Boris Johnson’s decision to temporarily suspend Parliament marks a choice to play the people against their politicians. It’s a clever but democratically disturbing decision. In Italy, the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere, when populists exercise power, they get distressing results.
It has been 300 days since Jair Bolsonaro took command in Brazil, 500 since Matteo Salvini won the Italian legislative elections, nearly 1,000 since Donald Trump began his occupancy of the White House, and 1,100 since the British voted for Brexit. What has happened in each case? A long examination isn’t necessary to conclude that the results are not brilliant. In recent years, populists have clearly found the words necessary to obtain power. But when it comes to exercising it, they have quickly reached their limits.
Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend the Westminster Parliament for five weeks to allow him freedom over London’s* exit from the European Union at the end of October is a negation of democracy. Admittedly, it’s possible that some portion of public opinion approves of this move — deputies have been incapable of progress for two years, it seems. Certainly, it’s clever. It is above all the prime minister’s choice to play the people against their elected leaders. In the country that birthed parliamentarianism, it is a curious sign.
On the other side of the Alps, the blasting of the ruling coalition by the head of the Liga has plunged Italy into a deep political crisis. The unexpected outcome could be a government without Matteo Salvini, which would be a scathing failure. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s personal behavior and decisions are raising the indignation of part of the world, while the trade war unleashed by Trump burdens the global economy without benefitting the United States.
In each case, the lure of the new and the attraction of some dissatisfied voters to those who speak loudly and easily facilitate the demagogues’ rise. But soon enough, reality takes over, and hastily made promises are shattered, here on higher stakes (peace in Ireland), there on a broken-down economy (in Italy), there again on a balance of power that is not as simple as expected (Washington vs. Beijing). Suddenly, everything is more complicated.
The concerns raised by this overview are twofold. First, the scales of values are changing, and we are getting increasingly used to raging tweets, to abrasive decisions, and even to insults. It was enough for the U.S. president to spend a weekend in Biarritz to seem more reasonable … than others! Second, reasonable democrats are still struggling to deliver reasonable solutions to contemporary problems, including addressing the anger of the lower middle classes. As long as they don’t have these solutions, demagogues will have the wind in their sails.
*Editor’s note: Although correctly translated, it is, of course, the entire United Kingdom that would be leaving, not just London.