Well-established Republicans loudly applauded Senator Mitt Romney, once their failed presidential nominee, for asserting recently that the “presidency shapes the public character of the nation.” But they now condemn Fox News host Tucker Carlson for suggesting that policy and law shape the public character of the nation. The rattled tone of their confused attacks on Carlson’s popular response to Romney only underscores why Carlson has become a leader of the Right—and why so many others are scrambling to stay relevant.
In 1998, Charles Kesler, Claremont Institute Senior Fellow and Editor of the Claremont Review of Books, warned that “if in the next century the United States is to regain its republican spirit and rescue constitutional government…the conservative movement will first have to rediscover what about America it is trying, after all, to conserve.” If the tagline of the new online home of the neo-conservatives is any indication—“Conservatism Conserved”—the conservative movement is now merely trying to conserve itself. The rare explanations one hears these days of the “principles” in need of conservation are generally either ineffective rhetorical platitudes or outdated policy prescriptions.
Conservative confusion, however, runs deep. Modern “conservatism” has long since adopted an impoverished and small-minded understanding of what politics is—it has seemingly forgotten that America’s founders thought “Justice is the end of government.” As Kesler said twenty years ago: “Conservatives avoid arguing about questions of justice whenever possible, which means they eschew politics (whose central issue is justice) whenever possible.” Having lost sight of the purpose of politics, they lost the ability to persuade people about politics. In fact, the manner in which the establishment Right thinks and speaks about economics and politics threatens to destroy its political existence. Presumably, some ex-employees of The Weekly Standard named their new publication The Bulwark because they see themselves as desperately defending the existence of whatever it is they are trying to conserve.
Tucker Carlson’s Heresies
The attack on Carlson is best understood as a kneejerk effort to defend stale conservative rhetoric with hazy ideology rather than an effort to refute an argument. Rather than seize the opportunity to help the Right shake off its confusion about the relationship between economics, morality, and politics, many conservatives are tempted to grasp ever more tightly to worn-out slogans that have long since lost their grip on their own constituency’s imagination.
Carlson’s monologue is partly a powerful accusation: “One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us,” he says, “is that you can separate economics from everything else that matters.” But the bipartisan elite continuously promotes and reinforces its dogma: “economics is a topic for public debate,” while “family and faith and culture…are personal matters.” Carson’s thesis stands in direct opposition to these familiar mantras:
“Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible.”
If you think this rational, traditional, and American, you are not alone. Yet, for these sentences, even otherwise rational observers feel the instinctual need to accuse Carlson of heresy.
“Government Can’t Heal Us, Tucker Carlson,” snaps National Review critic-at-large Kyle Smith. But Carlson doesn’t say that government can fully heal all the wounds of every American soul. In fact, self-styled “Romney Republicans” like Smith still think that American government must heal the war torn Middle East and the lives of millions of immigrants from all over the globe. Many of us remember when America was supposed to create new democratic nations. Can American government not help its own citizens? Why do those most inclined to demand the federal government keep foreign families together at the border appear most eager to stop it from attempting to piece together the broken families of their fellow citizens?
Within the borders of America, the Romney Right protests that the very attempt will allow the nanny-state to run amuck. Smith ridiculously imagines that Carlson’s call for both parties to help American families and promote the happiness of Americans will lead to a tyrannical “National Happiness Corps.” But Carlson relies on sound social science and common sense: grinding economic conditions brutalize marriage and families. And even Americans with iPhones in their pockets and big screen televisions hanging in their living rooms are addicted to opiates and committing suicide. Many of his conservative critics vaguely acknowledge these truths. They know Carlson isn’t advocating for the creation of a Taliban-esque Department of Virtue and Vice, but they feel the need to smear him rather than admit that Americans deserve political leaders seeking to resolve their plight.
