Special Briefing: Why Campaign Promises Are the New Constitutions
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because democracy is giving way to … something else.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Critics are livid over British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move yesterday to suspend Parliament for five weeks, calling it an anti-democratic bid to derail alternatives to his Brexit strategy or thwart any attempt to unseat him. But he’s not alone: Leaders like Johnson are skirting traditional democratic trappings to make good on the lofty promises that vaulted them into office. Whether it’s President Donald Trump battling Congress to build his border wall or, more recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly retracting Kashmir’s autonomy, they’re using less-than-delicate means to achieve major policy goals. In the process, they’re tapping into a global mood that’s turning against traditional politicians and their oft-broken promises.
Why does it matter? The notion of “democratic values” has long been central to most of the world’s successful nations. But through their aggressive actions, powerful leaders like Trump, Johnson and Modi are proving those values might be more malleable than anyone realized. Potentially problematic is that those practices — criticized by some but welcomed by others — pay political dividends. That raises questions over how far these leaders might go to satisfy their supporters, as well as what it could mean for democracy more broadly. Perhaps even more intriguing: Should they be held more accountable to their promises, or to the abstract principles of democracy often perceived as impeding, rather than promoting, concrete action?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Getting tough. Johnson’s request, which was approved by Queen Elizabeth II, sparked widespread protests and an online petition that attracted more than 1.3 million signatures in less than 24 hours. Meanwhile, his opponents prepared to fast-track legislation that would extend the Brexit deadline if he fails to produce a workable withdrawal deal. Experts say Johnson has turned out to be not only more calculating and aggressive than many expected from the typically befuddled politician, but even outwardly “despotic,” if you believe his fiercest critics. It’s a stark contrast to his predecessor’s perceived timidity, as well as a clear display that he’s serious about seeing Brexit through — with or without a deal.
Pleasing the crowds. For decades, scrapping Article 370, which provided the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir a special status, has been a campaign promise of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But knowing they’d need to do so surreptitiously, without consulting other opposition parties or Kashmiris, is what held them back — until now. Under Modi, the party that once cast itself as the more democratic and federalist of India’s two major forces has tweaked the Constitution and Kashmir’s status through military might and an internet clampdown. And if the celebrations in much of India are any indicator, the bold move could pay off politically for Modi.
Legal means. Such strategies often seem to pay off in other ways. In Washington, where Trump forced the longest-ever federal shutdown this year over lawmakers’ refusal to fund his border wall, the pugnacious president was quick to declare a “big victory” of his own last month. That’s because the Supreme Court gave the Pentagon the go-ahead to continue funding the $2.5 billion effort to build the structure — one of his key 2016 campaign promises — following Trump’s declaration of a national emergency after failing to squeeze out the cash he wanted from Congress. While his administration still faces legal challenges over its controversial border wall, the episode helps reveal how it’s increasingly resorting to fighting for issues through the courts, rather than dealing with an uncooperative legislature. So far, it’s apparently a winning strategy.
WHAT TO READ
What Boris Johnson Did to the World’s Most Stable Democracy, by Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic
“The claim that Johnson is the sole legitimate executor of the people’s will is all the more preposterous because his democratic mandate is so tenuous.”
The Corrupting of Democracies, in The Economist
“Democracies are generally thought to die at the barrel of a gun, in coups and revolutions. These days, however, they are more likely to be strangled slowly in the name of the people.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Sturgeon: “This Is Not Democracy, It’s Dictatorship”
“This is about trying to stop a majority in Parliament coming together to avoid a no-deal Brexit. That’s the kind of behavior you expect to see in countries that are not democratic.”
Watch on The Telegraph on YouTube:
Siddhartha Deb: With Kashmir Crisis, India Reveals Its Democracy Is a “Sham”
“Modi and the BJP are giving supporters something to feel triumphant about by seeing the Kashimirs basically being turned into prisoners in their own home.”
Watch on Democracy Now! on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
High time? Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament has refocused attention on Britain’s unwritten Constitution, and even prompted calls to finally codify a set of rules similar to those found in most other Western democracies. But it’s no magic bullet: Others argue the flexibility that results from not having a Constitution is better suited to evolving political circumstances.