As the political situation in the United States becomes uglier and more threatening, many people are wondering what to do if (or, I have argued, when) things here go from very bad to horrible. Last week on Verdict, I wrote “Where to Move?” in which I assessed the options available to the relatively small group of people who could pull up stakes and move out of an increasingly authoritarian United States.
That column generated a great deal of interest, suggesting to me that this idea has moved beyond the realm of idle chatter (“If things get much worse, I’ll move to Bora Bora!”) and has instead become a not-at-all-outlandish thought among those who are privileged enough to have the option of bugging out. Today, I will expand the conversation beyond that fortunate group and discuss the implications even for those who stay behind.
The situation is truly dire. We have reached a point in our national political life so degraded and detached from reality that Republican Senator Mitt Romney (a supposed moderate, or at least a man thought to be a sane conservative) whines that President Biden did not personally contact him about voting rights legislation. Are we going to lose the rule of law because a hyper-privileged septuagenarian’s feelings are hurt? It is difficult to ignore the decadence-of-late-Rome vibe. Democracy itself is at risk, and we are worried about stroking egos. How optimistic is it even possible to be anymore?
Further Thoughts on the United Kingdom
I devoted a large part of last week’s column to discussing the possibility of moving from the US to the UK. Even though it is a transatlantic flight, travel between the two countries (even in pandemic times) tends to be relatively easy and can even be inexpensive if planned correctly. We would hope that people who might be thinking of expatriating could look toward the land of the Magna Carta, the country that prides itself on being a leader in democracy (setting aside that pesky history of colonialism), and be confident that they would be safe from autocracy on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Unfortunately, the most pressing concern about the UK is that it might be on the same dangerous path that this country is on. Moving from the US to the UK, therefore, might not be tantamount to jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, but it could be the equivalent of jumping from one frying pan into another one that will soon be just as hot.
Among my trusted colleagues across the Pond, opinions vary somewhat about how bad things could become in their country. The most promising development is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be dumped by his own party any day now, in response to a series of scandals that seem positively quaint by American standards. The larger point, however, is that the UK’s counterpart to our Republican Party has not at all become a cult of personality.
That is no small matter, because Johnson does bear many similarities to Donald Trump. Both are political bomb-throwers who took over their respective parties from unwilling insiders, resulting in completely transactional intra-party relations that were rather tense on both sides of the Atlantic.
The major difference is that Johnson’s career currently hangs by a thread, whereas obeisance to Trump (not only trumpeting the Big Lie about the 2020 election but now dismissing the importance of the January 6 insurrection that Trump incited) is now fully expected, even from Republicans who supposedly know better.
More to the point, both the Republicans and the Tories are still in entirely transactional relationships with their pseudo-populist leaders, but Republicans have concluded that they will lose elections if they defy Trump whereas Conservatives now are worrying that they will lose elections if they do not defy Johnson. That says good things about the UK’s system, which is still apparently healthy enough that its elections cannot be rigged to guarantee a Johnson/Conservative win in the way that Republicans have recently succeeded in rigging the American system.
One of my colleagues also pointed out that my column last week treated White nationalist provocateur Nigel Farage as all but interchangeable with Johnson. It turns out that Farage and Johnson hate each other, and although they pulled in the same direction on Brexit, Johnson’s campaign at least consisted of more than hatred of foreigners. That would suggest that the UK—and thus the Tories, who still need to worry about winning elections by appealing to persuadable voters (rather than the Republicans’ strategy of suppressing votes and taking control of vote counting, along with a huge dose of gerrymandering)—is not as far gone as the Trumpified radical right wing here, with the Tories being more hemmed in by genuine democracy.
The problem, of course, is that even a successful effort to dump Johnson would be the result of an internal fight among Conservatives, leaving behind a leadership battle among people who themselves have shown at least a willingness to play footsie with the authoritarian tendencies that have emerged in their party over the last decade. They have, for example, aggressively moved to “reform” the UK’s Human Rights Act in ways that are extremely worrying, along with other efforts to weaken constitutional safeguards.
Again, although the British frying pan might possibly never heat up to the degree that this country’s has, it is already uncomfortably warm, and it is not at all difficult to picture a future in which it will become as searing as the US, if not more so. The UK’s population is already worse off because of the disastrous Brexit vote, and if the Conservatives continue in their Republican-influenced ways, the on-the-ground effect of creeping authoritarianism will only become worse—and more difficult to undo at the ballot box.
If the picture in the UK looks a bit dicey as a landing spot, what other options are there? I stipulated in last week’s column that I was focusing on countries in which English is either the most spoken language or in which an English-only speaker can easily get by among the locals. Clearly, a person who is fluent in Spanish, French, or Mandarin (among others) would have a vastly expanded set of choices, although clearly many of those destinations would hardly be an improvement over our situation.
Even though I am focusing on options that would be possibly appealing to me as someone who has never mastered another language (and who is at least financially secure enough to consider expatriating, however unlikely my actual departure might be), I should say that my other forms of privilege are not the driving forces in this analysis. That is, I do not think that this analysis is exclusive to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (or in my case, no-longer-Protestant) men. Indeed, because a big driver of Trumpist radicalization is openly racist and sexist attitudes and policies, one could argue that people like me are the least likely to want/need to get out before it is too late. And although other countries have their own problems with bigotry, it is possible to imagine an American of any description finding things at least somewhat more comfortable elsewhere, even in the post-Brexit UK.
What makes other countries so worrisome is that the line once drawn against all-but-openly fascist political parties has been blurred. The “cordon sanitaire” is a term to describe the walling off of any given country’s most extreme right-wing parties; but that political isolation is breaking down. In Sweden, for example, the formerly untouchable Sweden Democrats have become political players in that country’s multiparty negotiations. Sweden, for heaven’s sake!
