The cornerstone of all strong democracies is a multi-party system which often (though not exclusively) includes two major parties, one liberal and one conservative. In an ideal democracy, one would choose which party to vote for based upon which seemed to have the stronger policies in any given election. However, all too often voters consider elections as they would a team sport: they choose their party and will remain loyal to said party despite any potential mitigating factors. This has only been magnified by the effect of social media and current technologies, which enables voters to only see news sources which cater to their political biases. Thus, we currently live in an era of hyper-partisanship in which the goal becomes winning, no matter what, rather than which party can formulate policies which will benefit its voters the most. The impacts of this hyper-partisanship are already evident, and wreaking havoc upon Western democracies as demonstrated by President Trump’s recent acquittal in the US, various Brexit issues including the illegal overspending of the “Vote Leave” campaign and Boris Johnson’s illegal closure of parliament in the UK, and the Australian “sports-rorts” scandal. Each of these instances have threatened the legitimacy of their domestic government, creating the potential for further governmental unaccountability. This disempowers citizens and further generates the possibility of disruptions to peace.
On Wednesday, February 5, 2020, the Republican-led senate acquitted President Trump of the two charges of impeachment which the Democrat-led House of Representatives had brought against him. This marked the third time in history that an American President had been impeached and on all three occasions they have been acquitted. What is notable about this acquittal is that it occurred (with only one dissenting Republican vote by Senator Mitt Romney) despite the acknowledgement by Republicans that Trump is in fact guilty of what he has been accused. For many Republicans, the decision to acquit derives from the conviction that, as Senator Lamar Alexander put it, “[i]t would just pour gasoline on the cultural fires that are burning out there.” These Republicans argue that the voters should have the chance to express their opinions; if Trump’s actions are really so bad, he will be voted out in the upcoming November election. Yet this argument completely disregards the fact that as Senators, these people have been elected to uphold the values of American democracy, which includes removing a president from office should he (or potentially she in the future) commit an impeachable offence. That these senators have failed to do so and still support the re-election of President Trump despite their acknowledgement that his behaviour is inappropriate, suggests that hyper-partisanship is severely damaging the authority of American democracy.
The entire Brexit debacle has been marred by the hyper-partisanship of those in both the “leave” and “stay” camps. One major example of this is the illegal overspending of the “Vote Leave” campaign prior to the 2016 referendum, which impacted the result, casting doubt over the entire Brexit electoral process. The“Vote Leave” campaign was fined £61,000 for this wrongdoing, and two people were referred to police, according to The Independent. Yet this demonstration of wrongdoing did not spark a new referendum or result in parliament rethinking Brexit. Instead, this instance has been mostly forgotten, highlighting the increased normality of such corruption in the name of winning. Those who support leaving the EU still maintain the legitimacy of the vote, which highlights the entrenchment of hyper-partisanship within the British electoral process. More recently, the U.K. Supreme Court unanimously found Prime Minister Boris Johnson to have ‘unlawfully’ shut down British Parliament in an act that was “a ‘prolonged suspension of parliamentary democracy’ in exceptional circumstances,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. However, the illegality of Brexit supporters on these two fronts did not prevent Brexit from finally going through on the 31st January 2020, to a very mixed response, depending on which side of the Brexit divide commentators lie. That these acts have been either ignored or defended in a case of ‘the ends justifying the means’ emphasizes the hyper-partisanship of the whole Brexit process.
Although it has attracted less global attention than the previous two examples, the Australian “sports-rorts” scandal is yet another instance of the nefarious effects of hyper-partisanship. Essentially, in the lead up to the 2019 Australian election, the government was distributing funds for a sports grant initiative worth up to $500,000 (AUD), which aimed to increase physical activity among Australians. Rather than following the guidelines established by Sport Australia to ensure fair distribution of the funds, the office of Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie instead distributed the funds on a political basis. Marginal seats were awarded large grants, despite not having been found as deserving, according to the objective set of guidelines. Furthermore, clubs with direct connections to members of governments and affluent clubs which frankly did not need the grant and have limited benefit to the wider Australian community (e.g. the Royal Adelaide Golf Club and a rowing club in Mosman, a wealthy Sydney suburb) also received grants. The corruption is blatant, yet aside from Deputy Leader of The Nationals Bridget McKenzie’s (belated) forced resignation the government still denies any wrongdoing. Instead, they argue that all of the grants were given to ‘eligible’ programs, without acknowledging that the programs didn’t merit the grants. This instance highlights the lengths that parties are willing to go to in order to win elections and defend their tenure in office. Due to the current climate of political hyper-partisanship, governments believe that they are able to evade the consequences of acts like these, and that these acts are in fact justified in order to win elections. They don’t believe that they will be punished by the voters, and, sadly enough, there is little evidence to suggest that they will be.
It seems ironically superfluous to pronounce that politics has been politicized, yet in a sense this is exactly what has happened. Of course, politics has never been entirely altruistic as some idealists may believe, yet the current hyper-partisanship ensures the complete politicization of every political opinion and decision. Republican Senators didn’t pronounce Trump guilty, despite many being convinced he was, as that would damage their party. Similarly, throughout the Brexit saga, the illegalities perpetrated by supporters of Britain leaving the EU were either ignored or justified according to their aim. In the Australian case, despite stunning evidence of governmental corruption in awarding sports grants, the government still denies any wrongdoing and seems convinced that they can avoid any consequences. All of these instances represent the increasing illegitimacy of Western democracies, due to a hyper-partisan political climate. Unless we act very quickly, this may result in a continued and egregious lack of governmental accountability and threaten the world as we currently know it.