By late afternoon yesterday, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic were in full swing covering two momentous events. In the US, former FBI director James Comey, who was testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Trump and Russia, accused the White House of spreading “lies, plain and simple” about him and the FBI. In Britain, campaigners were making their final, frantic rounds to rally voters in a historic general election fraught with uncertainty. YouGov, the pollster that until then had predicted a strong performance for Labour, u-turned so fast that journalist Nick Cohen “could smell the burning rubber.”
But by the end of the day, things looked different. #dogsatpollingstations, the day’s respite from substance, was summarily swept aside by an exit poll that predicted a hung Parliament—one in which no party holds a sufficient majority to form a government. And there was a growing chorus suggesting that Comey’s testimony could irreparably damage the US president, with The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writing that: “Comey’s testimony may mark the moment when Trump’s biggest legal risk shifted from the nature of his campaign’s links to Russia to the nature of his own actions to prevent investigation of those links.”
As murmurs of impeachment punctuated the jubilance and surprise of Britain’s Twittersphere, I was reminded of the ways in which these two events were linked.
The Brexit referendum was perhaps the first real wake-up call for Western liberalism. Led by a campaign marred by xenophobia and sensational lies—remember that £350 million for the NHS?—which obfuscated the stunning complexity and dramatic consequences of the undertaking, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The vote ended the career of then Prime Minister David Cameron and ushered Theresa May—a former home secretary with a record of defunding the police, increasing surveillance and being harsh on immigrants—into power. (After last Saturday’s tragic attacks in London, she was true to her form, pledging to curtail civil liberties in the name of increasing security.) In short, the referendum—originally an attempt to reign in a Eurosceptic minority in the Conservative party—propelled the populists into Number 10.
Just months later, Donald Trump became POTUS in a campaign that bore stunning similarities to the Brexit referendum. Although the most widespread narrative — that white working-class voters, frustrated by globalisation’s failure to produce widespread prosperity, rebelled against an establishment they saw as reaping all the gains – is thought now at least partly debunked, much of the neoconservative pundit class sensed that these votes sounded the death knell for the liberal order and marked the return of darker times.
Yet, as I have argued before, our world is different from those that gave rise to the tyrannies of the 20th century. Our press is more robust and we are more informed. Our institutions are stronger and more able to hold power to account. And last night was, in many ways, a stunning validation of that reality.
Corbyn’s campaign inspired a major increase in turnout among the young by, as writer Freddie de Boer tweeted, “unapologetically and directly stating left-wing values.” Bars across the US opened early to show Comey’s testimony, and people took time off work to watch it. This does not happen on the road to authoritarianism. This is democracy in action: people seeking to be heard and to hold their governments to account.
Still, things might not look so bright in the near term. As Osnos wrote, Comey’s hearing may not lead to legal proceedings against Trump. And it’s looking increasingly likely that Theresa May will seek to form an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which supported Brexit and opposed gay marriage. But short-term upswings and downswings are inimical to representative government. At least the past 24 hours gave us signs that democracy is alive and well, and the systems designed to keep our darker impulses at bay are, well, seeming to do just that.
Lead photo courtesy of Chatham House.