The ongoing parallel crises in the United Kingdom and the United States invite us to contemplate unwelcome truths about the nature of politics in the 21st century. In both countries, deep divisions have resulted in paralysis. In both, that paralysis represents something more profound: disagreement over the meaning and proper conduct of contemporary democracy. Yet there is little evidence that elites on either side of the Atlantic understand the actual problem at hand. Hence, the likelihood that it will fester.
In a nominal sense, their immediate problem centers on Brexit—how, or even whether, to honor the results of a 2016 national referendum in which a majority of voting Britons signaled their wish to leave the European Union. In a nominal sense, our immediate problem is a government shutdown. Yet overshadowing that shutdown is a persistent unwillingness to accept as legitimate the results of the 2016 presidential election in which Americans voted for Donald Trump in numbers sufficient to give him a majority in the Electoral College.
In both, the outcome of what was a manifestly democratic process confounded elite expectations. What happened wasn’t supposed to happen. In a few short months, the onward march towards a multicultural society and an integrated global order, with well-refined products of a carefully vetted and suitably diverse meritocracy pulling the strings, had been stopped in its tracks.