Part of the problem may be that establishment Republicans remember the failure of Jack Kemp conservatives to break the Left’s abusive relationship with the residents of American’s big cities. Carlson agrees with the old conservative analysis that “decades of badly-designed social programs” drove “fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a ‘culture of poverty’ that trapped people in generational decline.” But he nails conservatives for studiously neglecting another causal factor we have seen play out in much of rural America: “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them,” Carlson notes, which triggers “a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow.” Treated abstractly, and separated from the higher goods of human life, economics for the sake of a higher GDP alone can harm the family.
As married people know intimately, economic hardship is one of the biggest stresses on existing marriages. Why would it not prevent or discourage marriage from occurring in the first place? NR Senior Writer David French and other critics say they agree with much of what Carlson says, and yet French also denies marriage is becoming a luxury good most readily attainable by the affluent. In other words, French seems to accept that affluence greatly helps, and relative male poverty greatly hurts, the institution of marriage. But like too many others, he bends over backwards to avoid the logical conclusion: economic policies have hurt American family formation, inapt 1980s conservative bromides be damned.
“But we must not create a victim class of angry citizens,” French warns, as if that is not exactly what the Republican establishment has already accomplished. “We must not tell them falsehoods about the power of governments or banks or elites over their personal destinies,” he pleads, when everyone has witnessed establishment leadership enable the growth of that power for decades. “We must not make them feel helpless,” he says of those who quite rationally feel politically helpless, “when they are not helpless.”
Americans are not helpless: they can vote. That is precisely what much of Carlson’s audience did when they elected Donald Trump President of the United States. Carlson isn’t creating angry victims. He’s turning the collective attention of those whose faith in hollow platitudes has already been broken towards real and fundamental problems.
Carlson emphasizes that “our leaders don’t care” about these problems. NR‘s senior political correspondent, Jim Geraghty, resorts to reflexive defense mechanisms when he quips, “Which ‘leaders’ does Carlson have in mind? Surely not the president he praises almost every night.” But why does Geraghty care whether or not President Trump cares about Americans if Geraghty and his cohort think caring doesn’t matter? According to Geraghty, our “leaders may want” us all to have dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, deep relationships with others, and all the things Carlson eloquently pleads for, “but we should have no illusion that they can provide those things for us.” Similarly, French says that “the problem with populism…is that it focuses on the political at the expense of the personal” but “there are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”
I have never heard of anyone who voted for President Trump to help them quit opiates, save their relationship with their wife, and give existential purpose to their life—but, as shocking as it might sound, it does seem as if people vote for a political candidate hoping he might better their lives to a greater degree than his opponent. Do Geraghty and French really believe the root of democratic politics is a delusion? Their rhetorical flurries seem hastily crafted to cover up a kind of deterministic nihilism: that caring leaders aren’t important because leaders can’t truly help us.
Refusing to engage in much more than a fatalistic shrug, Smith says that “hoping for leaders who show more ‘caring’” isn’t a “solution” to our problems. To the contrary, electing officials who actually care about the common good of all is the first obvious step towards any solution. Smith wants us to believe that, while “America as a whole isn’t broken…the parts that are cannot be fixed by politicians who care.” If this is so, why should anyone bother about politics at all? If this is the right way a supposedly political movement proposes one should think about politics, it promotes a suicidal anti-politics of “principled” loserdom. Which, of course, is exactly what the establishment right has embraced—unto the point of death. Even a monarch hopes that at least his subjects think he cares about them, and his subjects hope the same. But in a democracy the people don’t have to storm the palaces to rid themselves of an unjust ruler. They can hand that ruler electoral loss after loss and render him and his family culturally and politically irrelevant—and irrelevance is precisely what the Republican establishment is flirting with.
