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.
Heavy-handed bureaucracy is set for a comeback under Biden
Barack Obama had a nickname for the highly credentialed economists who surrounded him during his first term. He called them “propeller heads.” It was his way of joshing—and asserting superiority over—figures such as Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, Austan Goolsbee, Jason Furman, and other wonks with impeccable CVs and intimidating confidence in their own opinions. The label reduced these résumé gods to propeller-beanie geeks. Like most Obama statements, it was also a self-flattering way for the president to demonstrate the value he places on intellection, data, and expert knowledge. He and his fellow progressives love the idea that reason, logic, and science legitimize the power they wield through law and bureaucratic diktat.
The public wasn’t so enamored. The weaknesses of the propeller heads became evident over time. No doubt because of their glorious self-image, the propeller heads assumed that government could easily implement their ambitious theories and complicated schemes. They assumed that human beings could be “nudged” into desired behaviors. They placed one set of values—efficiency, equality, safety, carbon or gender neutrality—ahead of others, especially individual freedom and religious liberty. They neglected or waved away unanticipated consequences. They treated disagreement or disobedience as irrational or pathological—a manifestation of racism or sexism or greed. They often went ahead with their plans regardless of disapproval or rejection.
The propeller-head mentality is “we know best.” It dominated the administration. It produced a stimulus that did not stimulate, an unpopular health care plan, a contraceptive mandate that inspired lawsuits against nuns, a cap-and-trade bill that never became law, a financial reform that squeezed community banks, a GM bailout that stiffed non-union pensioners, a series of coal and water regulations that put miners and farmers out of business, an immigration amnesty by fiat that set off a rush for the border, and a nuclear deal that rewarded Iran for its malign behavior. Perhaps the most significant consequence of the imperious and heavy-handed manner in which experts ruled during the Obama years was the political reaction it inspired. The propeller heads like to believe they are the stewards of a healthier, cleaner, safer, saner world. But they are really the midwives of national populism, the doulas of Donald Trump.
And now they are set for a comeback. When you read the Biden-Sanders unity task force recommendations, go over Biden’s potential cabinet picks, or examine the membership of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, you see the outlines of an administration committed to the same technocratic principles and top-down, uniform, centralized style of governance as its Democratic precursor. In some cases—if Susan Rice becomes secretary of state, for example—the very same people will be in charge. In other cases, the personalities will be new, but the methods will be similar.
The center-left views of academic, media, and cultural and foreign-policy elites will be ratified as sacrosanct. Officials will attempt, not always successfully and with unpredictable effects, to turn these opinions into policy, through legislation if possible but through regulation mostly. Dissenting forces will be problematized as disingenuous, malevolent, or not entirely sane. The one place where the public will be able to register its opposition is the voting booth.
Many opinion leaders in Washington dispute the above scenario. They point to Biden’s reputation as a moderate, to his decades-long relationship with Mitch McConnell, to the constraints he will face with a narrow House majority and a potential Republican Senate. They hope that the establishment, restored to its former fading glory, will reassert its control and “turn down the temperature.” Biden, they add, will have a “caretaker presidency.” He and McConnell will work out some small-bore tax changes. Maybe an infrastructure plan will pass. Otherwise things will drift merrily along, with Trump tweeting furiously from the sidelines.
My pundit friends forget the nature of the propeller heads. The propeller heads know they are right—their degrees and titles and offices and accolades prove it. They know that government exists to perform the functions of social uplift and rational control. They are not about to sit back and let the Delaware gang and the apex predator of American politics run the show. There’s a virus to crush, a climate to save, a liberal international order to rebuild.
Two of Biden’s appointees to the COVID-19 transition advisory board, for instance, support another national lockdown. Will Biden overrule them as cases mount and the media call for something to be done?
Biden’s deputy campaign manager told Chuck Todd the other day that her boss “campaigned on an incredibly progressive and aggressive agenda” and that “he’s going to make good on those commitments,” including his “big, aggressive” climate plan. Will Biden stand aside as this agenda runs into the maw of Joe Manchin and the Senate Republicans? Or will he say that he, too, has “a pen and a phone” and instruct his EPA and Energy Departments to act accordingly?
It was recently disclosed that Iran has 12 times the nuclear material allowed under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and installed advanced centrifuges in its underground research facility. The theocratic government of Ayatollah Khamenei is isolated internationally. Its economy is under tremendous strain from American sanctions. And Biden and his team are ready to reenter the nuclear deal if Iran will have them, rewarding an authoritarian state sponsor of terrorism in order to demonstrate to Europe that “America is back.”
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a propeller head who doesn’t know his limitations,” David Brooks wrote in 2009. Today’s propeller heads are more ambitious than they were a decade ago. And far more moralistic. Come January, they will return to their old offices and resume their old games. Sure, a few of the names will be different. But the results will be the same.