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Parallel US and UK elections could bring dangers

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The writer is professor of politics at the University of Oxford, author of ‘Why Politics Fails’ and this year’s BBC Reith Lecturer, starting on November 29

With a UK general election almost certain to be held next year and a US presidential race set for that November, a crucial test for the health of democracy looms. 

The two polls could well coincide in 2024 against a tumultuous international backdrop. The US and UK elections last coincided in 1964 — at the height of the cold war and following the assassination of John F Kennedy (in 1992, six months divided the two votes). Sixty years ago, a Democratic president, once a Senate stalwart, also faced off against a Republican Party deeply suspicious of government, and more than a decade of Conservative governments under several prime ministers was entering its final chapter. But this time around both countries face novel challenges, driven by new technologies, that make parallel elections particularly fraught. 

First, the global situation today is more unstable and unpredictable. The bipolar world of the cold war has been replaced by a shifting, multipolar one with assertive regional powers and active conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. Where domestic politics was once united on foreign policy, the Republican party is split over support for Ukraine and Britain’s Labour party over Gaza. Where western countries were collectively unified against a common foe, the solidity of Nato is now threatened by the possibility of a returning Trump administration. 

These uncertainties create a credibility problem for US and UK foreign policy that will rise as the elections approach. Because both countries have knife-edge electoral systems, a change in government means a wholesale change in decision-making, unpredictable until election day. It could mean new administrations in two core members of the Five Eyes intelligence grouping — with leaders learning on the job at a time of great international volatility. 

Second, simultaneous elections increase the dangers of online misinformation. The Gaza conflict has already seen a litany of misleading posts deploying photos and video from previous conflicts. This creates a Gresham’s Law of social media, where partial and slanted views drive out balanced information. The risk of deepfakes, driven by artificial intelligence, threatens to accelerate a distorting spiral of hostility.

The British National Cyber Security Centre has warned about the risks to the coming UK election of simulated audio and video of leaders spread by “hyper-realistic bots” on social media. Parallel US and UK elections create double the opportunity for cyber espionage and provocateurs from hostile countries deploying misinformation. 

Finally, parallel elections risk increasing political polarisation. In both countries voters are increasingly driven by distaste for the opposing party rather than love for their own. This drives the electorate to choices made in fear rather than hope. And it pushes people apart in their day-to-day lives: fewer than four per cent of marriages in America are estimated to be between registered Democrats and Republicans.

Over the past few electoral cycles, social media has amplified this polarisation as voters are algorithmically led down partisan rabbit holes. Not only does this place citizens in silos, shielded from opposing views, it also creates incentives for media outlets, reliant on links from Facebook and X, to hype up partisan framing. Because online debate knows no national boundaries, this polarisation becomes contagious.

British politicians have always been attracted to US politics. But the “very online” campaigns of the Republican right increasingly spill over to elements of the British Conservative party, including the new National Conservatism group. The cruder language of the US online right and its obsessions with attacking courts, higher education and the media are now staples in the UK too. There are similar dynamics at work in the Labour party, with the norms of US identity politics now infusing British debate, often incongruously. Overlapping elections mean this largely one-way transatlantic conversation will intensify.

So how best to avoid the risks, with not long to go? The simplest answer is for the UK, where the timing is a matter of choice, to call an earlier election. But these are not the considerations that fall top of the list for the government. If the elections do coincide, then we will have to face the real risks of simultaneous volatility, misinformation and polarisation. Our intelligence agencies need to prepare for widespread cyber manipulation at a time of heightened insecurity. We are not, however, powerless as citizens. We can choose what information to consume or post online. And we can punish, not reward, those politicians who seek mileage in polarising. It’s up to us.

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