WASHINGTON (Project Syndicate)—The United Kingdom’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, is turning the page on self-destructive populism. Meanwhile, the United States continues to wallow in it. If she can navigate her premiership through its current choppy waters and into calmer seas, she might end up providing a model that American conservatives could follow.
“ America is not a class-based society without upward mobility. The American Dream is not dead. ”
The story begins with the 2008 global financial crisis, which created so much slack in U.S. labor markets that inflation-adjusted wages fell for the bottom half of workers for several years running. Not until 2015 did real median wages recover to their 2007 level, and not until 2016 did real wages for the bottom 20th percentile recover.
Surge in populism, right and left
As typically happens, these economic ramifications from the crisis led to a surge in populism in the U.S. On the left, democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont took out pitchforks for the rich, declaring that “there should be no billionaires.” And on the right, Donald Trump ran for the presidency as a nationalist populist and won, defeating a candidate who was closely associated with “the establishment.”
The U.K. also had a populist episode during this period. A chief motivation for Brexit—the decision to leave the European Union following an in-or-out referendum in June 2016—was to protect the typical British household from the purported ill effects of globalization and immigration.
Though Truss enthusiastically campaigned against Brexit in 2016, she supported the referendum’s outcome, quickly accepting the electorate’s decision. But despite Truss’s pro-Brexit stance, she is moving British politics beyond populism in several important respects, providing a model that U.S. politicians—particularly those on the right—should follow.
As the prime minister told the Conservative Party conference in early October, “I have three priorities for our economy: growth, growth, and growth.”
Cultural politics over growth
This stands in stark contrast to Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who offers a populist lament aimed at the working class. Sure, “growth is important,” Hawley allows. But in the U.S. “we don’t make things here anymore—at least, not the kinds of things a normal person without a fancy degree can build with his hands.” According to Hawley, “above all we must get good work for the American people.”
The problem, of course, is that slow growth breeds the kind of distributional conflicts on which populism thrives. It is no surprise that American populists, who exploit such conflicts, tend to prioritize cultural goals and identity politics over growth.
One of populism’s most corrosive features is that it treats people as helpless victims. In accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 2016, Trump declared that he entered politics “so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.” And in the same speech, he indulged authoritarianism: “I alone can fix it.”
Similarly, on the political left, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has long argued that “the game is rigged” against typical Americans.
If you feel that you lack agency and are the victim of a rigged system, you will conclude that you aren’t responsible for your economic circumstances. You may seek recourse through grievance.
Different message from Truss
In her Tory conference speech, Truss sent a very different message, telling Britons that if they take responsibility and aspire, they can better their economic circumstances. She identified as “heroes” those who “take responsibility and aspire to a better life for themselves and their family,” and she declared herself to be “pro-aspiration and pro-enterprise.”
One of the ugliest aspects of right-wing populism has been its tendency to demonize immigrants. In launching his 2016 campaign, Trump famously claimed that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” In contrast, Truss’s first cabinet fight was over her plan to liberalize immigration, which faces resistance from pro-Brexit ministers. She wants to allow more agriculture workers and engineers into the U.K., and she is considering an easing of English-language requirements for foreign workers.
In the U.S., populism has led the political right to turn its back not just on immigration but also on trade. Before becoming prime minister, Truss came to prominence as the U.K.’s trade secretary, when she tried hard to forge a post-Brexit trade agreement with the U.S. But with Trump in the White House, she ran into a brick wall.
U.S. political leaders should take a page from the prime minister’s book. The economics of grievance—“grievance-onomics”—is a demonstrable failure. Trump’s trade war reduced manufacturing employment—the opposite of its intended effect. Policies to limit immigration are making it more difficult to ease U.S. labor shortages and boost long-term productivity.
The economy isn’t “rigged” against ordinary workers: the link between pay and productivity is strong. People do have agency, and they should have strong aspirations because America is not a class-based society without upward mobility. The American Dream is not dead.
Truss has a long road ahead
Of course, it’s premature to declare Truss’s premiership a success. She has been in office for only six weeks, and her economic agenda has gotten off to a rocky start. She has now sacked her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, in an effort restore the confidence of financial markets. She is preparing to revise much of her economic agenda. And she has a lot of work to do to convince Parliament and the British people that her government’s approach to economic policy is sound, both empirically and morally. To succeed, she must get the policies right and implement them competently.
But messages matter, and, looking through the turmoil, Truss is saying the right things. Britons do not need more culture wars; they need growth, dynamism, opportunity, openness, confidence, and a renewed sense of agency and personal responsibility.
So do Americans. Conservatives should take note.
Michael R. Strain is director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.