Revenge of the base: How 'democratic' reforms led to anti-democratic results in UK and US

On Sept. 3, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom suffered a devastating political defeat as 21 members of his Conservative majority defected in a crucial parliamentary vote, joining the opposition to his apparent wish to shut down Parliament and take the UK out of the European Union with a “no-deal Brexit.” Not even Johnson’s threat to “remove the whip” from these disobedient MPs stopped the flight from a party that one defecting former Chancellor Philip Hammond criticized as transforming under Johnson from a “broad church” into a narrow faction.”

Seen from this side of the Atlantic, there were several ironies in Johnson’s loss of his parliamentary majority.

First, Johnson fashioned his governing style after Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE (and gained his support for his Brexit plan). But Johnson’s combination of nationalism and populism were not sufficient to cow his Tory colleagues into submission.

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Second, despite the storied discipline of the British party system, the 21 MPs who ignored Johnson’s threat to “withdraw the whip” showed far more intestinal fortitude than their ideological cousins here in the GOP, who — with a few lonely outliers — have cowered before the threat of Trump’s ire.

Third, as a result, democracy in the UK appears — if not thriving — to be at least surviving the country’s withering international stalemate and its internal polarization.

All of these ironies contrast — to Britain’s credit — with the sorry state of the American Republicans faced by the threat of Trump, his abettors in the GOP, and the dangers he represents for American democracy.

But in one sense, at least, Britain’s dilemma is not unlike that of the United States: Neither Donald Trump nor Boris Johnson came to power out of the sheer force of their personalities; the rise of both was the result of longer-term decline of legislative power and what I call “the revenge of the base.” By this I mean the leverage that activists at the base of both parties have gained at the expense of ordinary voters and party leaders.

Both stories illustrate how well-meaning democratic reforms can open the floodgates to populism and nationalism and lead to the selection of demagogic leaders.

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The American story began in the early 1970s when, in response to the movements of the previous decade and the loss of the 1968 election, the Democrats — followed by the Republicans — moved away from choosing their presidential candidates in “smoke-filled rooms” and shifted to primary elections that allocated enormous power to activists at the base — especially since turnout in these primaries turned out to be low. As Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, in their book, Deeply Divided,  put it: “By revitalizing and legitimating the social movement form, the civil rights movement of the early 1960s reintroduced … centrifugal pressures to American politics.”

Since then, mobilized minorities have come to play a critical role in the nomination process and — because their ideologies are typically more extreme than those of the average party voter — an outsize role in our current polarization.

But there was a difference in how each party responded to grassroots mobilizations. As Matt Crossman and David Hopkins write in their Asymmetric Politics, while the Democrats continued to build alliances across interest groups, the Republicans relied increasingly on resentment against government and those who were seen to benefit from it. Even before Trump came on the scene, Republicans found that they could benefit from the mobilized anger of white voters driven by racial resentment.

This was the main undercurrent that Trump was able to exploit — first, in his transparently fictional but frequently repeated claim that Obama was born in Kenya, then in his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, and finally on his assaults on the press and on truth itself. Trump’s major weapon against both the Republican elite and the Democrats was his hold on this movement base and its connection to its charismatic leader. This was the “revenge of the base” in the title of this article.

As in much else, the British conservatives were slower to allocate more power to the base, but they too responded to an electoral defeat with internal reforms. After 18 years in opposition, in the general election of 1997, Tony Blair’s “new” Labour Party trounced the Tories, who lost half their parliamentary seats that year. The Conservatives, naturally, reacted. Until then, nominations to Parliament had been dominated by the Conservative Central Office and the choice of a national leader was left to the parliamentary party. Scandalized by the MPs’ monopoly of the leadership contest, the party’s constituency associations demanded a greater role in the choice of a leader. The solution chosen was to give the party’s grassroots activists the power to choose between the two leading candidates.

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There were two main defects in this “democratic” reform: First, before they were presented to the party’s base, the number of candidates was “whittled down” by a series of ballots confined to sitting MPs; and, second, the party’s base was no longer what it once was, having shrunk from its post-war high of almost 3 million members to a post-war low of about 160,000. Not only that: 80 percent of the members were then in their 60s and 70s and by the turn of the new century, they had become ideologically dominated by Euroskepticism against the cosmopolitanism of the elite in a portent of the Brexit conflict to come.

It was just over 92,000 of these grassroots activists, out of an electorate of just over 40 million, who — in July 2019 — selected Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative party. Like Trump, who had used the direct primary process to gain nomination to the presidency, Johnson capitalized on the party membership to win the 2016 Brexit referendum and eventually displace the unfortunate Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayThe US needs a Secretary of Loneliness EU pushes Brexit deadline back to Jan. 31 Hold the Brexit Champagne MORE as Prime Minister. With his narrow and largely geriatric base, he has become the standard-bearer for little England, anti-European, anti-immigrant nationalism.

If this sounds familiar to Americans, it is, but there is another wrinkle to the British conundrum: Because the British constitution endows the leader of the majority party with the prime ministership, Johnson became Prime Minister on the strength of the support of an aging, provincial, and shrinking party membership. And given the struggles over Brexit within the party and the defection of the 21 rebel MPs, he no longer has even that source of power. At this writing, Johnson has called for new elections, but has been refused by the opposition unless he accepts a veto on a no-deal Brexit. Without a two-thirds majority for a general election in the Commons, he is unlikely to be able to use that way of securing his power.

To their friends on this side of the Atlantic, it may seem as if the British and their political system are in imminent peril of implosion. The country and the Parliament are deeply polarized; the economy is in a high state of uncertainty over Brexit, and the citizenry has lost the deference for party leaders that led to political anglo-worship among Americans searching for “a more responsible two-party system.” Britain is in a bad way.

But to this observer, the events of last week tell another story too.

In elevating a populist nationalist like Johnson to the premiership, the British are paying the price for the long-term weakening of Parliament and the role of a small minority of mainly elderly party members at the base of their party. If Johnson fails, the same people will select the next Prime Minister. But while American Republicans shrink in fear of Trumpian revenge, the fact that 21 British Conservatives refused to follow Johnson into the dark corners of democracy is a testament to the continued vitality of British politics.

The time is gone when Americans worshipped the (always exaggerated) image of disciplined British two-party politics, and these politics have given way to a multi-party, multi-ethnic political system which is more like the American one than most people realize. Given the servile genuflection of most of the Republican party before our erratic and dangerous President, we can perhaps learn from our British cousins — how to challenge the threat to democracy that arises from a well-meaning but ill-starred political reform and from the revenge of the base that led to the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency.

Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is author of Power in Movement (2011) and the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of "The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement."