British prime minister Liz Truss is in trouble. Just six weeks into her tenure, Britons are counting the days until her demise. Even Conservative Party loyalists are asking when, not if—and how, not why—she will be deposed.
We needn’t look far to see what is driving such discussions. Truss launched her premiership with a tax-cutting budget designed to fuel economic growth. But her refusal to indicate how the books might balance meant that the pound plummeted. Pressure from within her own party to change course and ditch tax cuts for the highest earners quickly led to a U-turn. Having scented blood once, her critics were emboldened. Truss was forced to ditch her chancellor and appoint a new finance minister. Jeremy Hunt, a twice-failed leadership contender, has this week rowed back on every tax cut the new prime minister had proposed.
On the surface, Truss and President Joe Biden have little in common. Britain’s younger female leader stands in stark visual contrast to the aged president. But the real differences between the two are political. Forget Conservatives versus Democrats: politics was no barrier to Barack Obama and David Cameron’s friendship. Fast forward a decade, though, and the political barriers are insurmountable. Truss had barely set foot in 10 Downing Street before the White House warned her that dismantling the Northern Ireland Protocol would “not create a conducive environment” for U.S.–U.K. trade talks. Biden followed this up with a Tweet about trickle-down economics, widely interpreted as a dig at Truss’s plans for tax cuts. He has since gone further, declaring from an Oregon ice cream parlor that “cutting taxes on the super wealthy . . . I disagreed with the policy.”
Yet, if they put politics aside, Biden and Truss might discover that they do share a common predicament: they hold power but little authority. From foreign policy to the domestic infrastructure deal and targets for rolling out Covid vaccines, it is hard to keep up with how many times Biden’s aides have had to walk back the president’s public statements. On both sides of the Atlantic, people wonder who really calls the shots.
Nor are Truss and Biden the first leaders of their respective nations to find themselves in such a spot. Despite a large parliamentary majority, Boris Johnson was notorious for reversing policy decisions if they seemed unpopular with high-profile media commentators. From keeping schools open during the Covid pandemic to winding down furlough payments, Johnson continually backtracked on statements and policies at the merest sign of liberal discontent. Donald Trump was far more bullish in standing up to liberal critics, but even he was thrown off course by companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Amazon when they threatened legal challenges to his travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and plans to deport undocumented immigrants.
Democracy is undermined when the person elected by the public (or, in the case of the U.K., by Conservative Party members) is less in control than political aides, civil servants, big business, or anthropomorphized markets. Cynicism, or at least apathy, sets in when good-faith voters do not see in government what they called for at the ballot box.
We need to ask questions about both the location of power in society today and the caliber of people who rise through party ranks and end up in leadership positions. As Tulsi Gabbard’s resignation from the Democratic Party shows, talented, capable individuals rarely seem attracted to party politics, and this is particularly the case for those whose views are at odds with what might be considered a Westminster or Capitol Hill consensus. At the same time, major political parties on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have drifted away from what were once considered their core constituencies. When Biden labels Trump supporters “semi-fascist,” we can safely assume that he has little desire to win these voters over to the Democratic cause.
In the U.K., only a tiny proportion of citizens are members of a political party. The Labour Party is the largest, with 432,000 members. Labour grew out of the trade-union movement and once won most of its support from working-class communities, but this is no longer the case. The 2019 general election in which Johnson prevailed made clear the collapse of the “red wall,” Labour’s old working-class voting base. Today, Labour is more likely to win support from middle-class professionals in the south of England than from working-class voters in the north.
Change within the Conservative Party has been just as profound. For decades, the Conservatives represented a wealthy, propertied, rural or suburban, traditional elite—the so-called Shire Tories. Cameron’s modernization effort saw the party ditch this group in favor of a younger, trendier, more liberal demographic whose values were more aligned with those of the professional class appointed to run the country under Tony Blair’s premiership. Post-Brexit, red-wall voters put Boris Johnson in charge, but it soon became clear that he was uncomfortable alienating the liberal establishment, too. Now, under Liz Truss, we have a Conservative leader who represents neither a majority of voters nor the new establishment. She has neither the authority of a democratic mandate nor the confidence of speaking on behalf of an elite professional class.
Political parties—and the talented individuals who may once have joined them and sought office—recognize that real power lies elsewhere. In Britain and the U.S., some of the decision-making capacity that once lay with a government or head of state has been parceled out to supranational bodies and non-governmental organizations. The U.K. may have left the European Union, but the E.U. and the European Court of Human Rights, via the Northern Ireland Protocol, still constrain decisions taken by elected representatives. International treaties, such as global commitments to reduce carbon emissions, also act as a brake on sovereignty. In the U.K., a resurgent judiciary has overruled politicians and, arguably, the will of voters.
Those heading up public and private institutions—from schools and universities to hospitals, police departments, and social-work organizations, along with huge multinational corporations such as Nike, Adidas, Microsoft, and Disney—share a commitment to woke values. This professional-managerial elite privileges identity over social class; their outlook is shaped by adherence to principles grounded in critical race theory and gender ideology, and they prefer to impose changes to the school curriculum, for example, or to the treatment of gender non-conforming children, through practice rather than debate. Their seniority within organizations and sense of moral righteousness give them considerable leverage when it comes to shaping society.
Perhaps most significantly, this woke elite has come to dominate the media. A 24-hour news cycle and the self-referential bubble of Twitter as a source of comment means that while newspaper circulation might be down, the media in general are in a more powerful position than ever before. When politicians are not grounded within a constituency of voters, they are most vulnerable to media representations of public opinion. Alongside this, and as demonstrated in the run up to the last presidential election, tech companies now limit public access to stories they find inconvenient, such as discussion of Hunter Biden’s laptop. In the U.K., Johnson faced a seemingly concerted negative media campaign in the weeks before he stepped down.
Two things are happening at once. A cultural elite, and the institutions it operates within, is becoming more powerful. And politicians have relinquished the power that comes from representing a majority of the population by distancing themselves from traditional party voters. Instead of trying to win ideological arguments, they have opted for technocratic solutions to social or economic problems. And they have handed policymaking capacity to non-governmental or supranational organizations. Having given up so much power, politicians are left representing no one and standing for nothing.
Biden and Truss are two world leaders defined primarily by who they are not: Biden is not Trump, and Truss is not Johnson. But this least-worst-option is hardly inspirational. Voters want something better. It is little wonder that talented, capable, articulate individuals, determined to shape the future of their countries, look beyond politics to fulfill their goals.
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