LONDON — In his first days as Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson has attempted some of the most tried-and-true tactics of the populist era.
He sought a hostile takeover of his own party and governing institutions, moving to consolidate their power in his hands.
He exploited the rules and procedures of British democracy, announcing he would suspend Parliament and, later, calling for an election that his opponents suspect he intends to delay.
He leveraged Britain’s worsening political polarization, portraying any opposition to his plans as support for Jeremy Corbyn, the widely unpopular leader of the Labour Party.
And he justified it all by positioning himself as a champion of the people at war with an untrustworthy establishment that must be confronted, even smashed, from within.
Across the democratic world, this playbook has found growing success. And in Britain, the conditions for it are favorable. Polls show rising distrust of institutions and support for radical outsiders and strong-handed leaders. The 2016 vote to leave the European Union, followed by Mr. Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and Mr. Johnson’s of the Conservatives, all underscored populism’s hold.
Yet Mr. Johnson’s moves have, so far, blown up in his face. Parliament rose against him. His party revolted in sufficient numbers that he has lost his governing majority. While he has delighted his core supporters, there is scant evidence that voters are suddenly rallying behind him or against his opponents.
Deep into the era of tear-it-all-down populism, in one of the countries most disrupted by that trend, the fail-safes meant to keep politicians in check are, for once, working as intended.
In a time of faltering institutions and norms, they have held.
Britain, for all its evident political chaos, is bucking global populist trends. While that might not hold for long, experts say it offers striking lessons for when and how democracy can work as intended — and when it doesn’t.
Less Democracy, in an Era of More
Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard University political scientist who studies democratic decline, credited several technical aspects of British democracy.
Its parliamentary system is thought to be more resistant to charismatic leaders and hardball tactics than a presidential model. And under its unwritten constitution, norms are unusually important and so fiercely guarded. But Mr. Ziblatt repeatedly underscored a broader lesson that he acknowledged could be uncomfortable.
British democracy is, in certain ways, less directly democratic than other Western systems. It puts less power in the hands of voters and party grass roots, and more in the hands of party officials and institutional gatekeepers.
“The parties are much stronger — that’s the reason,” Mr. Ziblatt said. Compared with countries like the United States, he said, “it’s still an incredibly closed system.”
That has hardly made Britain immune to populism, and indeed may have aggravated suspicion of elites as distant and unaccountable. But it has strengthened Britain’s institutional barricades against the effects of polarization and populist backlash.
This hints, Mr. Ziblatt said, at a possible factor in populism’s Western rise that is receiving growing attention among scholars: A wave of modern reforms that made democracies more democratic may have also eroded those internal checks.
Political parties, which once chose candidates by hand, now let party members decide in primaries. Referendums and ballot initiatives are more common. Social media and internet fund-raising opened the door to outsiders. Electoral reforms make it easier for outsider parties to run and win.
Those reforms empowered voters, but at the cost of institutions and norms meant to constrain politics.
It is easier now for an outsider like Donald Trump to overtake a party that is more accountable to primary voters than to party bosses. Open elections make is easier for extremist parties like the far-right Alternative for Germany to chip away at mainstream majorities. Governance by referendum allows 52 percent of British voters to overrule the government technocrats who say Brexit would risk disaster.
In a book tracing how democracies collapse, which he wrote with a fellow Harvard University political scientist, Steven Levitsky, Mr. Ziblatt identified too much direct democracy as a risk factor, but found that the conclusion contradicted readers’ belief in democracy as a categorical force for good.
“When Steve and I go around giving talks, this is always the least popular thing that we say,” Mr. Ziblatt said.
There is growing support for this view, however unpopular. A recent book by the political scientists Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro, “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy From Itself,” found that some reforms worsen the quality and responsiveness of democracy.
But Britain has lagged somewhat in instituting these reforms. Where it has tried them, for instance in allowing a primary-style open election of party leaders, populist forces have risen. Where Britain has not yet followed, its institutions and norms have held.
Rank-and-file British lawmakers, for example, still win their party’s nomination by being selected rather than running in a primary. So while Mr. Johnson can become party leader by appealing to its most fervently ideological members, his own coalition can more easily ignore those voters, as they have done in halting their leader’s hard-line Brexit strategy.
When Hardball Fails
Legal scholars have a phrase for moves like Mr. Johnson’s attempt to suspend Parliament: constitutional hardball.
He was technically within the rules of British democracy, which allow the prime minister to “prorogue” Parliament, suspending it with the monarch’s ascent. But he was exploiting those rules for political advantage, excluding Parliament for much of a Brexit debate that he was likely to lose. And he did so at the expense of unwritten norms, which favor involving Parliament in a decision of that magnitude.
Constitutional hardball of this sort has been a hallmark of the populist era. It is encouraged by political polarization, which leads supporters of one party to see their opponents as so dangerous that stopping them is more important than safeguarding democratic norms. It is favored by populist leaders who see strong-handed rule and smashing the system as upsides in their own right.
But it can be dangerous. It forces opposition parties to either fight back in kind, risking a tit-for-tat cycle that has led democracies to erode or collapse outright, or to show restraint at the cost of accepting a potentially permanent disadvantage.
“Look at any failing democracy and you will find constitutional hardball,” Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblatt have written.
But Mr. Johnson failed, bucking the trend. And the opposition turned him back without playing hardball themselves, upholding rather than eroding the norms that Mr. Johnson had sought to leverage.
“When the government overstepped its executive authority, M.P.s were successful in using formal institutions to take back control to try and fix the current crisis,” said Alexandra Cirone, a Cornell University political scientist. “That’s a good thing!”
This underscores one of the oldest laws in political science: Parliamentary systems like Britain’s are considered more stable than presidential models. That is especially true when it comes to the dangers from constitutional hardball.
In the latter, a president and an opposition legislature can use their respective power bases to wage partisan warfare, which can escalate out of control. In a parliamentary system, Mr. Johnson is playing hardball against the very coalition members whose support he needs to stay in power. Rather than resorting to similar tactics, those lawmakers simply voted against him or crossed the aisle.
Britain’s democratic exceptionalism — rooted in its late adoption of the direct democracy measures more common elsewhere in the West — may have also played a role.
John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, called Mr. Johnson’s moves a “constitutional outrage” that “undermine his democratic credentials.”
As a nonpartisan official with tremendous procedural power over Parliament, Mr. Bercow embodies the ways that Britain’s political system manages the tension between popular will on one side and institutions and norms on the other. Every time he prevails over a leader like Mr. Johnson, which is seemingly often, it is a reminder that the system sometimes favors norms and institutions in ways that other democracies do not.
Ms. Cirone said it was unclear whether British democracy’s momentary resilience indicated enduring institutional firewalls against some of populism’s excesses, or merely a temporary pause in populism’s rise there.
Because Conservative lawmakers stopped Mr. Johnson by sacrificing their own party membership, she said, that can work only once. “If a politician shows they’re willing to take a stand, willing to stand up to both the prime minister and Brexit, they’re going to be out of politics,” she said.
In the long run, she noted, “It’s bad for politics.”
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