Some questions for the national populists
The author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance was a prominent voice on the national-populist right even before July 1, when he entered the crowded primary to replace GOP senator Rob Portman of Ohio. In a speech to the 2019 National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., in appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and in his active Twitter feed, Vance has promoted a “realignment” of conservatism away from libertarianism and toward an agenda that uses government to defend traditional values and improve living conditions for the non-college educated voters at the base of the GOP.
Vance is a leader within that faction of the right which says the conservative movement’s emphasis on individual freedom, and its commitment to the classical liberal procedures and “norms” of constitutional government, is responsible for its apparent failure to preserve the nuclear family, and for its exclusion from mainstream institutions. He is a pacesetter for this trend, which drew energy from Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. And because Vance represents one possible future for the American right, I was eager to read the transcript of a speech he gave last weekend to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s “Future of American Political Economy” conference in Alexandria, Va. There is no doubting Vance’s smarts—he graduated from Yale Law School in 2013—or his communication skills. But his text left me with questions.
Vance’s subject was the “American dream.” This is an infamously nebulous concept. Does the American dream refer to a process—the social mobility that allows the adopted son of an immigrant to fly into space on his own rocket? Or does it signify an end-state—the single-family home with a white picket fence in the cul-de-sac occupied by 2 parents, 2.5 children, and a dog and cat? No one really knows. For Vance, the American dream “is about a good life in your own country.” But it is also about being “a good husband and a good father,” who is “able to provide my kids the things that I didn’t have when I was growing up.” It’s a dream that Vance has achieved.
Then Vance contrasts his dream with another dream, a bad dream, the “dream of Mitt Romney.” This American dream, apparently espoused by “establishment Republican politicians,” is a dream of “private jets,” “fancy businesses,” and “a lot of money.” Such an emphasis on material wealth, Vance says, makes most people’s “eyes sort of glaze over.” After all, most people aren’t rich. Most people just “want to live a good life in their own country,” with their spouse and children.
Vance must not be on Mitt Romney’s Christmas card list. Last I checked, the former Republican presidential nominee and current GOP senator from Utah has been married to his wife Ann for over half a century, and has five sons and a countless number of grandchildren. Whatever your disagreements with him—and I have a few—Mitt Romney is a decent, patriotic, and accomplished gentleman who unquestionably has lived “a good life” in his “own country.” Yes, he is quite wealthy. He owns a number of homes. One of them had a car elevator. But it’s not as though Romney made his affluence the basis of his claim to high office.
On the contrary: It was former president Trump who grounded his appeal in 2016 on his “private jets,” “fancy businesses,” television celebrity, and considerable fortune. It was former president Trump who took kids for rides on his helicopter during the 2015 Iowa State Fair, who turned a campaign press conference at Mar-a-Lago into an infomercial for various Trump-branded products, and whose personal life, let us say, could not be more unlike Mitt Romney’s. Yet Vance casts Romney as the bogeyman in this contest of American dreams, and says he regrets voting for someone other than Trump in 2016. What gives? Not only did I end this section of the speech without a clear idea of what the American dream is or who best represents it, I was left wondering what factor other than his opposition to Trump actually prevents Romney from meeting the criteria that Vance sets out.
Vance says that “to live a good life in your own country, you have to actually feel respected. And you have to be able to teach your children to honor and love the things that you were taught to love.” No problem there; I couldn’t agree more. The danger of the culture wars, he goes on, is that the left will force Americans into a posture of regret and shame over their history. The left imposes costs on individuals—de-platforming, ostracization, cancellation—to police retrograde thought and behavior. “That is what the culture war is about.” And he’s right.
Then Vance says that because the only institution conservatives control, on occasion, is government, we ought to use political power to impose costs of our own on “woke capital,” “woke corporations,” and academia. Vance neglects to mention the various counter-institutions that the conservative movement built since World War II to address the problem he describes. Nor does he explain, exactly, how “breaking up the big technology oligarchy” would help men and women like his Mamaw. Even so, the idea that conservatives should use policy to further their conception of the public good is something of a truism. Everybody thinks they are furthering the good. The question, as always, is the means we employ to that end, and whether those means actually work. Government bureaucracy and regulation, for example, are not known for their contribution to human wellbeing (see: Centers for Disease Control). No matter who’s in charge.
