international analysis and commentary

Rousseau’s curse


Jean Jacques Rousseau once argued that even the best made constitutional arrangements cannot function if the people who get to power do not want them to work. At the time, he was reflecting on the government of Poland.[i] Today he might look at the Great Britain or the United States. When the British prime minister tries (unsuccessfully) to send parliament home for five weeks so that he can pull the UK out of the European Union without interference, as Boris Johnson did last September, or when the US president instructs his officials to stonewall impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, as Donald Trump did last November, it is hard not to conclude that the constitutions of those countries are under threat from within.

It would be convenient to believe that this is the fault of “bad” actors trying to take advantage of an otherwise strong system. In such an analysis, whether those bad actors are coming from the executive or the legislature, or from the right or the left, is unimportant; what matters is that the problem will go away as soon as those people are replaced. Alas, it is not so easy. As Rousseau was quick to concede, individuals are never perfect. Hence the problem is baked into the relationship between the constitution and the people. In the US and British cases, the tension arises between democracy and liberalism.

The democrats (with a small “d”, meaning not necessarily from the US Democratic Party) believe they have a mandate from the people; the liberals (with a small “l”, i.e. not necessarily from the British Liberal Democrats) believe that any decision can be subject to change. Rousseau’s curse is that one side or the other is going to be disappointed on any given issue, and that both democrats and liberals are going to face frustration time and again. Rousseau’s challenge is to find some way to persuade both groups to remain committed to the constitutional arrangement, nonetheless.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


BREXIT IS BREXIT, TRUMP IS TRUMP. Johnson and Trump are the small “d” democrats in the current conflict. Johnson’s mandate is Brexit. Trump’s mandate is Trump. Both define their mandates in uncompromising, existential terms, and they define their opponents as the enemies of the people. If there is stalemate in the legislative process or dysfunction in the wider system of government, it is because the opposition does not respect the mandate. Hence, Boris Johnson used his first speech of the 2019 electoral campaign to argue:

The UK is admired and respected around the world, but people are baffled by our debate on Brexit and they cannot understand how this great country can squander so much time and energy on this question and how we can be so hesitant about our future. If we can get a working majority, we can get parliament working for you, we can get out of the rut. We can end the groundhoggery of Brexit.[ii]

This framing is not accidental. From the start of his premiership, Johnson focused his time as prime minister on building the case for a general along the lines of “the people versus the parliament,” using “Brexit to win a general election, rather than [using] a general election to secure Brexit.”[iii]

The language Donald Trump uses is even more to the point. As Ambassador Marie Yovanovich testified before the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives as part of the public impeachment proceedings, Trump tweeted:

The impeachment Witch Hunt should be over …. Nervous Nancy Pelosi … is getting NOTHING DONE. She is a Do Nothing Democrat as Speaker, and hopefully will not be in that position very long.[iv]

Trump’s explanation for the conflict is simple: “They are trying to stop me, because I am fighting for you.”[v] By “you”, Trump means “the people”. Like Johnson, Trump argues that the solution is to replace politicians who will not support his agenda with politicians who will.

This sort of rhetoric may be compelling in a campaign, but it rests on an obviously incomplete theory of government. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the British gave Johnson – first as leader of the Leave campaign and later as prime minister – a mandate for Brexit and the Americans gave Trump a mandate as president, there is no reason to believe that either of these mandates was sufficiently well-articulated in advance to be put into practice without adjustment. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, famously campaigned for the leadership of the Conservative Party on the principle that “Brexit means Brexit”. May spent the subsequent three years trying to hammer out how Britain’s departure from the European Union would work in practice and failed to craft a vision that could convince even the members of her own party.

Johnson also struggled to come up with a coherent program for separating Britain from the EU. He was able to win concessions from the rest of the European Union to amend the deal that May negotiated, but the amended agreement is at best only a partial blueprint for the transition period and it provides little concrete insight on what Britain’s relationship with the EU will be once the transition is ended. Meanwhile, the attitudes of the British people have continued to evolve as they have learned more about the process and its implications and, perhaps more important, as the demographics of the country have changed.[vi] Johnson is probably right in that context to insist on new elections. Certainly, this gives him the chance to replace those Conservative members of parliament who prefer to see Britain remain in the European Union with those who back his deal for leaving; Johnson may even succeed in winning a workable majority. The point to note, however, is that these elections are a concession to the argument that the “mandate” from the people is somehow unchanging.

