes His Move

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

By Gwynne Dyer

Shock! Horror! Johnson prorogues Parliament! End of democracy in Britain! The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, says he was not even consulted, and calls it “a constitutional outrage.”

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cut the amount of time that parliament will meet before he crashes the United Kingdom out of the European Union in a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on 31 October by six working days.

Johnson will face parliament for the first time as prime minister on 4 September, but they will all go off on holiday again on 10 September, not on the 13th as scheduled. And then parliament won’t meet again until 14 October, not on the originally planned date of 9 October. So no need to panic, and a rather small constitutional outrage.

Great commotion in the media, of course, but the reports that zombies will roam the streets of London eating the children of Remainers after Britain’s ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU on Halloween are absolutely untrue. (There have, however, been some werewolf sightings in the City.)

Johnson is an accidental prime minister. Few people even in his own Conservative Party thought he was fit for the job, but they panicked after the Conservatives came fifth – fifth! – in last May’s European Union elections.

The British only voted in those elections at all because Theresa May’s government still hadn’t managed to leave the EU after three years of trying. It lost so badly because a lot of Brexit-backing Conservatives defected to Nigel Farage’s single-issue Brexit Party in exasperation, and to win them back the Conservatives had to change leaders.

So out goes May and in comes Johnson, who may be a liar and a clown but is popular with Conservative voters. And this new prime minister, chosen only by a vote of Conservative Party members, inherits the task of keeping the Party’s promise to take the UK out of the EU. Alas, the parliamentary arithmetic to do that still does not work.

The Conservative government has only a one-vote majority in parliament, but that’s the smaller part of the problem. The bigger part is that Conservative members of parliament are so split on the question of Brexit that there is no exit deal that all of them will vote for.

Theresa May did actually negotiate a realistic exit deal with the EU late last year that allowed for a smooth continuation of trade and avoided the danger of re-creating a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. Unfortunately, that enraged the extremist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of the Conservative Party so much that they voted May’s deal down three times.

The alternative is simply to leave without a deal. That means accepting a huge hit to British trade (half of which is with the EU), a crash in the value of the pound, and a great many lost British jobs. Johnson himself is no head-banger, but he is a chameleon who will change colour if it serves his purposes, and he has adopted the no-deal policy in order to become prime minister.

This still does not end the Conservative Party’s civil war over Brexit, because a small number of moderates on the other wing of the party will rebel and vote against a no-deal Brexit rather than see the country dragged into economic ruin. They may be as few as a dozen, but that might be enough to bring the government down.

So where are the opposition parties in all this? All over the place, is the answer. There are four of them, and they can’t agree on the time of day, let alone on a common strategy for stopping ‘no-deal’.

Given time they might, because it is really their duty to avoid economic disaster in Britain, avert a new war in Ireland, and hold the United Kingdom together. (Scotland will probably secede if there is a no-deal Brexit.) But they are taking their own sweet time about it.

That’s why Johnson thinks it’s worth taking flak for cutting down the number of days parliament will meet between now and 31 October. The fewer days the opposition has to work on the problem, the less likely they are to get all their ducks in a row. It’s as simple as that, and it’s entirely legal.

So what are the odds that Britain will really commit this massive act of self-harm? About the same as they were last week, actually. On learning of Johnson’s new move on Wednesday morning, analysts at the Royal Bank of Canada raised the probability of Britain crashing out of the EU without an exit deal to 44%. Last week it was 41%.

Small crisis, not many hurt.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The British…leaders”; and “Given…about it”)

The Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

It has been suggested that Boris Johnson (who becomes the prime minister of the United Kingdom this week) is what you would get if Donald Trump had been educated at Eton and Oxford. Maybe, although there is a great gulf between Trump’s bombastic self-promotion and Johnson’s self-deprecating, rather shambolic persona.

There is such a thing as a national style, and Trump’s shtick would fail as badly in Britain as Johnson’s would in the United States. But questions of style aside, the two men are almost identical.

They are both inveterate, shameless liars. They are both what lay people call narcissists and the experts call ‘sociopaths’: men (they are mostly men) who accumulate numerous wives, girlfriends and children as they go through life, but never really engage with anybody. And neither of them has any real purpose in politics.

They are quite good at winning, and they target the same sector of the electorate: older, less well educated people, frightened about their economic future, and often racist. Some of those who support them are none of those things, of course, but the courting of white nationalists by both men is unmistakable. The shriek of the dog-whistles is deafening.

What Trump and Johnson conspicuously lack is set of objectives that goes beyond merely winning and keeping power. Trump’s determination to expunge every trace of Obama’s legacy (healthcare, the Iran deal, etc.) gives him a kind of agenda, but an entirely negative one. Boris Johnson doesn’t even have that. His only role in British politics is to save the Conservative Party by ‘delivering’ Brexit.

Johnson wouldn’t be in Downing Street today if there had not been an election in Britain two months ago. It was only an election for the European Parliament, but Britain had to vote in it because it still hadn’t left the European Union despite two postponements.

The EU election did, however, give British voters an opportunity to express their views on Brexit, and it was catastrophic for the Conservatives. On the whole the vote split pretty evenly between pro-Leave and pro-Remain parties, but the Conservatives came FIFTH, behind the Greens and just ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Panic at Conservative headquarters! Their traditional voters are mostly Leavers, and they are so angry at their party for failing to get the job done, three full years after the referendum, that they are abandoning it for Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party. If there is a national election in the UK the Conservatives will be wiped out – and given the deadlock in parliament, an early election is quite likely.

So where’s Boris when we need him? We all know that he’s lazy, feckless, insanely ambitious, utterly unprincipled and liable to make huge mistakes, but we desperately need to rally the troops and he’s the one they love.

Boris generously agreed to help the Party out, so they unceremoniously dumped Prime Minister Theresa May and set up a contest for a new party leader that Johnson was bound to win. That automatically makes him prime minister as well, but he may be the last prime minister of a genuinely united kingdom.

Johnson can only succeed by taking Britain out of the EU by October 31st. He swears that he can get a better exit deal than Theresa May negotiated (which parliament refused to pass three times), but the EU says no further negotiations are possible. He could try the traditional remedy of shouting loudly at them in English, but it may not succeed.

If that doesn’t work, he says he’ll take the UK out of the EU anyway, without a deal. That would inflict serious economic hardship on the British population, but true Brexiters reckon that’s a small price to pay for leaving an organisation they detest. Half the English population doesn’t agree – and TWO-THIRDS of the Scots voted Remain.

If a largely English government drags the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into economic misery, then the Scots will probably decide to leave the UK and stay in the EU. The Scottish National Party is already promising another referendum on the question.

What happens in Northern Ireland with a no-deal exit from the EU and a ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic is harder to predict. The shooting and bombing could start up again, or there could be a bitterly fought referendum on a united Ireland, or hopefully something less dramatic than either of those options would happen. But it will not stay the same.

So there’s rather a lot at stake, including the 300-year-old Union, and the man in charge is the farthest thing imaginable from a safe pair of hands. “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening,” as Energy Minister Amber Rudd put it recently.

If parliament can stop Johnson from doing a no-deal Brexit, of course, then none of this comes to pass. But it’s not at all certain that parliament can do that. The British are living in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“They…deafening”; and “What…same”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.