Who’s in Charge Here?

British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, November 21, 2018. (Francois Walschaerts/Reuters)
Not the people — nor, quite often, their elected representatives.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was asked on many occasions whether he would “accept the results” of the election if he were to lose. Democrats and their media allies demanded that he make a solemn vow to “accept the results.” It was never entirely clear what anybody thought the alternative to acceptance was: Donald Trump’s raising a revolutionary army and marching on Washington like Francisco Franco breaking the Siege of the Alcázar?

Better that question should have been put to Theresa May.

The people of the United Kingdom, having been consulted on the matter, voted to leave the European Union. That vote happened on June 23, 2016. Here at the end of 2018, it remains unclear whether the U.K. government and the European Union will actually accept the results of that election. The editorial board of the New York Times complains that the current debate over the particulars of the British departure from the EU “largely exclude any thought of European Union interests.” It takes a special cast of mind to miss that that is precisely the point.

The British people voted to leave the European Union because many of them felt that they had lost control over their country, that key decisions important to their own lives and to the common life of the British people were being made by unaccountable men far away in Brussels. The existence of a European Parliament did little to assuage those anxieties, because the European Parliament is a parliament that barely deserves the name: The real power rests in the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and — above all — the European bureaucracy based in Brussels.

Since the Brexit vote, the people of the United Kingdom have been informed by their government that they may not have their own way and get what they voted for because giving it to them is too complicated. Which — again — is precisely the point. The difficulty of leaving the European Union highlights the necessity of doing so if the people of the United Kingdom are to remain the masters of their own lives. The British fought hard and sacrificed much for the principle that Parliament is sovereign — that even the king must answer to the people through their representatives — and the self-satisfied gentlemen in Brussels made a smug show out of pissing on that principle from a great height.

The British indictment of the European Union will sound entirely familiar to American ears: It represents the wresting of power from the people by unaccountable elites, it holds in contempt the concept of national sovereignty, it is associated with excessive and disorderly immigration, it pursues economic policies that serve the interests of the high and mighty rather than the common people, etc.

In the United States, the Left and the Right talk about those issues in different ways, and they emphasize different complaints: The Democrats suddenly changed their tone on immigration when they realized that Bernie Sanders in 2016 sounded quite like Donald Trump, which was not pleasing to several important Democratic constituencies, while Republicans have developed a little bit of double vision on the question of how they feel about rich guys and Big Business: Cheers for Peter Thiel, jeers for Mark Zuckerberg, three cheers for Exxon, nuts to Google.

But the populist Left and the populist Right in the United States — which, increasingly, means simply the Left and the Right in the United States — begin with fundamental complaints that are functionally identical: Wage growth for middle-income Americans has been disappointing, and they have very little security in their jobs, which surely is the result of collusion between American bigwigs and dirty foreigners somewhere, particularly in China. Jake Werner of the University of Chicago noted this curious bipartisanship in Foreign Policy: “Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoes President Donald Trump’s talking points, decrying the transfer of ‘our’ technology to China and condemning investment there. Fellow progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is lining up with former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon calling for an ‘aggressive’ policy. Establishment Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are endorsing Trump’s trade war with China.”

These complaints are not limited to government and public policy. If anything, both Left and Right have developed a newly intense resentment of the way in which purely private actors can exercise tremendous influence over their lives: corporate mergers and restructurings take away jobs and upend the economic situation of communities dependent on them; Facebook and Twitter endeavor to silence unpopular political views, or else are used as vehicles for ochlocratic attacks on hapless Starbucks staffers and Chipotle managers; in 2008–09, the world economy was convulsed by the fact that a great many Wall Street firms made bad investments that they did not quite even understand, necessitating trillions of dollars in bailouts and “quantitative easing” to stave off economic disaster. It is easier for a man to walk away from his wife and children than from his credit-card debt or student loans. Nobody seems to really know what his health insurance will cover — or what it will cover the day after tomorrow. A third of the teachers participating in a grant program found themselves saddled with loans — loans they had never signed up for, sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of dollars —because of paperwork issues. Innocent men and women are wrongly prosecuted and end up financially ruined even when they escape jail, and even as prosecutors boldly boast about abusing their powers.

