Are Donald Trump and Theresa May ‘Hostages’ to Their Countries’ Legislatures?

Do the domestic political events in the United States and Great Britain underscore the triumph of Western democracy or do they signify a deep internal political crisis in these countries? Democracies can encounter crises but their resilience is higher than that of authoritarian regimes. According to the theory of democracy, this confrontation is natural. It has little to do with their “Anglo-Saxon” character: France is famous for its “cohabitation” problems and Spain has had a minority government in a hostile Parliament for the last three years, José Ignacio Torreblanca, Head of the Madrid Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said in interview with valdaiclub.com.

I do not think there is evidence of Trump or May being “hostages" to their countries’ legislatures. In democracies, legislatures (and courts) have a constitutionally-defined responsibility to keep executive power under check. In other words, if conflicts between different branches of power exist only in democracies, it’s because they’re intrinsic to their nature and functioning. According to the theory of democracy, this confrontation is natural. It has little to do with the “Anglo-Saxon” character: France is famous for its “cohabitation” problems and Spain has had a minority government in a hostile legislature for the last three years. Democracy has taken hold in places like India, Japan, Namibia and Peru, so it’s not the exclusive domain of “Anglo-Saxons”. A different matter is that too much confrontation may in the end negatively affect the state’s capacity to govern and undermine the trust of citizens. But this is a matter related to how a democracy is run in practice, not the theory behind it. You certainly wouldn’t find such crises is in authoritarian regimes, which are typically defined as lacking a separation of powers and failing to guarantee basic civil and political rights. In Russia, for example, it’s unheard of that the Duma or the courts would be able to block any decision taken by Vladimir Putin, let alone have the power to initiate processes to impeach the president or force the resignation of any member of the Cabinet amid allegations of corruption, mismanagement, human rights violations or lying to the public. The same is true in China and North Korea, where they do not even bother to pretend to hold free and fair elections. Political crises, thus, don’t call into question the roots of the democratic model, which is grounded in the aspirations of the people.

Public Conflicts, Democracy and Authoritarianism: Lessons of History
Conflicts between branches of government reflect growing conflicts within the public domain regardless of what political regime is at the helm. Society in general develops through conflicts arising from objective causes. A conflict within society is an objective phenomenon and therefore is inevitable.
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Authoritarian regimes typically rely on “output” legitimacy, but lack “input” legitimacy. “Legitimacy of state power” is a concept that’s considered alien to democracies. Democracies derive their legitimacy from the will of the people (demo, kratos), i.e. in a bottom-up way, not in a top-down matter. Typically, authoritarian regimes, which can’t claim to derive their right to govern from the will of the people, (as expressed in competitive and fair elections or procedures such as the separation of powers), seek to establish legitimacy though results. This makes them extremely dependent on economic performance and redistribution: to survive, they need to grow much more than democracies and “buy” consent by subsidising entire groups and industries. The problem is that they usually stop growing, because the lack of democratic controls favours unchecked corruption and thus slows growth. Then they can only resort to appealing to nationalism to keep citizens from revolting. Initiating interventions or otherwise entering diplomatic or military conflicts with third countries is usually the reaction of regimes which feel weak at home and therefore need to “rally around the flag”. In fact, some of these explanations fit well with the events which have taken place in Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or North Korea in recent years.

The US is not a parliamentary democracy, it’s a presidential democracy with a system of separation of powers and a Constitution. Britain is a parliamentary democracy without a written constitution which has a prime minister that can be removed by Parliament at any time. Both are “liberal democracies” and, yes, they’re “exemplary” forms of government. They’re far superior when it comes to safeguarding basic human rights and ensuring personal freedoms, and also when it comes to providing economic growth and social justice. These governments are more durable than those of authoritarian countries, because they have different safety valves that authoritarian nations lack: mainly, free and fair elections, which allow citizens to vote in a new president or prime minister if economic results are bad. It’s called “accountability”. Additionally, empirical evidence shows that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with each other. Clearly, democracies can go through crises but their resilience is higher than that of authoritarian regimes. Some hold the view that authoritarian regimes like Russia are more “legitimate” before the public because they suppress confrontation and are, allegedly, more efficient in producing decisions. This is a question that goes back centuries, to a time when we had “absolute monarchies” that relied on divine legitimation. Ultimately, if the will of the people, as expressed in free, fair, competitive elections under independent courts, is not the benchmark providing legitimacy to those in office, what should it be? After having tried with “the King", "God”, “the Party", "the nation” and the “wise leader”, liberal democracies have ended up deriving their legitimacy from a superior authority: the consent of their citizens. And that’s just fine.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.