That the US was for the first time listed on an annual report of “backsliding democracies” last Fall is bad enough. The problem is that this is part of a global contagion. Surprisingly, Germany might be the country that is currently among the least worrisome in this regard. Now-departed Chancellor Angela Merkel—a center-right politician whose policies I often found unwise on the merits—somehow led her country away from the Trumpist trends and those of Trump’s kindred movements in Europe such as France’s National Rally (a rebranding of the National Front). Or maybe Germany’s resilience is not surprising, given that it has been deeply committed to making sure that there is never a return to the horrors of the Nazi regime. If any country is on high alert against backsliding, surely it is Germany.
In a follow-up to last week’s Verdict column on Dorf on Law, I addressed the obvious choice for any American who thinks for even a moment about leaving this country: Canada. There, I dissected a Washington Post column by a Canadian arch-conservative who tried to claim that if the US became a right-wing autocracy, then Canada would surely become a left-wing autocracy. What?
My Dorf on Law piece goes into this in greater detail, but the essence of the truly bizarre argument was that Canada’s left-leaning intellectuals would impose an Iran-style system in which candidates would be vetted for intellectual purity. What would that purity involve? “Canada[’s] oppression would be justified by a compliant media insisting that … the only true measure of freedom is a single-payer health-care system and a lot of restrictions on firearm ownership.” So … Canada’s oppressive politicians would keep very popular policies in place? The argument is little more than anti-liberal trolling.
More seriously, I received an email from an American expatriate in Canada, who addressed the concerns that I expressed in my Verdict column regarding being locked out of the US and unable to visit family who are still here: “Canadian citizenship is easy to get. You can simultaneously hold both US and Canadian passports…. Visiting relatives is then easy because, even during the pandemic, neither country was denying entry to their citizens (unlike Australia).… Life here is really good!”
So if the worst that a motivated conservative can say about Canada is that he is absolutely sure that Canada’s liberals are closet Khomeini-ite Revolutionary Guards, while their political system in fact shows no signs of being seriously endangered by the kind of xenophobic backlash now infecting countries like the UK and US, the country that looked initially like the obvious best choice for Americans who might leave home is, in fact, the obvious best choice for Americans who might leave home.
But that, in fact, is one of the reasons that the stakes here go far beyond those who might leave the US. An unstable superpower, and instability elsewhere, is bad for everyone.
What About Those Who Choose Not to Move?
Serious Canadian intellectuals are increasingly warning their own government about the growing possibility that their neighbors to the south will soon be ruled by unaccountable dictators who hold power through sham elections. Their warnings, however, are not merely a matter of saying: “This would be bad in general, because democracy is to be preferred to dictatorship.” As a very practical matter, it makes sense for Canada’s leaders to ask what would happen if there truly were a surge of people rushing across the border from the US.
As it happens, I was invited to give a lecture to an audience of New Zealander and Australian academics yesterday. I was unfortunately not able to travel there, but I warned them via Zoom that a time could soon arrive when they will need to change their relatively welcoming immigration laws. As I put it: “Plan on beefing up your immigration bureaucracy, because you might very soon find yourselves having to pick and choose which desperate Americans will be allowed into your country. There might be too many of us showing up at your door.”
Because of its proximity to the US, that warning applies to Canada, but with the possible surge of migrants being orders of magnitude larger than anything that they have seen before. That country of 38 million people is currently admitting a total of about 250,000 to 350,000 immigrants from around the world each year, adding less than one percent to its population annually. That is a lot of immigrants, but it is manageable. The number of US expats there is about 250,000 total, meaning that the US is not currently contributing many people to Canada’s growing multicultural society.
If the US suddenly convulses, however, that could change quickly. If only 0.1 percent of Americans became spooked (or harassed or threatened) enough to want to leave, that would double the number of immigrants that Canada would need to process for possible entry in a given year. Even a country like Canada, with a deep commitment to pluralism, would surely feel both legal and political strains from such pressure and panic. My US-to-Canada colleague’s positive description of his adopted country’s open-arms policy could quickly become a historical tale, replaced with an oppressive new reality of exclusion.
This is, therefore, not only a problem for potential expats, because the death of democracy even in a single country is a problem for everyone. Would a one-party autocracy in the US—especially if Donald Trump lives long enough to lead that post-democratic country—even be an ally to Canada, the UK, or others? Would our former friends need to worry about Putin-like aggression from the US?
And even without anything so explicit as renewed militarism threatening our erstwhile allies, the deaths of democracies put pressure on the democracies that remain, where emboldened neo-fascists inside their borders would see opportunities to take advantage of chaos.
Moreover, anything that pushes more people of good faith to abandon their countries and seek safety and sanity elsewhere makes things worse for those left behind. It is understandable that people who might be able to leave will be increasingly tempted to do so. That, however, only accelerates the decline into despotism in the countries they are fleeing.
In short, the problem of expatriation in response to political instability and violence affects everyone, directly or at least indirectly. I am not saying that all countries will become unlivable right away or to the same degree, but people everywhere—not just Americans—should worry that the world’s only remaining superpower might soon be hemorrhaging people and becoming an erratic global player.
We are having more than enough problems dealing with a global health crisis. In a global crisis of democracy, we would learn quickly that outbreaks of political instability and danger, like COVID-19, can at best only be imperfectly contained.
Everyone’s future is at stake. The title of this column is: “Where Else to Move?” The answer for the vast majority of people should be: “We do not even need to ask that question.” Changing where we live should be voluntary, not motivated by fear.