The burden of these developments always seems to fall on those who do not have much money or power. You miss filing a 1040EZ one year and you’ll get your bank account hijacked by the IRS; Lois Lerner hijacks the entire IRS for a political project and she ends up with pension that’s twice what most American households earn in a year. Corporate executives flit from one gilt perch to the next, politicians flout both law and morality without real consequence, and their cronies and minions rarely miss a paycheck. Meanwhile, the New York Times is full of advertisements for Rolex and Cartier, Tiffany and Zegna — and stories about how nobody can really be expected to get by on $200,000 a year.

In Francis Fukuyama’s magisterial Origins of Political Order, he specifies three things that undergird the development of political development: the state, the rule of law, and accountability. The first we have plenty of — more of than we need, really. The other two . . . less so. Irrespective of how you feel about the current legal efforts being made against President Trump, it is impossible for any intelligent person to look at the situation and conclude that anybody — anybody — involved in this mess is simply working to apply the law rather than conducting a political jihad or counter-jihad through legal means — lawfare, as they call it. The rule of law took a beating during the Obama administration, and the chaos of the Trump administration does not seem likely to contribute much to its recuperation.

But it is accountability that is foremost in the minds of the disaffected and despairing. The British want to know that if they are unhappy with this law or that regulation, they can vote against their local MP — or at least go give him the polite British business — if he doesn’t get on board. A perplexing European apparatus headquartered in a faraway country? It is difficult to get accountability out of such a beast. The same lack of directness and comprehensibility has sustained the drive against our own multilateral commitments, including good ones such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

A few years ago, I was in Switzerland writing a piece in which I argued that the Confoederatio Helvetica is the world’s best-governed country. You may not agree, but it is a country with a remarkable level of accountability — accountability that is held close to the Swiss people. Around the time I was visiting, Tina Turner, a longtime resident of the country, was in the final stages of becoming a Swiss national. Because of the eccentricities of Switzerland’s democratic and radically local governance, the famous singer had to trundle down to the Swiss version of her local city council meeting and prove to them that she could speak German well enough to function as a Swiss citizen and resident of the Canton of Zurich, that she had sufficient financial resources to avoid being a public ward, and that she was an all-around good egg. The local government, not only the national government in Bern, has a say in that. Imagine a United States in which, say, the City of Minneapolis or the representatives of Presidio County, Texas, had a real say over immigration decisions.

It would look different. Maybe you think that would be an improvement and maybe you don’t, but it almost certainly would be more representative of what people actually want — or, at least, the decisions would be made at a level that is more readily subject to the exercise of democratic accountability.

As things stand, our immigration regime gives the distinct impression that nobody is in charge — and that nobody is accountable. The president wants one thing (or a basket of inconsistent and contradictory things), Congress another — and its basket of inconsistent and contradictory things is divided between the parties and subdivided among the factions within those parties, while the bureaucracy goes, as it generally does, its own way. If the desire to have somebody in charge and accountable presses downward, you get Switzerland — or you get American-style federalism, localism, and subsidiarity. If the desire to have somebody in charge and accountable presses upward, you get caudillo politics.

The United States, with its mass and diversity and complexity, is never going to be very much like Switzerland, with its neutrality and its localized democracy and its friendly-but-no-more-than-friendly relations with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. And though there are partisans of caudillo-ism in the United States — in both parties — that is not a very likely outcome, either. We are too dynamic and unruly for that.

One model of working toward real accountability would be pressing not only political decision-making but also political administration down to the state and local level as much as possible. In the Nordic welfare states that our progressives admire, many social programs are administered at the local rather than national level — in Sweden, for example, health care is managed at the county level, not the national level. That means that people can see for themselves how social services are managed, delivered, and consumed. The United States, on the other hand, has been pursuing a program of centralization — pushed by progressives — for about a century. Some on the Left have started to see the light on this issue: Faced with a Trump administration, there are many in California who have developed a sudden appreciation for the virtues of federalism. They want to let California be California. If only we could convince them to let Texas be Texas, too.

If we do not find a way toward more robust accountability, the most likely outcome is not strongman rule: It is chaos, with desultory, emotive, largely symbolic populist episodes producing counterproductive interventions here and there in disorderly and contradictory fashion — and probably vindictive fashion—in a way that in effect cedes an ever-larger share of real power to the bureaucracies, which are the institutions least likely to provide real accountability.

And it is very difficult to take back power from a bureaucracy set on keeping it. Pass all the laws you like, win every election, and you still may not get what you want. Ask the British.

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