An easy way to understand the breakdown of the Republican establishment is to examine the breakdown of its supposed principles. Conservative chest-thumping about ideological purity exposes its manifest contradictions. Romney Republicans would somehow use their rhetorical mastery to move the nation’s character towards dignity, purpose, self-control, and independence—though not, one hopes, by accusing half the country of being immoral “takers.” As opposed to the takers, moral paragons—let’s call them the “givers”—voice deep concern about the character of the current President, regardless of his actual political achievements. But their nihilism when it comes to actual policy and law seems to leave leaders little to do but sit on their thrones and emanate personal virtue while fiddling with the tax code for the sake of the national GDP. There is, sadly, little they can do to help our immoral fellow countrymen who have rejected Jesus, low capital gains taxes, and marriage—and not necessarily in that order.
After all, Carlson’s critics are quick to give us stern lectures about how there are global economic and technological changes afoot, and there is little we can do to stop them. At some point the American people must suffer the consequences of the flow of the global markets. But the people have noticed that they have suffered these consequences, and others have not. The people have noticed that the same logic is rarely applied to large financial institutions and corporations—at least not those that caused the financial crisis, those who supported failed war efforts, or, daresay, those who advertise in our dwindling conservative magazines.
According to French, “Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes…and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what they are doing to you.” But Carlson rightly never denies these changes. French is correct that “the reality is that responsibilities are reciprocal,” and people should strive to support themselves, and one another. But Carson doesn’t blame everything on elites, or absolve individual Americans of their responsibilities. Carlson—unlike the givers—isn’t engaged in manic spiritual direction for a backsliding congregation, but political persuasion for American citizens. In so doing, he talks about what ought to be done to help citizens by means of their government and claims that the American ruling class often acts for its own interests.
Straining to shift blame from the failed policy elite, Geraghty, French, and Smith are quick to point out that many of the wealthy in America give some of their wealth to charity. Does this undisputed fact refute a single claim Carlson makes?
“Affluent married people…are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married.” Is he wrong?
“Our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party,” identifying “as fiscally responsible and socially moderate…They don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy…As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.” Is he wrong?
Carlson says “rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo” but “working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit” seems “crazy” to them. Is he wrong?
Elite individuals and groups in contemporary America are often accustomed to acting in their own interests in a manner that is contrary to the common good. For Carlson’s critics, it’s wrong, impolite, impolitic, or downright unconservative to publicly assert that the elite few works to secure its own economic interests in a manner that ignores the interests of the many. But if this absurdity has become conservative canon, “conservatism” runs contrary to the western tradition of political thought, never mind the American founders, or our common sense. Panicked by the rise of populism on the Left and Right, the Right’s leaders fear acknowledging the self-interest of the wealthy lest they deliver America over to Karl Marx. But the obvious truth of political life is that the wealthy few often try to secure their interests in a manner that screws over the majority—and, to be sure, the majority often tries to do the same to the wealthy. This isn’t Marx, it’s Aristotle. It’s not socialist, it’s The Federalist. It’s not personal, it’s politics.
Aristotle maintained that the permanent tension between the few and the many makes a large middle class essential for the stability of the regime. Likewise, the founders embraced a large republic of states and established a Constitution that carefully structured the three branches to balance the interests of the entire nation. But now conservatives police those who remind us that the wealthy few, like everyone else, may form a faction seeking its own interests, lest we fall into the mortal sin of the “victimhood mentality.” We must not blame our own problems on others—except, of course, when we do.
Carlson’s critics condemn the sin of a “victimhood mentality” only when it suits them. For them, the kind, beneficent givers who care about us—not that caring matters, of course—are victims of the irresponsible takers who say unkind things and seek to take their wealth. The elites are victims of Tucker Carlson, who demonizes them in front of the blameworthy crowds. These unenlightened masses are themselves the victims of Carlson’s rhetoric. And we are all victims of the orange bad man in the Oval Office, who shapes our national character, tweet by deplorable tweet.
This anti-politics of principled loserdom is a secular form of homiletics, preaching unheard to the unwashed. The pure must wring their hands and ritualistically lament at cocktail parties to the givers that there’s nothing that can actually be done. Character is only evinced and formed by incanting the right words, not wise and efficacious statecraft, policy, or laws. And no one is listening to them.
