Should Democracy Have a Circuit Breaker?
Millions found out last week the stock market does. Should governments have the same?
I pulled an all nighter last night watching the HBO/BBC collaboration Years and Years. It is a mini series, one season with seven one-hour long episodes that tells the story of one family in the U.K. living in a dystopian near future. It starts with a birth very briefly in 2019, then jumps to 2025 and follows the four adult siblings and their families into the early 2030s.
I haven’t thought far enough yet about what the show taught me, other than how to perfect my northern Manchester accent. But it did spark a chain of what are probably very objectionable, even revolutionary, questions.
The Plot that Sparked Such Questions (*spoiler alert*)
Here’s the plot of Years and Years in broad strokes: In 2024, towards the end of the Trump presidency, Trump launches a nuclear bomb onto Hong Sha Dao, a made up virtual, 3D printed island in the South China Sea, of which both the US and China, in their trade war, claim ownership. By 2025, the world descends into a global recession, bankrupting consumer banks and erasing the main characters’, Stephen and Celeste’s, lifetime savings of 1.3 million pounds literally overnight.
The most formidable force throughout the show is the fluffy but charismatic politician, Vivienne Rook (played in her unfailing brilliance by Emma Thompson). She speaks without precision or intention in her words, really, and her government is a mess. Yet, she slowly builds what becomes effectively an authoritarian state as she ascends from local MP to Prime Minister of her new party, the Four Star Party (because she “doesn’t give a ****!”). Her government ends up opening secret concentration camps for the U.K.’s unwanted refugees, intentionally letting them live in squalor to allow “natural selection to take its course.” They also release a virus in the camps that has been killing people around the world (if only such a thing could be so exactingly controlled). Edith, Stephen’s social activist sister, ends up revealing the entire operation to the public with the help of Bethany’s, Stephen and Celeste’s daughter’s, hacking of all governmental channels, and Vivienne Rook ends up a disgraced, arrested PM.
This fictionalized politician is based off of our real elected ones from our present and near history — Trump, Marie Le Pen, Maduro, and another German one we’re probably all thinking of, though I refrain from comparing him to these leaders still. Democracies deposit these venomous leaders again and again, both from the far right and left, only for them to abuse the very system that took them to power.
One can’t help but wonder: Will there ever be a time where we ought to start turning a skeptical eye to the system that got them there in the first place?
While I have pretty near full conviction that democracy is the best large scale political system, one has to wonder what to do in times where specific decisions lead countries deeper and deeper into a pit of their own self destruction.
As thousands found out last week, the stock market has a circuit breaker, shutting off trading for fifteen minutes when the Dow plummets too much the second the 9 AM bell opens. Should democracy have one too?
This is bold, but I’m going for it:
There’s something comforting about a monarchy whose flesh and blood is your country, who stays out of politics on the regular day.
Real talk: in a pinch, I, and I think most Brits, would genuinely rely on Queen Elizabeth before a Prime Minister who got elected by just a sliver over half the vote, in a polarized country gassed up on fake news and whose judgement at the polling booth most didn’t trust. When the country is divided because one half of the populace thinks they are the voice of reason and the other half are idiots, and that half thinks the are the voice of the proletariat, and the other half are detached, bourgeois snobs — you’ve got a pressurized, poisonous cauldron, ready to burst at a scale no smaller than the French Revolution. No one trusts anyone, and the whole country is divided.
Ironically, unlike the French Revolution, one has to wonder if the monarchy, in their recently historic humility on the legislative stage, might be the very thing that unifies the country again. Unlike fluctuating political opinion and its resulting MP of the hour, the queen was always there. The worst thing about the monarchy — that the people never chose the queen — could, in our day, be the best thing about it.
And people trust the queen’s intentions. Not a single Brit has cause to doubt her allegiances. Every fiber in her being is committed love to Britain over all else, including herself. Is that not someone you would want to lead? And, with no debate over whether she should be there in the first place, well, what is more unifying than that?
That history and heritage is also what could temper monarchs themselves, classifying them to level-headedness and caution, unlike our present day explosive, wildcard politicians, in the interest of the longevity of their own monarchy. I’d argue that would be particularly true now when people would be skeptical of it to begin with. Brits, Spanish, Potugeuse, Danes; they all have kingships that represent a legacy that on the whole, the nation’s citizens take honor in being part of. Hence unifying. They, unlike political parties, represent at once a heavy dose of conservatism combined with mercy and progressive vision in the interest and love for their country. By virtue of being one figure, they are, by definition, the least polarizing one in politics.
Don’t get me wrong — I am fully in favor of the parliamentary system and democracy. I love Boris Johnson. I think he’s brilliant and most of Britain agrees; he won the most conservative votes since Maggie Thatcher’s parliament, which was in an era before voters in one party had a venomous hatred for the other.
I just wonder about the circuit breaker in the particular events that democracy fails. I know in Britain there are prerogative laws, which grant her certain powers to call or dismiss Parliament, declare wars, etc., but they are never used, and we’re all a bit fuzzy on their actual uses and limitations are. I watch a show like Years and Years, and watch my world as the show’s grim, fantascized predictions become the world’s even grimmer reality, and I wonder if, at least for Britain’s sake, I would be asking, where is my Queen?
I realize that this is all entire speculative and diagnostic, not prescriptive. I have no idea what sort of actions or decisions would constitute the need for a circuit breaker, or what the Queen could do. I realize dangers in the precedent that could be set, like completely undermining the PM at times when there’s little trust in him/her anyway. I don’t think the Queen, for example, should have intervened in Brexit, because no lives were directly the line, and pulling out of the EU isn’t, as a stand alone behavior, an abhorrent thing to do (as it is in the case of the show’s concentration camp fantasy, for instance).
I also acknowledge that such a monarchical circuit breaker could only work in countries that have a history of it, a shared pride in their heritage. America could not retroactively deposit a King and expect nationalistic pride in the monarchy. A monarchy’s long history, heritage and tradition is the only thing that makes people respect it, even die for it.
All of these questions only have weight though if we’d ever get to as bad a place as what’s depicted in the show. What I can’t figure out is if we already are, or if that question is moot because, if we are, what now?
I’m trying to also figure out is how alarmist it is. There was a small bell in the show when, towards the end, the refugees are all in concentration camps and there’s an epidemic spreading inside the camp that the government strategically let in. That was meant to be in the year 2030. If only such a thing were so precisely controlled. Ha, joke’s on them! Or on us…
Postscript: To the Technologists, How Close are We to Embodied AI?
It’s clear that we’re close enough, if not already living, the political and public health disasters practically prophesized in Years and Years.
A lot of the show also has to do with the increasing ubiquity of artificial intelligence. One of the primary ways it does that through Bethany, the techy daughter of Stephen and Celeste who dreams of uploading her brain to the cloud so she can soar through AI systems and live forever. When the show starts in 2025, she’s fifteen, and I think it ends around 2033, when she’s 23. She gets chips and wires planted into her body so she can pick up her phone just by using her hand and can control a computer without a keyboard or mouse, processing layers on layers of information at one time, all in her head.
This is the video explaining it to her parents.
To all the tech people out there, how close are we to something like that? I don’t know if that is meant to scare me more or less.