Once upon a time, long, long, ago, the Americans and the British were united. They were united within – within the United States and within the United Kingdom. And they were united without. Against common, outside, foes, notably Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And for each other, with each other, the Americans and the Brits celebrating their common language, their “special relationship,” and their shared Anglo-American heritage.
Those days are over. It’s not that we no longer have anything in common. To the contrary, we do. It’s just that what we have in common is not unity, but disunity. The most striking thing about the American people these days is not the ties that bind them, us, but the fights that divide them, us. The fights over people and politics, over private preferences and public policies. Similarly, the most striking thing about the British people these days is not the ties that bind them, but the fights that divide them. Fights that focus on Brexit but that cut to the core of British history, British identity, and the British economy.
By now President Donald Trump is thoroughly distrusted and intensely disliked by a large percentage of the American people. By now Prime Minister Theresa May is thoroughly disrespected and largely disregarded by an even larger percentage of the British people. But this is not about them, our leaders, it’s about us, their followers, the American people and the British people.
It’s easy enough to dismiss the times in which we live as atypically fractious. But, it’s just as easy to see them as harbingers. Harbingers of a future that does not bode well for those among us who are democrats – with a small “d.”
Two signs I don’t like. First, however you look at it, the Brexit mess represents a threat to the European Union. Which is to say that it threatens one of the single most successful political experiments in history. Second, there has been the presumption that democracy is necessary to prosperity. But, in the last few years, this assumption has crumbled. It’s now evident that countries rated “not free” can provide their people with high standards of living. Which means that in the future, as opposed to in the past, democracy will have to stand, or it will fall, on its own merits. Merits such as the freedom from fear to speak your mind.
Both the US and the UK are suffering from failures of leadership. If failures of followership follow, we’re done. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”