Authenticity and Impulse: What Britain Gets Right

Samuel Rubinstein 9 February 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

As a cursory glance at my journalistic output for TCS will reveal, I am, like everyone else in the free world, in effect a resident of two countries: my own and America.[1] I can probably name more American lawmakers than I can MPs; without question I can name more US Supreme Court Justices than I can their British counterparts. In the uncertain days after the November election I lived on American time, obsessively watching American news. Wolf Blitzer and John King were my ASMR. Apparently I had a habit of mumbling ‘CNN’ in my sleep.

That my mind so often wafts across the Atlantic is, on the face of it, rather peculiar. I do have some tenuous links with America – my cousins suffer the grim misfortune to live in San Diego – but this is a far way off from accounting for my emotional investment in American politics. Living in an American satellite, for good or for ill, I recognise that their elections have a profound impact on my future. It was a source of continuing anxiety – particularly for us healthy young men of conscription age – when a man as patently erratic and unhinged as Donald Trump had the nuclear codes. It was distressing for me as a liberal, who sets store by the example America sets for the world, and sees American decline and isolationism as giving succour to Chinese tyranny.

And, aside from anything else, I feel that I have a dog in the fight. In the UK I am a floating voter, rear cleaved in twain by the proverbial fence. Fittingly, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, but they have been unbearably nauseating since the tragedy of Norman Lamb’s defeat in the leadership election of 2015; in my indefatigable mugwumpery, I find myself agreeing with Labour on some things and with the Tories on others.

It is much easier, then, to become animated by American politics, because there, unlike in Britain, there’s a team for me to zealously support. Obviously universal background checks on gun ownership is a good idea; obviously anthropogenic climate change is real and terrifying; obviously QAnon is a baseless and rancid conspiracy theory; obviously Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of its proponents, is an antisemitic sociopath who thinks school shootings are faked, and consequently doesn’t belong anywhere near Congress.[2]

And obviously the party which receives the most votes deserves to exercise authority. The Republicans have won the popular vote in only one of the last eight presidential elections; between 2017 and 2019 they controlled the presidency, the Senate, and the House, despite receiving less votes than the Democrats in the elections for all three.[3] They are not a serious right-of-centre party, burdened by electoral necessity to appeal to the middle ground. They don’t, after all, need majorities to exercise power. It has become increasingly difficult, in recent years, to view them as anything other than an anti-democracy safe-space for crackpots and racists.

So the vision of American politics as an epic battle between good and evil, light and dark, faces and heels, is part of its appeal. And its story is made ever more enticing by its endless twists and surprises. Americans, with their grotesque conception of ‘celebrity’, deem bodybuilders, B-List actors, and WWE wrestlers to be qualified for state governorships.[4] Their presidents have colourful sex lives, as we learned from Donald Trump’s urolagnia, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Lyndon Johnson’s tendency to whip out his penis at any opportunity, and whatever can be gleaned from Ronald Reagan calling Nancy ‘Mommie Poo Pants’.[5] Our grey, flabby-faced Eton-PPE-Oxford Union President archetype, in contrast, affords little by way of real entertainment. It’s all been stale since Profumo.

So the vision of American politics as an epic battle between good and evil, light and dark, faces and heels, is part of its appeal. And its story is made ever more enticing by its endless twists and surprises.

All of this baseness absurdly plays out in a system that is far more elegant and coherent than our own. Of course, the Americans consciously designed their constitution, whereas ours (and I say this with tremendous affection) is a mess, cobbled together over the centuries and beautiful in its own way. There is something unassailably satisfying about America’s neat division of government into three branches, compared with our system, where the executive appears as a sort of excrescence of the legislative. There is a pleasant rhythm to the way American elections fall every even-numbered year; an aesthetic simplicity how each state, with its own miniature congress, is reflected in the whole. And one has to admire its dedicated meticulousness. What happens when a British Prime Minister dies in office? Chaos and uncertainty, if the deaths of Pitt the Younger and Spencer Perceval are anything to go by. The Americans, in contrast, have assiduously prepared themselves for all eventualities.

Their system is the embodiment of Enlightenment order, and therein lies the problem. We hear all the time about how American politics is dysfunctional, and this is true; but in a sense, it is also too orderly. There is something rather sterile and lifeless about it, as I have come to realise over the course of my CNN bingeing. Even after a failed insurrection, in which politicians were traumatised and almost lost their lives, lawmakers were disconcertingly polite and patient with one another. I did not expect to be bored, but I was. All their speeches are prepared in advance, probably by one of their perversely oversized staff. There is no heckling, no interrupting; one gets relatively little sense of how the orations are received in the chamber, but since the chamber is not their intended audience (Sen. Josh Hawley has even taken to staring directly into the camera) it hardly matters.[6]

We hear all the time about how American politics is dysfunctional, and this is true; but in a sense, it is also too orderly. There is something rather sterile and lifeless about it, as I have come to realise over the course of my CNN bingeing.

Foreign observers are often amused and disturbed by our parliamentary culture, with the braying, the neighing, the ‘hear, hear!’s and ‘resign!’s. It has elevated John Bercow to international stardom. Mhairi Black, back when she was Baby of the House, contended that these habits undercut the seriousness of our democracy, and they are no doubt intimidating for the well-intentioned newcomer.[7] But consider the American counterpoint: why should Sen. Ted Cruz be entitled to respectful silence when he recites Green Eggs and Ham mid-filibuster?[8] Why should parliamentary time belong exclusively to whoever happens to be speaking? Our parliament, and all the hectoring that comes with it, captures the very spirit of democracy: combative, participatory, electric, and, in some measure, fun.

A healthy dose of British irreverence would be no bad thing for America. We should be proud of our culture of parliamentary impulsivity, of politicians entering the fray and, without much of a planned speech in hand, speaking their mind. It is no wonder that millions of Americans, starved of that authenticity which here we take for granted, should have turned to Donald Trump, a man who is, for all his faults, undeniably authentic. Whatever my emotional investment in American politics, I would much rather watch BBC Parliament than C-Span; in Westminster, unlike in Washington, one gets the sense that the politicians are actually present and involved, that democracy is more than just a shallow performance for viewers at home. There is much we can learn from America, and there is much still for Americans to learn from us.

 

[1]https://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/authors/samuel-rubinstein/.
[2]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/feb/04/marjorie-taylor-greene-congress-democrats-committees.
[3]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/08/democrats-republicans-senate-majority-minority-rule.
[4]Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan in California; Jesse Ventura in Minnesota.
[5]https://www.thecut.com/2018/04/donald-trump-pee-tape.html; https://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1998/resources/lewinsky/timeline/; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1354598/Reagans-love-for-Mommie-Poo-Pants.html.
[6]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8ilMvSGfwQ.
[7]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/25/mhairi-black-criticises-westminsters-outdated-traditions-snp.
[8]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HJuaQL3KRI.