Each morning’s headlines in the British press bring new details of parties happening inside Boris Johnson’s government while the rest of the United Kingdom and much of the world was locked down in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020 and well into 2021. It doesn’t appear that it was just the prime minister and his staff breaking protocol, but dozens of bureaucrats and ministers scattered throughout the PM’s office and Whitehall more broadly, even while the nation mourned the passing of the prince consort, the 99-year-old Duke of Edinburgh.
During the same span of months, prominent U.S. politicians made the news when they broke COVID protocols. In September 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was photographed at an indoor appointment with a hairdresser in San Francisco. Just a couple of months later, California governor Gavin Newsome attended a birthday party in Napa Valley that violated the protocols he himself had mandated in the state. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot vehemently defended her own salon appointment as essential just days after saying, “getting your roots done is not essential.” And more recently, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had ordered some of the most controversial and draconian COVID lockdowns in the nation, was photographed having dinner in a restaurant with a group of friends twice as large as her own protocols allowed. While there seems to be significant political fallout in the U.K. for Boris Johnson, there has been relatively little for the U.S. politicians, with these stories having all but vanished from the news cycle.
While these events have occurred in two countries with two different political systems, two different press corps, and very different electorates, what will probably end with Johnson’s fall from political power but no lasting consequences for the others in the U.S. cannot be reduced to a generalized and vague media bias. After all, Johnson is no Thatcherite, and there remain questions about his commitment to conservative principles as government spending and intervention soar under this Tory government with a huge majority that would allow for the enactment of almost any policies with little effective opposition. Apart from Brexit, a left-leaning media should appreciate much about Johnson’s policies.
The personal hypocrisy of these politicians and their political allies in two different parts of the world reveals a problem common to the political class regardless of whether they are generally on the left or on the right. The problem just manifests itself differently because of the different ways in which right and left tend to frame political speech in public discourse. We have entered an unfortunate phase of political life in which even the usually unnuanced and vague labels of “left” and “right” have become particularly unhelpful and unmoored from any coherent principles. But it is safe to say that the political landscape in the West is dominated by “activists” and “populists.”
Activists, of the left or right, promise (and usually deliver) the use of the levers of power to shape society and coerce certain behavior. This manifests itself in policies like vaccine mandates and extravagant taxation of certain behaviors as a deterrent rather than a means of raising revenue for necessary government functions.
Populists, who are also found on the left and the right, frame their political manifestos in “people vs. elite” terms. The populist politician is, at least according to the rhetoric, a political outsider just as disgusted with government corruption and inefficiency as the average voter. He or she is on the side of the little guy—“family business” against “corporate interests”; Smalltown, USA against Washington, D.C.; the North of England against London. Populists usually promise (and deliver) policies like protectionist tariffs and policies with at least a veneer of disadvantage to “corporate elites.”
A problem common to both groups is that they understand government to be a weapon rather than a tool. For the activist left, the government provides the means to realize a better world by forcing people to act in certain ways, insisting that the majority (or at least the right-thinking) will (finally) fall into lockstep once they experience how wonderful the world can be. For the populists, the government provides the means to grab the reins of power from the elites and right the ship of state by redistributing privileges and disadvantages.
In practice, neither group ever thinks of itself as having emerged from the electorate. They are not citizens who happen to hold elected office and are entrusted with dangerous tools that can easily become weapons. They are, depending on the rhetoric, revolutionaries or deliverers or champions of some disadvantaged class or more perfect ideology. It should come as no surprise, then, that it never occurs to them that rules apply to them. The unwashed masses gathering maskless in homes, restaurants, or in salons otherwise mandated to be closed are a threat to public health. But when the politicos do the same, such threats magically evaporate.
Both perspectives threaten the stability and legitimacy of liberal democracy. If there are two classes—those subject to the law and those above it—the rule of law has functionally ceased to exist. Trust is a key ingredient in political legitimacy, and if elected officials cannot be trusted, then that legitimacy wanes. Unfortunately, the West is well beyond a crisis point on this front, and the lockdown parties of Boris Johnson and hair appointments of Nancy Pelosi have merely added fuel to already raging fires.
It would be naive to argue that the West needs a sentimental “return” to any political discourse or type of politician of a past age or era. The West does need, however, the realization and cultivation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s ideal citizen, who “who knows how to take his place [in the polity] and to participate in its governance.” This citizen is one who has an active and conscious awareness of his status as “citizen” while secondarily being a mere participant in government. Citizens who merely participate in government have a stake in the law because it is the law that will ultimately be the guarantor of their rights, enjoin their actions, and define their obligations to their neighbors. Such citizens know how easily they could be mourning the loss of a spouse of 50 years who is dying alone in the ICU with loved ones or even the final comforts of clergy available only through an iPhone. The gravity of the consequences of the law, any law, is always a consideration of Tocqueville’s ideal citizen because every citizen shares in both the promises and the liabilities of the laws that govern our common lives together.
Boris Johnson’s political career is likely all but over, while Newsome’s, Pelosi’s, Whitmer’s, and Lightfoot’s are still stable, and the reasons for that are complex. It is notoriously hard to compare politicians from different national contexts, but what appears to be true is that all of them lack a vigilant awareness of their status as citizens that places them under the laws to which they would subject the rest of us, and that is not a hopeful sign for our political discourse or the stability of our democracies in the immediate