Boris Johnson’s Downfall Should Make Americans Jealous

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Peter Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images

In the United Kingdom, a scandal-scarred, norms-busting populist has resigned as the head of his party and is about to be forced from power altogether. Despite his ability, over many years, to disrupt and defy the political traditions of his nation, he was laid low by the very institutions he had such disdain for. Order, in every sense, is being restored.

The scene playing out across the Atlantic is now unfathomable in the United States, where Boris Johnson’s equivalent, Donald Trump, is a serious threat to return to the presidency. Johnson and Trump are not entirely alike, but their rapid and unprecedented ascents were made possible by similar forces: populism, nativism, and festering rage at calcified political establishments. Both men are politically peripatetic and nakedly opportunistic, latching on to movements they cared little for until it made political sense for them to care. Johnson, infamously, had drafted columns arguing for and against Brexit before deciding to support the successful fight to leave the European Union. Trump rose to power on the same anti-immigrant, isolationist sentiment that would buoy Johnson just a few years later. Each man won big with constituencies that once, without question, supported the left-wing parties of their countries.

And each man has no regard for the truth. Trump, of course, is an inveterate liar who was impeached twice, urged on an insurrection, and continues to pretend he won the 2020 election. Johnson is a former journalist who made his name by fabricating dispatches and fell from power because he repeatedly flouted the strict pandemic protocols he put in place, lying to cover up parties during the darkest months of COVID. Johnson, like Trump, was a continual source of scandal and embarrassment, with the recent news of an ally’s sexual-assault allegations delivering the death blow to his political career.

Soon, Johnson will no longer be prime minister of the United Kingdom, and it’s here where the stark differences between the American and European political systems are laid bare. The U.K., like most high-functioning democracies across the world, has a parliament with a prime minister who simultaneously serves as the head of the party that has won the most votes. Some parliamentary systems employ proportional voting, while others, like the United Kingdom’s, use a first-past-the-post system similar to what is featured in the U.S., with members of Parliament — the equivalent of members of Congress — representing local districts or constituencies. No parliamentary system is without political strife, but many of the most galling and intractable problems facing America today probably would be solved if politicians somehow decided to rewrite the Constitution, dissolve Congress, and install a parliament instead.

Relative to prime ministers in other nations, the American president behaves as something closer to a monarch. The impeachment process, through Congress, is supposed to be a check on the misconduct of the executive, but Trump proved it is inordinately hard to force a president from office. Rounding up overwhelming majorities in two chambers of Congress is more difficult than holding a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons. In America, the two major political parties are simultaneously dominant and weak, lacking the hierarchies and formal powers seen in most parliamentary systems. Voters directly choose Democrats and Republicans. Party insiders may try to elevate certain candidates through donations or endorsements, but they cannot, realistically, control access to the ballot line. Trump was an outsider who captured the Republican Party because he was popular with ordinary voters. He became, through the will of the people, the Republican nominee in 2016 and again in 2020.

Prime ministers are accountable to Parliament. American presidents are accountable to Congress and the courts but are almost untouchable between election cycles. Republican party leaders are impotent against Trump, while the Conservatives can decide, rather quickly, to excise themselves of Johnson and make someone else prime minister until the next election.

In parliamentary governments, voters choose political parties, not candidates. Registered, dues-paying members of the party can vote to choose who leads them — Johnson won the popular vote of more than 100,000 Conservative Party members across the country — but it’s the MPs who really decide who will front the major parties in an election. Voters may choose to back Conservative or Labour, with the party-selected candidates campaigning on distinct policy platforms. Whichever party wins a majority of seats governs the nation, with the victorious party leader becoming prime minister. If one party captures a plurality and not a majority, it must coalition-build with smaller parties to form a workable majority. Theresa May, Johnson’s Conservative Party predecessor, had to form an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to govern.

Parliamentary systems are more hostile to political outsiders, and this, to American eyes, could be a mark against them. Progressives may lament that a leftist like Bernie Sanders, in a parliament, couldn’t contest primaries across the nation in the hopes of dethroning a more moderate party leader. In the United Kingdom, there is still room for popular uprisings, though. Jeremy Corbyn was able to lead Labour for several years because he was well liked by the larger membership beyond Parliament. He would have been prime minister if his Labour Party defeated Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019. Labour lost in a landslide, and Corbyn resigned as leader.

Parliaments are vastly superior to the American system because the popular vote matters. European and Asian governments cannot eradicate political polarization, but the corrosive gridlock and deadlock that are now more of a feature than a bug of American politics aren’t found elsewhere. Parties cooperate, if need be, to govern; there is no such thing as split, zero-sum control, with one party swallowing up the legislature while another holds the executive branch. And there is no such thing as an Electoral College to hand a victory to a party that cannot win a majority of the votes in a country. There is, in most cases, no powerful upper chamber like the Senate to prioritize the desires of smaller constituencies and work against the greater will of a nation. (The House of Lords in the U.K. is more vestigial.) If Republicans couldn’t win a majority a parliamentary election — they have done so only once in the 21st century — they would have to craft a coalition with a third party to have any hope of governing. This would instantly moderate a GOP that has swung deeply to the right on a host of social and cultural issues. In America, third parties would have a significant and productive role to play rather than serving as spoilers. Unless the Republicans could hunt up another party that was somehow as wildly supportive of cracking down on abortion rights and flooding the nation with guns as they were — the only other right-leaning party, the Libertarians, is not so enthusiastically anti-choice — they would be locked out of power. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton won only 48 percent of the vote, so she too would have had to form a coalition depending on how the parliamentary system is set up.)

It’s worth noting that Johnson, for all his disturbing tendencies, is much more liberal on social and economic issues than any prominent Republican. He released a statement bemoaning the repeal of Roe v. Wade. He believes climate change is real. He backed a huge windfall tax on oil and gas giants to help the working class with its energy bills. This does not make Johnson a great outlier among his Conservative brethren, though a few grumbled over his flouting of some Thatcherian orthodoxies; rather, it proves that the Conservative Party, in the U.K., is a true majority party. It has governed the nation for more than a decade. It keeps winning elections. If some of this can be attributed to the political failures of Labour, it’s also the result of a party that is forced to listen to the median voter.

Republicans in the United States know they can win elections without such concessions. State legislatures are gerrymandered. The Senate grants the Dakotas twice as many representatives as California. The Electoral College can make a candidate who wins 46 percent of the vote victorious. It’s a broken system replicated nowhere else. When America exported democracies to the rest of the world in the 20th century, it never re-created what its own citizens had to endure for more than two centuries. Rewriting the American Constitution is almost impossible, and the hope for such a transition to a wiser political system is faint at best. But if American progressives today can call for radical solutions like the expansion, or even eradication, of the Supreme Court as we know it, it may be worth dreaming bigger. America still deserves better than this.

Boris Johnson’s Downfall Should Make Americans Jealous