Two stories at the center of the news — the Brexit mess in Britain and the U.S. Senate’s failure to act on gun violence — should force us to think hard about what it will take for historic democracies to make their systems work again. We need to accept that different conceptions of democracy sometimes contradict each other, and that some of our governing structures are the antithesis of democratic rule.

The implosion in the UK has created what usually sober and moderate analysts have taken to calling a “revolutionary moment.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson took office this summer committed to getting his country out of the European Union by Oct. 31, even if he failed to make a deal with Britain’s former EU partners to minimize disruption.

He insists that all he is doing is living up to what 52% of British voters supported in the 2016 referendum by casting their ballots in favor of leaving the EU.

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E.J. Dionne Jr. | The Washington Post

Opponents of “no-deal” Brexit argue that the majority for “leave” was not a majority for the chaos that crashing out of the EU could leave in its wake.

Johnson — made prime minister by the 92,000 members of his Conservative Party in a country of well over 45 million eligible voters — knew he lacked a majority in Parliament for a no-deal Brexit.

So he tried to get around Parliament by “proroguing” it. After a brief sitting this week, under Johnson’s ukase, Parliament was not scheduled to meet again until Oct. 14, leaving him with a lot of unaccountable power.

But Parliament wouldn’t have it. A 328-301 vote on Tuesday, in which 21 members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party bolted to the opposition, gave Parliament control of the process — and the 21 dissenters were thrown out of the Conservative Party. On Wednesday, the House of Commons passed a bill to block a no-deal Brexit.

Note how many times I have used the word “majority,” and how everyone in this debate claims the “real” majority is on their side. There is also a tension between the majority in the Parliament elected by the people and the majority verdict the people rendered in the referendum.

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Polls make a good case that many who voted for Brexit did not expect it to be this difficult — Brexit supporters such as Johnson suggested it would be a piece of cake — and that no-deal Brexit is not popular. Writing on the BBC’s website, the respected British political scientist Sir John Curtice calculated that an average of the polls shows 44% opposing no-deal Brexit, with only 38% favoring it. Of the rest, 11% said “neither” and 10% didn’t know. There is no majority here — and very little support for crashing out.

Personally, I am on the side of those in Britain who want a second referendum now that everyone knows just how messy this process is. A 21-year-old anti-Johnson demonstrator shrewdly echoed words once used by a Brexit advocate.

“If a democracy cannot change its mind,” Caitlin O’Hara told The New York Times, “it ceases to be a democracy.” Referendums, in principle the most democratic way of solving problems, can be highly imperfect instruments in gauging the public’s will, especially when the views of a significant number of those making a binary choice are complicated or contingent.

When it comes to gun control in the U.S., the democratic failure is more straightforward. In blocking a vote on a House-passed bill requiring universal background checks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is clearly foiling the will of an overwhelming majority of Americans. A July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 89% support background checks, including 84% of Republicans.

It’s not just that the Senate is a wildly undemocratic institution — 41 senators representing about one-fifth of the country’s population can block action through the filibuster.

It’s also that organizations with extreme views on guns hold outsize sway over the GOP.

As a Washington Post editorial spotlighted this week, it seems that no number of casualties from mass shootings will ever be enough to move McConnell off “his insistent inertia.”

So friends of liberal democracy need to revisit the classic questions about what direct role voters should play, how referendums should be structured, and what decisions are best made by representative bodies.

And in the United States, we need to confront how radically undemocratic the Senate has become. Perhaps the mass-shooting crisis will force us to acknowledge that what fancies itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body is now one of the free world’s least representative institutions.

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E.J. Dionne is a columnist with The Washington Post.


(3) comments


This summation of the situation is a brilliant stroke by Mr. Dionne: "And in the United States, we need to confront how radically undemocratic the Senate has become. Perhaps the mass-shooting crisis will force us to acknowledge that what fancies itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body is now one of the free world’s least representative institutions."

I am a great believer that great leadership sometimes goes against the grain of popular opinion, because it sees the essential truth that the majority does not yet perceive. But in this case, the Senate, and particularly Moscow Mitch McConnell, are barriers to common sense and the will of the majority, blocking sensible gun safety laws for political expediency and the money coming from right-wing lobbies like the NRA. For shame.


I see the Senate in a slightly different view, when I saw what the Democrats tried doing to Kavanagh for purely political reasons and based on the proven lies of accusers and still voted against his nomination, that’s all you need to know. The Democrats in the Senate under Harry Reid’s leadership actually started the rule changes to get their way politically and now cry when it has turned against them, that’s your Senate Democrats, totally political. They are a big part of the Trump resistance movement and that will will also backfire on them. When Harry Reid was the leader of the Senate and told actual lies on the floor and only on the floor about Trump not paying any taxes at all because he knew full well it was a lie and he could not be held accountable for his lies. If you saw when he was interviewed and admitted it, you wouldn’t think so highly of the Democrat Senate leader. The Senate Democrats are a disgrace to the government and should be recognized for what they are, political hacks. The down turn in ethics in the Senate started with the Democrats and will have to end with them, although in my opinion, it is way to late.


I agree, new2. The Senate and senators in general are totally political. Is this news to you? Did you take any civics classes in junior or senior high? That is the only thing, however, that you have right in your 9:40am post. The rest is the usual Fox News empty, fatuous bombast. Sort of like a certain retired HR man who claims he was "crack" on the job, but daily on these boards demonstrates such weak skill sets and lack of judgment and thought that he in reality seems rather cracked. If you want me to go into detail on the "resistance", "Harry Reid", and political hacks, and ethics of present day senators, I will be happy to set you straight.

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