This concession is even stronger in the case of Donald Trump. Before his election as president, Trump was known as an inconsistent and often contradictory figure, willing to take whichever side of any issue is most likely to curry the most public favour – and equally willing to change positions from one moment to the next. Beneath the surface, however, Trump is deeply committed both to a world view and to a style of leadership.[vii] Much of the electorate was unaware of that commitment, including many of his supporters in the Republican camp. This ignorance nurtured the belief that Trump could be guided by the “adults in the room”, including the Vice President, who could help chart a policy course that would be more consistent with traditional Republican values. That belief turned out to be unfounded and Trump has remained true to his own principles instead.[viii]

Elections have consequences. The voters who supported Trump without knowing him cannot revoke change their votes after the fact. Saying they voted for Trump is not the same, however, as saying they gave Trump a mandate to pursue policies they did not anticipate. It is also not the same as saying they embraced Trump’s style of politics. On the contrary, it is all the more reason to believe that they should have the opportunity to influence the administration’s policies both directly, through efforts to pressure their elected representatives, and by casting ballots in the mid-term elections. That is precisely the kind of influence that Trump characterizes as illegitimate.


FRUSTRATION WITH CHECKS AND BALANCES. The liberal critique of democratic mandates is a powerful one. Majority rule requires checks and balances, particularly in those countries like Britain and the United States where electoral institutions tend to polarize political debate. But if the logic behind small “l” liberalism is so compelling, it is worth considering why the liberal consensus has weakened in both countries over the past four-to-five decades. Despite the attention they receive now, Johnson and Trump are the symptoms of much longer-term developments; they are the products and not the architects of the tensions that currently define British and American politics.

The weakness of liberalism has many deep roots, each of which leads back to some source of frustration with the inertia or friction that the institutions for checks and balances represent. Some of these stretch back into a time when special interest groups exercised a stranglehold over the political process. The expansion of the Welfare State in the 1960s created obligations that successive governments found increasingly difficult to afford, but it also created powerful constituencies that resisted any change. Meanwhile, new generations emerged in unprecedented prosperity to place ever increasing demands on government services. As prosperity spread abroad moreover, new actors began to compete for that prosperity and to assert their influence over scarce resources. Mancur Olson described this combination of influences in his 1982 analysis of The Rise and Decline of Nations. At much the same time, Lester Thurow pointed out how liberal checks and balances made it so difficult to escape from a Zero-Sum Society.[ix]

If interest groups were the problem, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan offered the solution, openly confronting the politics of special interest by hardening and streamlining the powers of the state. Along the way they ushered in a new style of politics focused more on conviction and less on compromise. Their explicit goal was to get the country moving again. Inadvertently, though, they shifted the balance attitudes toward constitutional arrangements away from liberal restraint and toward greater democratic self-assertion. This shift was stronger on the political right than on the political left, but it had implications for all parts of the spectrum insofar. Politics became less focused on the search for consensus and more accepting of the alternation in political priorities from one administration to the next; competition between the two sides of the aisle became more tit-for-tat, and competition within left- and right-wing constituencies drifted toward the extremes.[x] In this way, efforts to address the frustration associated with inertia or friction in political decision-making progressively chipped away at popular support for small-”l” liberalism.

Moreover, interest groups were not the only problem. British and American societies faced a host of challenges related to the evolution of industrial technology, the deepening of economic integration, and the changing composition of society, both ethnically and demographically. These challenges are well-known. What deserves more attention is how poorly efforts to raise or address these challenges fit into the pattern of electoral competition between left and right as shaped by British and American electoral institutions, and how much worse the drift toward left-right polarization made the disconnect.[xi] Where more proportional electoral systems in other advanced democracies have experienced a splintering of political parties into ever smaller groups clamouring to bring attention to an expanding range of issues, the British and American political systems have become more schizophrenic – polarizing around one cleavage (like income redistribution) in one election and then switching to another (like race or culture) for the next. When no single cleavage or set of issues dominates the conversation, British and American politics becomes even more confusing because the main political parties operate as loose coalitions bringing together seemingly incompatible political groups. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are now much more heterogeneous than they were in the past; the same is also true for the Conservatives and Labour.