At this point, however, Vance makes another statement that left me befuddled. “I’m going to get in trouble for this,” he says, but he goes ahead anyway and asks, “Why have we let the Democrat Party become controlled by people who don’t have children?” Now, he acknowledges, somewhat, that what he is saying is not strictly true: Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi all have kids, and Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi control the Democratic Party and, at present, the national political agenda. Nevertheless, Vance name-checks Kamala Harris (who has two stepchildren), Pete Buttigieg (who, according to the Washington Post, is trying to adopt), Cory Booker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who’s 31 years old). Vance understands, he says, that “there have always been people” who, “even though they would like to have kids, are unable to have them.” He has no problem with this population, he hastens to add, though he never stops to ask whether any of the four Democrats he singled out fall into it.
What bothers Vance is “a political movement, invested theoretically in the future of this country, when not a single one of them actually has any physical commitment to the future of this country.” He says, without supplying any evidence, that the reason the media are “so miserable and unhappy” is that “they don’t have any kids.” The collapse in American fertility, he goes on, is a crisis “because it doesn’t give our leaders enough of an investment in the future of their country.”
I agree that the decline in American birth rates is troubling, that “babies are good,” and that raising children is an indescribably worthwhile, utterly exhausting, and often infuriating experience (I have two). Children join us in that intergenerational compact which Edmund Burke described as the essence of traditionalist conservatism. No kids, no future.
But you know who else doesn’t have children? A lot of conservatives and Republicans. Maybe they can’t have them, maybe they’ll adopt, or maybe life just brought them to a different place. That doesn’t in one iota reduce their dignity as human beings, or their potential to contribute to America’s public life. And that goes for Democrats and independents, too.
William Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review, never had children. Does his contribution to American politics count for less? Condoleezza Rice doesn’t have kids. Did that stop her from serving her country for eight years as national security adviser and secretary of state? Lindsey Graham has no children. Has that prevented him from unswerving loyalty to President Trump? Pat Buchanan is childless—yet he formulated the arguments that define so much of national populism today.
Indeed, until a few years ago, the 53-year-old billionaire who donated $10 million to Vance’s super PAC had no kids. Should his contributions to political candidates and philanthropic causes during that time be retroactively judged suspect? The assertion that parenthood is somehow a prerequisite for effective statesmanship is nonsensical. It’s also insulting. Great parents can make terrible leaders—and great leaders are often terrible parents.
Vance says that the “civilizational crisis” of declining fertility requires providing additional “resources to parents who tell us the only reason they’re not having kids is because they can’t afford it.” How should we do this? “We can debate the policy details.” But the only specific proposals Vance mentions are Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s subsidized loans to married couples who promise to have kids, and the completely fantastical idea of demeny voting, whereby parents vote on behalf of their children. What he doesn’t mention, as one of those sullen, devious, childless journalists pointed out, was either the child tax credit the Biden administration is sending to families as we speak, or the various other child credit plans advanced by Senate Republicans, including—wait for it—Mitt Romney.
How can it be that the same “establishment Republican” who represents such an unattractive version of the American dream also wants to make life easier for the working families in whose name Vance speaks? And while I am asking questions, What evidence is there that government spending can arrest, not to say reverse, a demographic process hundreds of years in the making? What special clarity and insight into the workings of politics do parents possess, and on what basis shall we implement the radical ideas that a Hungarian demographer came up with 35 years ago? What does the substance of Vance’s remarks actually have to do with the everyday concerns of Ohio Republicans? I found it noteworthy, for example, that immigration, crime, and “election integrity” don’t come up until the final paragraphs of Vance’s remarks. The word “inflation” does not appear at all.
Such is the confusion that arises when a movement anchors itself to the personality of one former president, when a movement neglects the principles of political and economic freedom that guided it for so many years. It seems to me that for national populism to have a viable future, it needs to avoid straw men, see its political antagonists not as alien enemies but as fellow Americans, concentrate on the issues voters care about, and clarify its thinking on the relation of economics and culture. Can J.D. Vance accomplish this formidable task? He has until primary day—May 3—to try.