Liz Truss, the new prime minister of Britain who may not be the prime minister for long, is by general agreement out of touch with reality.
Her big gambit upon succeeding Boris Johnson, a mini-budget crowded with tax cuts, looks like a policy debacle, recklessly inflationary and fiscally destabilizing. As politics, the mini-budget looks even dafter. At the moment, the electoral sweet spot for right-of-center governments in the Western world is a mixture of cultural (not religious) conservatism and relative economic moderation — an anti-libertarian right-wing politics, favorable to the welfare state and skeptical of immigration, that appeals to constituencies buffeted by globalization and anxious about national identity.
This is the style of politics that just elevated Giorgia Meloni’s populist movement in Italy and that has brought right-wing populism into the mainstream of Swedish politics. It’s also the politics that the Republican Party is perpetually groping toward without quite getting there.
But Truss has gone in the opposite direction, not just with her tax-cut push, but with a push for expanded immigration — a double-down on a 1980s growth prescription, a Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher nostalgia trip, that has carried the Tories away from their own constituents and earned her party absolutely apocalyptic poll numbers.
Is there anything to say in defense of the stumbling prime minister? Only this: When politicians return, with seeming irrationality, to ideas that seem zombielike and ill-suited to the present moment, it’s often a sign that the problems of the present moment just don’t have clear solutions. The defaults of the past may be wrong, but at least they feel attractively familiar.
This is European conservatism’s predicament at the moment. It can win power because the old establishment, the supposedly sensible center, helped create and failed to solve three interconnected problems. First, globalization and European integration enriched the core more than the periphery, the metropole more than the hinterland. Second, wealth, secularization and economic stagnation drove down European birthrates, threatening depopulation and decline. Third, the preferred centrist solution to both economic stagnation and demographic diminishment, mass immigration, has contributed to Balkanization, crime and native backlash — even in a progressive bastion like Sweden.
Only the populist right talks consistently about all three problems; thus its current political advantage. But does the populist right know how to address them? Not exactly. Johnson, Truss’ ill-fated predecessor, promised a rebalancing of investments that would benefit the neglected non-Londonian regions of Britain, and you could argue that a larger rebalancing is what all these problems should provoke. A shift from public spending on the old to spending on young people and parents. A shift from welfare spending to industrial policy. A shift from relying on immigrants to boost your gross domestic product to investing in domestic growth and regional renewal. A shift from deregulation on behalf of finance to deregulation on behalf of young families who presently can’t afford to buy a home.
But each of these ideas requires extreme care with the details — What kind of industrial policy? What kind of family policy? — and many of them might take a generation to bear fruit. Meanwhile, a lot of conservative voters have an interest in the status quo; they don’t like how things have changed, without acknowledging how they’ve contributed to the problems. Older voters, especially, are likely to resist rebalancings that trim their pensions or the value of their homes, even if such a rebalancing is necessary to restore the societal vigor that they miss.
Then add in the spending limits suddenly imposed by inflation and the wartime energy crisis, and you have a scenario in which populists might end up as right-wing custodians of the same sclerosis that helped bring them to power — ruling as defenders of a fusty chauvinism rather than actual tradition (because a secularized continent is not actually traditional), preserving a museum culture for as long as possible against further waves of immigration, with some of the rage against a civilizational twilight that Meloni offers in her fiery speeches but no actual plan to turn societies with empty cradles and budget shortfalls around.
The authoritarian danger in this kind of populist politics wouldn’t be the aggressive warmongering fascism of the 1930s. It would be the fictional Warden of England, the dictator who governs a childless, dying England in P. D. James’ prophetic novel “The Children of Men,” promising his aging subjects peace, order and nostalgia in the twilight of the human race.
To feel a little sympathy for Truss’ back-to-1980s gamble, then, you just have to consider that alternative scenario. Facing a European future that’s so plausible and grim, it’s not surprising that some right-wing politicians would seek refuge in the happier, simpler future once promised by the past.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.