Within this pattern, it is easy for important issues to receive inadequate representation for long periods of time. Britain’s relationship with the European Union is a good illustration. That relationship gained salience initially within the Conservative Party during the Maastricht rebellion in the early 1990s. It bubbled periodically to the surface primarily among Conservatives, but also within the ranks of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, it was only in the early 2000s that the issue started to gain more consistent traction, due largely to the success of the UK Independence Party in elections to the European Parliament. David Cameron’s decision in 2013 to call for an in-or-out referendum was pitched as an opportunity to have a long-overdue conversation about British EU membership.

The campaign leading up to the June 2016 revealed just how deep the divisions on both sides of the left-right political spectrum had become. Boris Johnson simply exploited the opportunity that division represented.[xii] Efforts to address the frustration with liberal checks and balances created an opening for Johnson to position himself as a small-”d” democrat seeking a popular mandate for action. The story behind Donald Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” is similar, even if the issues involved are subtly different. A deep cleavage has opened up in the United States between those who seek to engage with the outside world and those who want politicians to focus more clearly on domestic problems. That cleavage challenges fundamentally the foreign and economic policy consensus that existed among Republicans and Democrats. Trump exploited that cleavage to run against the establishment.[xiii] Now both Britain and the United States are out of balance.


REBALANCING ANGLO-AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. The challenge is to find a formula to bring the constitutional arrangements in Britain and the United States back into equilibrium. The solution is not constitutional amendment. Rousseau is clear on that front. The institutional relationships by themselves only provide the context for the British and Americans to reconcile their desire for decisive action with the respect for inclusiveness and consensus-building. But only the British and the Americans can restrike the balance between their own liberals and democrats. Meanwhile, Brexit in the United Kingdom and impeachment in the United States are increasing political polarization and driving both countries more firmly into the arms of small-”d” democrats with narrow, self-defined mandates. In other words, the situation in the near term is more likely to get worse than to get better.

So long as the existing constitutional arrangements remain in place, however, so does the opportunity for improvement. Political leaders who want the institutions of both countries to work can push back against the dysfunction we see at the present. Over time, they may also be able to address the deep cleavages that cut across both societies and to reduce the political polarization. This may sound idealistic, but it is not. Both countries have experienced similar bouts of dysfunction in the past and recovered. The late 19th Century was no halcyon period, neither were the 1920s and 1930s, and neither were the 1970s and early 1980s. The British and Americans have been here before and their constitutions have persevered. Perhaps that resilience is proof that Rousseau’s curse is exaggerated. Rousseau argued that “a good and sound constitution is one under which the law holds sway over the hearts of the citizens”.[xiv] A longer-term perspective on political developments in both countries suggests that “sway” already exists.





[i] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Government of Poland, translated by Willmoore Kendall, Hackett Publishing Company, 1985, p. 4.

[ii] Peter Walker, “Boris Johnson to promise end to ‘Brexit groundhoggery’ in first stump speech,” The Guardian, November 12, 2019.

[iii] This strategy was foreshadowed early in Johnson’s time in office. See Tom Kibasi, “Boris Johnson’s intention is clear: he wants a ‘people v parliament’ election,” The Guardian, August 28, 2019.

[iv] This quotation is pieced together from two tweets in the same thread published on November 15, 2019. The punctuation and formatting are copied from the original.

[v] This quotation is from a televised interview that Trump reproduced in his Twitter feed on November 13, 2019.

[vi] John Curtice, “Have UK voters changed their minds on Brexit?” BBC News, October 17, 2019.

[vii] See Charlie Leaderman and Brendan Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a World View, Endeavour Press, 2017, chapter 4.

[viii] See Guy M. Snodgrass, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, Sentinel, 2019.

[ix] Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations, Yale University Press, 1982;

Lester C. Thurow, The Zero-Sum Society, Penguin, 1980.

[x] See, for example, Edward Luce, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

[xi] This argument draws heavily on Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Verso, 2013.

[xii] Craig Oliver, Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit, Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

[xiii] See, for example, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown, 2018.

[xiv] Rousseau, p. 4.