The other day, I was listening to Ezra Klein’s (highly recommended) podcast The Ezra Klein Show. The guest was Tim Alberta (and, full disclosure, I haven’t read his book yet – though it sounds fantastic). The conversation between the two is a fantastic one all round, so well worth a listen.
But I was struck by two things that were mentioned in the conversation.
Firstly, the way that the Republican and Democratic parties in the US have increasingly less power nowadays. The past few weeks have seen internecine fighting within the Democratic Party explode into the open, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic party leaders openly attacking liberal Democratic congresswomen for their refusal to toe the party line.
And, secondly, the way that members of Congress in the US often really struggle to find ways to effectively communicate with each other despite working in the same building. Klein and Alberta talk about how, when reporting on members of Congress, they often found they had a greater breadth of knowledge on what other members of Congress were doing than the members did themselves. The following passage is from around 1:04:00 in the conversation:
Ezra Klein: I think this is something you learn as a political reporter and that is not clear if you’re outside the system: Members of Congress are extremely misinformed on each other. The thing that was most strange to me when I began reporting on Congress — I would be talking to these members of the House or the Senate… and they were talking to me, and they’d be like, ‘Well, what are you hearing?’ And I’d be asking about something [then Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid was doing, and they’d be like, ‘Well.. I don’t know… I saw him say in National Journal the other day…’ Or I would talk to someone in the leadership office, and I’d be talking to them about something [conservative Democratic Senator Joe] Liebermann was doing on the bill, and they’d be saying, ‘Oh, you know, we’re not sure… but something he said the other day in Politico…’
And it was this moment where I was like, ‘Are they learning about each other the same way we’re learning about them?’
I had always thought that they must call each other, that they must have some kind of internal information system. But they don’t! They’re constantly wrong about what the other ones are doing; they’re mad at each other, so they’re not talking to each other…
I think that people really underestimate how bad the information processes inside Congress actually are. It seems like they should know what’s going on inside their own institution. But the degree to which they don’t, and particularly to which they don’t if they’re outside a couple of the core positions, is really striking to me.
Tim Alberta: There’s no question. And I think a reason I was able to be somewhat successful in covering Congress and breaking some news over the years: when I would sit down with a member, and we’d start shooting the shit, I would realise in nine cases out of ten that they wanted more information from me than I wanted from them. If you were willing to trade the gossip and were willing to just BS for a while with them, you could get really great information.
They’ve got the immediate information – they’ve been in the meetings, etc. — but anything that’s even one level to the periphery is pretty much lost on them. So they are really poorly informed, you’re totally right about that.
(Transcript edited slightly for concision.)
The two points here that I’m focusing on – the crumbling of traditional party power in the US, and the historic inability of members of Congress to communicate effectively with each other – aren’t explicitly linked by Klein and Alberta in their conversation. But it strikes me that in some ways, they’re in fact very much linked.
I, of course, am writing from the UK, and there’s a lot of similarity with what’s going on over here. On this side of the pond, there’s obviously a much fuzzier line between the legislative and executive branches — there are several mechanisms for the prime minister to be replaced if they’re doing things the legislative branch is unhappy with (or divided on), but it also means (traditionally) that can be very hard for the legislative branch to stop the executive branch doing certain things, including on certain legislative matters, unless it’s prepared to push that nuclear button and remove the executive.
Until now. The basic cause of the Brexit stalemate is that the executive branch has been trying to push through a plan that the legislative branch is extremely unhappy with, and has been exceptionally unwilling to try to forge a bipartisan path that would make some concessions to MPs’ concerns. But Conservative MPs haven’t been willing to push that nuclear button — vote against the government in a vote of no-confidence — because it would risk a Labour administration. Ordinarily, that would mean the executive branch would be able to push through its plans despite the legislative branch’s objections. But this time, it’s found it really, really difficult.
There’s a number of reasons why the government’s found it so difficult: among them are the newish Fixed-Term Parliament Act (an exceptionally bad piece of legislation that complicates the process of taking down the government) and the fact that the government’s majority is exceptionally slim.
But an underappreciated cause of the Brexit stalemate is WhatsApp. It’s an open secret that a huge amount of the machinations going on in parliament is now organised through WhatsApp. WhatsApp groups appear to have revolutionised the way MPs communicate with each other, making it far easier for them to organise rebellions against the government. They coordinate media strategy in these groups. They use them to plot innovative ways of bending the parliamentary rules so that they’re able to bind the executive to their will without replacing the executive — something you’re not really supposed to be able to do ordinarily under the British system! Barely a week goes by without two or three leaks from UK parliamentary WhatsApp groups in the British press.
I don’t think there’s any going back now. MPs have realised how much easier it now is to rebel against their own party, and they won’t stop at Brexit. Recent weeks have seen huge rebellions over a Northern Ireland bill, with MPs introducing amendments that would liberalise abortion law and introduce same-sex marriage if a devolved government cannot be formed within a few months.
(Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK where abortion and same-sex marriage are illegal, as these things are devolved to the regional assembly. The DUP, a socially conservative, Protestant and unionist party in Northern Ireland, objects to liberalising these things. This is a major reason why power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Feìn, a Catholic, socially liberal and separatist party, broke down several years ago. Without a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, a devolved administration cannot be formed due to commitments under the Good Friday Agreement.)
And just yesterday, there was another setback in Parliament: 27 Tory MPs voted against the government in order to make it harder for Parliament to be ‘prorogued’. (Prorogation, in case you’ve forgotten, being a closing down of parliament, and a device that has been recently floated as a way of preventing MPs from passing legislation to stop a no-deal Brexit). Paul Waugh, Executive Editor of HuffPost UK, put it well on last night’s episode of The World Tonight (around 12 minutes in) when he said that ‘what’s fascinating about rebellion is that it is addictive.’ And Waugh rightly drew attention to the words of Keith Simpson, who said yesterday that, after 22 years as a Tory MP, this was his first rebellion against the party. “You can get a taste for it,” Simpson said.
So the similarities between the US and the UK are, I think, really striking here.
Parties in the US used to be incredibly strong institutions, but these institutions now feel under threat as members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez develop new forms of power through their connection to the party membership base and their virtuoso use of Twitter. In a similar way, parties in the UK also used to be incredibly strong institutions. But that traditional control by the parties over Members of Parliament is breaking down. And it’s breaking down at least in part because there’s been a huge revolution in the ability of MPs to communicate with each other, as a result of social media and in particular WhatsApp.
The communications revolution has totally transformed the ability of backbench MPs to organise rebellions against government business, and brought the Brexit process to a nearly year-long stalemate.