Words do matter, of course. But they have always mattered too much to intellectuals. For many on the Right at present, words seem to be all that matters. Romney did not announce legislation in his first major op-ed as Senator. Senator Sasse publishes well-lauded books instead of passing well-crafted laws.
These same conservatives proudly and rightly argue that governmental policy and law in the form of the welfare state can deform character. But they cannot bring themselves to admit that good laws can help form the character of individuals, families, and America itself—perhaps especially when it comes to economics.
Obviously, law cannot reach inside a man and make him virtuous. But law does set the environment in which choices occur, encouraging and rewarding good behavior and discouraging and punishing bad behavior. In fact, that’s the very basis for the critique of the welfare state. If the Right wishes to win the battle of ideas, it needs to drop the absurd notion that a leader’s words encourage or discourage good character, but the policies he is elected to set do not.
At least French and the rest of the Right agrees that politics and policy is a difficult business. It must often work indirectly, and it is easy to make a problem worse, rather than better, with the power of government. And it’s wrong to absolve individuals by means of blaming all evil on an unseen force, or some nefarious caste—but it’s equally wrong to ignore the forces and factions that push people the wrong way and seek to keep them there.
There is no use in denying the obvious: groups of people can and do harm other groups of people in pursuit of their own interests. Mitigating this permanent problem is a central theme of political life. James Madison and friends directly confronted it, and in so doing created the Constitution of the United States.
Yes, conservatives, government exists to help its citizenry. It’s purpose is to promote their happiness—their common good. We cannot even properly attempt to achieve this purpose if we are ignorant of its impact on the formation of marriage and morals. Laws do legislate morality. The western tradition the American founders were familiar with held that the kind of regime you lived in formed your very soul, including your ideas about what is just and unjust. But even our contemporary traffic laws exist because of a shared understanding of the value of human life and our agreed upon need for the enforcement of some kind of group order. And even our traffic laws save lives. Admitting as much does not make you a socialist or a communist. Recognizing this reality does not make you a proponent of the Great Society, nor does necessitate enshrining the administrative state.
French acknowledges that “the extraordinarily difficult challenge of public policy is….providing pathways to overcoming bad decisions.” That’s true. It’s not an easy task, but if our think-tanks aren’t up to it, we had better create new ones. Any public policy worthy of the name will also try to encourage people to make the right decisions, stopping extraordinary challenges before they start. The same political process is at work flowing in the other direction, in the electoral process itself. People are able to get rid of bad politicians in an attempt to find better ones. While there often isn’t a lot the people of this country can do about the bad choices of government, banks, or elites, we can try to mitigate some of the effects of their many mistakes at the polls.
Lincoln and the Founders
The political philosophy of Lincoln and the Founders supports Tucker Carlson. The purposes of American government comport with helping citizens economically, supporting family life, and even helping to stave off and prevent drug addiction. This does not mean government can take the place of religion or non-governmental civic institutions. This does not mean it can alter threatening trends beyond its limited control. But neither does it mean it has to merely accept them.
To achieve the purposes of government, however, we need leaders who understand these truths. Lincoln and the founders were not as squeamish as modern conservatives.
For instance, Carlson rightly calls for our leaders to “speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system” because “not all commerce is good.” He quite sensibly asks “Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them?” He’s right that “Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.” But French, again agreeing in principle while simultaneously demurring, objects, “at the same time, poor people often need a short-term cash advance to pay rent or buy gas for their car to get to work. What is the sustainable mechanism for providing cash advances without creating debt?”
In 1832, during his first run for office, Lincoln addressed “the practice of loaning money at exorbitant rates of interest,” calling it a ”baneful and corroding system, acting almost as prejudiced to the general interests of the community as a direct tax…for the benefit of a few individuals only, unless there be a law made setting a limit to the rates of usury.” As President, he passed an income tax on the wealthy, protected northern manufacturers, and supported tariffs to raise worker’s wages. He signed the “Western New Deal,” using the powers of the national government to promote westward expansion: passing The Homestead Act to give away public lands, the Pacific Railway Act for national infrastructure, creating the land grant college system, and the Department of Agriculture. Do today’s conservatives understand the principles and purposes of American government better than Lincoln? Or the founders themselves?
