Yesterday Tucker Carlson delivered the monologue heard around the conservative world. He addresses one of the fundamental questions of our time — why, when GDP is rising and America is immensely rich, are so very many of our fellow citizens dying deaths of despair? As he bluntly says, “Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.”
He says many true things – that people long for connection with each other, that we can’t separate economics and family life into distinct spheres, and that men suffer from a unique challenge in modern American life.
But he also says false things. He says that manufacturing “all but disappeared over the course of a generation.” It hasn’t. He says, “increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.” Yet a healthy, faithful marriage is often the gateway to affluence. Affluence is not a prerequisite for marriage.
He casts American boys as a generation of burnouts, yet the best evidence shows that marijuana use is only on a slight uptick and is still way down from its highs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Some evidence even suggests its use has stabilized in recent years.)
And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”
I’m not sure where he’s getting the idea that America’s wealthy citizens care more about the Congo than their own country. In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.
American public policies are flawed, yes. The American people are imperfect, yes. But any argument that American elites (a group that includes, by the way, enormous numbers of first-generation college grads and people who worked brutal hours to achieve economic success) represent an uncaring, indifferent, exploitive mass is fundamentally wrong. In fact, the better argument is that well-meaning Americans have spent their money poorly (on ineffective charitable programs and destructive welfare policies), not that they don’t care.
Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes — civil rights, women’s rights, a technological revolution as significant as the industrial revolution, the mass-scale loss of religious faith, the sexual revolution, etc. — and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what they are doing to you.
But the reality is that responsibilities are reciprocal. Yes, we need public officials to do their best to create and sustain a government most conducive to human flourishing, but the primary responsibility for creating a life of virtue and purpose rests with families and individuals. In fact, it is still true that your choices are far more important to your success than any government program or the actions of any nefarious banker or any malicious feminist.
It is a simple fact, that when people make bad choices, there are a cascade of negative effects that follow. The extraordinarily difficult challenge of public policy is considering how to mitigate the effects of those mistakes and providing pathways to overcoming bad decisions. And nothing about that is easy.
Take marijuana, for example. Carlson talks at length about the negative effects of weed use — and I share his concern about those young men and women who become burnouts — but there is nary a word about the immense cost of continued criminalization.
To declare the decriminalization movement about leaders understanding that “they could get rich from marijuana” is flat-out disingenuous. I favor legalization in large part because I think the negative effects of incarceration and the civil-liberties impact of the war on drugs outweigh the benefits of continued criminalization. And I haven’t seen one dime of cash from Big Reefer.
I share Carlson’s concerns about payday lenders. Interest rates can be obscene, and if poor people fall behind, they can get on a treadmill they can’t get off (which also happens with other debts like speeding fines, court costs, etc., and those debts can be far more problematic than a debt to a private lender). But 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?
There are ideas out there, to be sure, but let’s not pretend that poverty was any less sticky when marijuana was illegal and payday lenders were scarce.
I agree with Carlson that more radical forms of feminism have turned too many of our institutions against boys. I agree that affirmative action based on skin color is divisive, unconstitutional, and unfair. But while these policies and cultural trends may create impediments to personal success, these impediments are speedbumps — not impenetrable barriers.
The fundamental problem with our current populist moment isn’t that it fails to identify cultural or political maladies. Carlson and populists on the left have accurately identified a host of American problems. Our declining life expectancy alone should be a blaring wakeup call that despite our prosperity, something is seriously amiss in American life and American culture.
The problem with populism — and indeed with much of American politics — is that it focuses on the political at the expense of the personal. As I’ve argued many times, there are wounds that public policy can’t heal. But populism too often pretends otherwise. It tells a fundamentally false story about Americans as victims of a heartless elite and their “worship” of market economics rather than the true story of America as a flawed society that still grants its citizens access to tremendous opportunity.
(By the way, it’s strange to hear populists of either party talk — as Tucker does — of elites thinking of market capitalism as a “religion.” Both parties in this nation have embraced a truly massive social safety net. Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare dwarf other categories of federal spending. Total federal outlays — not counting state and local expenditures — represent roughly 20 percent of gross domestic product.)
While there is much talk of a shrinking middle class, a large part of that shrinkage is, in fact, due to the fact that so many Americans are moving up. In other words, the upper class isn’t a set population of exploiters and elitists. It’s a growing population of workers and strivers. It’s full of people like my father-in-law, who ran away from his mountain home in Tennessee at age 15 to join the Marines, talked his way into college even though he was functionally illiterate, married a Christian woman, and raised three daughters who are each doing very well.
That path is still wide open in American life. Indeed, if you live in Tennessee and want to learn a trade, you can march from high school straight through community college without paying a dime. You don’t have to make a pit stop in the Marines. Tennessee is an allegedly heartless red state — yet it puts opportunity right in front of each citizen, if they have the will and diligence to seize it.
As we continue to face economic and social disruptions, we should continue to think hard and creatively about how to mitigate the worst effects of automation. We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life. We should channel men’s masculine impulses into virtuous pathways without mocking them and seeking to change their fundamental nature. We need to embrace the vital importance of religious faith in personal renewal.
We should do all these things and more. But we must not create a victim class of angry citizens. We must not tell them falsehoods about the power of governments or banks or elites over their personal destinies. We must not make them feel helpless when they are not helpless. Instead, even as we work diligently to make government more helpful than hurtful (which, frankly, can often mean getting government out of the way), we must continue to tell Americans a liberating truth: This is still a land where you can determine your own success more than can any political party or group of nefarious elites. The fundamental building block of any family is still your love, your discipline, and your fidelity.
Contrary to Carlson’s contention, America isn’t being destroyed. It’s being challenged. And the populist elevation of the political over the personal is perhaps the worst possible response.