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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Brian Klaas

What Happened to Liz Truss Can’t Happen Here

Christopher Furlong / Getty

In just 44 days, Prime Minister Liz Truss tanked the British economy, crashed the value of the pound, prompted a major bailout by the Bank of England, then resigned. When she leaves office next Friday, she will be, by far, the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. It isn’t even close. The previous record holder, George Canning, lasted 119 days and had a rather good excuse for his temporary tenure: He collapsed and died in 1827 while in office. Truss was just incompetent.

Truss was forced out after a month of unprecedented chaos. She fired her top minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, for announcing a disastrous “mini-budget” that she personally endorsed. Just about every time she stepped in front of a camera, markets plunged and borrowing costs rose. And on Wednesday night, she threatened to expel any members of Parliament who stood up to her, only to back down on that threat, then reinstate it with a text sent to the press at 1:33 a.m. One tabloid ran a livestream on YouTube featuring a head of lettuce wearing a blond Trussian wig with the caption: “Will Liz Truss outlast this lettuce?” to see who would go off first. The lettuce won.

As an American living in the United Kingdom, I am tempted to marvel at the disarray and breathe a sigh of relief: In the transatlantic political sweepstakes deciding which political system is more broken, Britain has, at least briefly, retaken the lead from the United States. But a victory lap would be misplaced. When you juxtapose the events of the past 44 days in Westminster with the past six years in Washington, it’s clear that America’s democratic dysfunction is far worse.

Paradoxically, Truss’s downfall shows that British democracy is still working. Polarization is so toxic in the U.S. that Trump never dipped below about 35 percent approval, no matter what he did. Truss, who was incompetent but far less dangerous, saw her approval ratings flirt with single digits before she was forced out. Her political party and political base turned on her.

[David Frum: How to hold a charismatic charlatan to account]

Democracy relies on a two-way street of responsiveness. Governments act, citizens react, then governments adjust, and the cycle repeats. Unlike in dictatorships, the evolving views of the public are supposed to be considered not just to win elections, but between elections. Without that back-and-forth between the citizenry and their representatives in power, there can be no political accountability, and government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” becomes merely a comforting myth.

But what if the views of the public barely change because polarization reigns supreme? When that happens, democracies stagnate, accountability disappears, and politicians can get away with anything.

Consider the political offenses of Truss and Trump against their political trajectories. Trump presided over the separation of migrant parents from their children, advised Americans to inject disinfectants during the deadliest pandemic in a century, told thousands of lies, tried to pass a bill that would take health-care coverage away from roughly 20 million Americans, repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, then incited an attempted authoritarian takeover of the United States government on January 6. Despite all that, Trump’s approval rating barely budged. At his highest, Trump commanded the support of 49 percent of the American electorate. At his lowest, he still had 34 percent on his side. Given that polls have a margin of error of a few percentage points, Trump’s real overall approval rating likely stayed within a band of about 10 percentage points during his entire presidency.

Truss, for all her incompetence, was far from the malicious authoritarianism of Trump. She tried to usher in tax cuts for the very wealthy and her plans led to mortgage payments rising for millions, but she didn’t encourage a violent mob to descend on 10 Downing Street, praise racists and dictators, or get people killed with unhinged medical advice. And yet, the only YouGov poll taken during her time in office saw her with the support of just 11 percent of the electorate, whereas 44 percent of voters backed her political party in the last general election.

Similarly, Boris Johnson—who was frequently compared to Trump—saw his approval ratings soar and plummet during his time in office. In April 2020, his approval rating reached 66 percent. Just over two years later, his approval rating had hit 23 percent, meaning that he had lost the support of roughly half the people who had voted for him in the first place. And Johnson was ultimately brought down by ethics violations that seem positively quaint compared with the Trump-era scandals and alleged criminality.

[From the July/August 2021 issue: The minister of chaos]

The volatility of public support for leaders functions as a rough proxy for democratic health, with greater swings reflecting a healthier system. Polling volatility is by no means the only measure, but it can offer important clues. The healthiest democracies are home to an electorate in which voters change their minds when the facts change, punishing governments who fail and rewarding those who succeed. But in most American presidential elections, virtually anyone with D or R next to their name can be assured of the support of at least 40 percent of the electorate. Had Truss been a politician in America, she’d still command that level of support.

What accounts for the difference, then? Trump intensified American polarization through extraordinarily divisive tactics, turning politics into a sport akin to professional wrestling. Policy mattered less while making “the right people” angry mattered more.

America’s media environment is also far more fractured than Britain’s, giving partisans the option to “choose your own reality.” Whenever Trump did something egregious, his supporters could consume a steady diet of commentary that consistently explained why it was a “hoax” or a “deep state” plot, or, if all else failed, that the Democrats were still worse. In Britain, TV and radio are far more regulated and far more centrist. As a result, audiences hear more discussions of how to solve problems than arguments over whether a problem is real or not. And despite Johnson’s infamous shamelessness, it’s clear that shaming politicians still works in the United Kingdom.

Finally, British electoral districts are, on the whole, drawn fairly. That has a profound effect on competitiveness, such that hundreds of members of parliament genuinely fear losing their jobs in the next election. In contrast, due to gerrymandering and demographic sorting in the United States, just 31 seats out of 435 in the U.S. House of Representatives are considered a toss-up in the upcoming midterm elections, and only 20 more “lean” Republican or Democrat. That means that 88 percent of the members of the House have nothing to fear from voters, which is not only unhealthy for democracy but also ensures that those elected officials rarely turn on their own. Republicans fear losing a primary if they whisper the mildest criticism of Donald Trump. Tories in Britain feared losing their seats if they whispered praise of Liz Truss.

The past six weeks have been disastrous for Britain. Liz Truss will likely be remembered as the worst prime minister in history. But the speed with which she was chucked out is a positive sign for British democracy. Because in order to function properly, democracy requires an electorate of voters who are willing to change their minds.

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