One of the central reasons for the passage of the Constitution of had to do with the relationship between morality and economics. The Constitution was meant to rectify the unjust financial practices of the early American states, which the Federalists vehemently decried in moral terms. In a telling essay written in April of 1789—one of the best examples we have of a participant of the ratification debate writing in detail about a specific domestic policy issue—Noah Webster said that an “immediate and powerful cause of the corruption of social principles, is a fluctuation of money. Few people seem to attend to the connexion between money and morals; but it may doubtless be proved to the satisfaction of every reflecting mind, that a sudden increase of specie in a country, and frequent and obvious changes of value, are more fruitful sources of corruption of morals than any events that take place in a community.”
Webster gives numerous concrete examples of laws that might help curb such temptations: “Laws to prevent credit would be beneficial to poor people.” Webster expresses the wisdom of an elite group of leaders that, rather than squirming away from the relationship between economics and culture, or throwing up their hands at the immorality of the people, sought political solutions to assist them. They asserted, in Webster’s words, an intimate relationship between “the morals of the people” and “the influence of money on men’s sense of justice and moral obligation. It is perhaps a fundamental principle of government,” Webster proclaimed, “that men are influenced more by habit, than by any abstract ideas of right and wrong,” and laws influences habit. Therefore, “in governments like ours, it is policy to make it the interest of the people to be honest. In short, the whole art of governing consists in binding each individual by his particular interest, to promote the aggregate interest of the community.”
Webster did not merely preach in the abstract. This was a policy proposal. “In some cases it might be safe and wise to withdraw the protection of law from debts of certain descriptions,” he noted; “perhaps laws of this kind have the best effect in introducing punctual payments. Their first effect is to prevent credit; but they gradually chance a man’s regard for his property, to a more active and efficient principle, an attention to his character.” Such rules disfavored vice and nourished virtue, tending, insofar as law can, to promote good habits.
From his perch at Fox News, Tucker Carlson may be far removed in time from the era of Noah Webster. But real principles of politics transcend the circumstances of time and place. Carlson has it exactly right. The difference between the elite of today and Lincoln and the American founders is not that Lincoln and the founders weren’t elites, but that they were elites who saw and addressed the crisis of the American people because they cared about America. They knew that American government exists to help American citizens pursue happiness. And this did not prevent them from pointing out the evils of the few and the many alike.
Predictably, many of our leaders do not want to admit we are in the midst of a regime-level crisis. James Fallows, the long time staff writer for The Atlantic, agrees with French, pointing to the “gap between the furious/’victim’ tone of much national-level discourse, and the engaged, practical, let’s-figure-it-out tenor of much local—and regional—level American life.” One wonders, reading such malaise-less accounts, how President Trump was elected in the first place. Readers would do well to consider Claremont Institute Board Chairman Tom Klingenstein’s admonition to conservatives to “get right with Lincoln” in “Our House Divided: Multiculturalism vs. America.”
The stakes are high indeed. The truth is, if the American Right internalizes the truth of Tucker Carlson’s recent monologue and becomes a true workers party concerned about the welfare and, yes, virtue of the American people, it can stave off disaster and become the majority party for a new generation. If it is not, it will die as we presently know it, and the future of the American regime will be decided by negotiations between the socialist-populist and the moribund establishment wings of the Democratic party.
Like Trump (whatever his flaws), Carlson is offering the Right not just a corrective, but a reprieve. If the Right can open its eyes to the purpose of politics properly understood, it will recover a policy and rhetoric that may still lead to victory. If it cannot, a rising Leftist populism is eager to take its place.