Politics & Policy

Tucker Carlson Is on the Wrong Side of the Crisis of Responsibility

Fox personality Tucker Carlson speaks at a Business Insider conference in New York, N.Y., November 30, 2017. (Lucas Jackson/REUTERS)
His monologue struck a chord, but his messaging is scattershot, imprecise.

Tucker Carlson’s viral monologue takes on some of the most important issues of this era and does so with an impressive clarity, succinctness, and conviction. Some astute critiques have followed from the likes of David French, Jim Geraghty, and Ben Shapiro. Others have fawned over Tucker’s segment, while it has driven still others stark mad.

My initial response covered the whole gamut. Parts of Carlson’s monologue capture the things I have been wanting someone with a microphone to say for years. Yet other parts struck at the very heart of why I wrote my book, Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It, last year.

Like many of the critiques offered so far of Tucker’s monologue, I will begin with where he gets things right. Tucker has some meat in this speech that is not only accurate but utterly indispensable to the national conversation. The health of our nation is not measured in her GDP, and happiness trumps prosperity any day. Dignity, purpose, relationships, and freedom are at the heart of happiness, and those with no skin in the game can not and will not be the ones to provide these perquisites for us. Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. America’s families must be strong if America is to be strong. So on and so forth. I do not say these things as token approvals or agreements — I believe Tucker has struck a chord, and for someone like myself who is dedicating his life to the cause of a free and virtuous society, these things must be discussed far and wide.

However, what makes Carlson’s argument so palatable to so many is his underlying presumption that “forces” are out to get the common man. Tucker hardly hides his contempt for somewhat unidentifiable evil spirits — the “ruling class”, the “private equity model,” the “rich people”, the “mercenaries.” I went to great lengths in my book to discourage such imprecise language when describing the alleged foes of society, but I certainly understand the rhetorical benefits.

Tucker fully knows that he has not accurately portrayed the entire story of what “private equity” means in the American economy, or what a corporation is supposed to mean in a dynamic economy. He knows the emotional heartstrings are pulled easiest when demonizing forces that actually are quite amoral. I do my own argument no good to try to set the record straight about those barbs Tucker launched: His motive was to set the tone rhetorically and emotionally, and he did so effectively, even if dishonestly.

Tucker is perhaps right that many affluent, established people in society are not as interested as they should be in “people below them getting and staying married,” though I suspect he and I mean this in very different ways. Tucker indicates that the winners of globalization should be helping to raise wages in Detroit or Dayton. I, however, wonder how much more good we could be doing by what Charles Murray refers to as these people “preaching what they practice.” The playbook for a prosperous and dignified life is well known, and where the social and moral decisions that facilitate such have been put into practice has created a real “coming apart” amongst whites in this country (a cultural as much as an economic separation). Those who have finished school, found a committed relationship, and waited to have kids until marriage; stayed married; avoided drug abuse, infidelity, and other destructive decisions: These people know what has worked for them, and yet time and time again seem willing to publicly tout for a certain moral relativism that is actually the exact opposite worldview of what created the prosperous life they enjoy. I am sure many corporate executives do not spend a lot of time thinking about the effects a free-trade deal might have on Dayton, Ohio, but I am equally sure that they do not adequately promote the benefits of making good and responsible decisions. I think Tucker is focusing on the wrong omission.

Andrew Breitbart famously said that politics is downstream from culture. The problem I have with Carlson’s screed is its willingness to accept that various policy decisions are driving the culture. Indeed, Tucker’s economic proposals are only the secondary problem, flowing from his inversion of cause and effect. The difficult task of cultural repair will bring about positive economic and political effects; Tucker is mistakenly focused on getting the politics and economics right to fix the culture.

The biggest flaw in Tucker’s piece stems from the deepest point he strives to make:

One of the biggest lies our leaders tell is that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this. Members of our educated upper-middle-classes, now the backbone of the Democratic Party, usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.

Randian advocates of a free market do not understand that the freedom of our system is wholly dependent on virtue. The secular, libertarian view of markets that Tucker rightly condemns does indeed fail. Yet Carlson wrongly chooses to assign blame for the decisions people make to macroeconomic forces, instead of focusing on the decisions people make and the microeconomic consequences people absorb.

There is not a policy debate we can have, let alone solve, that represents the cure to what plagues the soul of our great country. If our trade agreements were torn up tomorrow, we would not have a happier country (though we would have a much, much poorer one). If the wall were built, if maternity-leave policies were enhanced, if health care were made more affordable — if whatever the particular policy issue that you believe represents the “ruling class” sticking it to the “working class” were fixed — the “happiness quotient” Tucker and I both care about would not be solved.

Our happiness was not taken away by a bad trade deal or a policy shortcoming, as bad as some policies and laws surely are. The pursuit of happiness is necessarily integrated with character, and the demoralization of our country has been a vicious cycle for a generation now. It does us no good to sit and play “chicken or egg” about this when our communities are in such disarray. No one who cares deeply for American families, blue-collar workers, and those who are on the outside looking in in today’s globalized and changing economy can plausibly claim that it is NAFTA’s fault that those young men playing Fortnite for eleven hours a day do not have shining neighborhoods. If we say that NAFTA hurt their desire to spend time more productively, we must discuss labor dynamism, not accept basement-dwelling and video-game addiction as the logical outcomes to changing economic circumstances. There has been a social deterioration in much of working-class white America—one that is not Wall Street’s fault, not private equity’s fault, not China’s fault, and not Washington, D.C.’s fault.

It is because I care for the plight of families in America, as Tucker no doubt does as well, that I cannot tell the disenfranchised: “Someone did this to you, and someone else will have to make it right.” Pretending that cultural deterioration was merely the byproduct of a disinterested or malignant ruling class is disingenuous and dangerous. Tucker appears to declare illegitimate the suggestion that those who are flourishing in the modern economy, which includes himself and myself, care for those who do not. Yet while it is patently false that those who are succeeding are always and forever aloof, I appreciate Tucker’s call that decision-makers should focus on expanding opportunity for those who have been left behind.

My book sought to outline many of the policy prescriptions that I believe would help advance the case for a freer and more aspirational society. I believe the current school system is a civil-rights tragedy that demands increased choice. I support robust border-security measures and a policy of assimilation, not multiculturalism, for those who join our country. The American higher-education system and the student debt it has generated borders on the fraudulent, and certainly has been impoverishing. The national cult of housing has been utterly unforgivable, helping to make unaffordable housing a prize, not a curse. Policy matters, and while Tucker and I may agree on certain policies and disagree on others, I heartily commend policy debates aimed at generating a society with more opportunity.

But the far more meaningful part of my book in terms of the cause of a free and virtuous society dealt with personal prescriptions. Casting off the demon of victimization is Step No. 1 in the pursuit of a happy and dignified life. From my own book, chapter eleven:

A life of resilience will inevitably be a life of joy. As any joyful person knows, such resilience is fundamentally a matter of outlook and perspective. The decision to reject any suggestion that you are a victim of external circumstance is the sine qua non for those pursuing success in our complex modern life.

This can easily be misconstrued for what it is not — a naïve appeal to rugged individualism, to pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and ignoring various externalities that plague us. As individuals created in the image of God, made to “not be alone,” I don’t believe our rejection of a mentality of victimization can happen in isolation. A healthy (and happy) society requires mediating institutions — family, church, civic organizations, communities — that serve as necessary vehicles for virtuous living. A belief in the all-powerful state has stripped away those mediating institutions from our civic life, and a demand for the all-powerful state to remedy the problems in modern society will only exacerbate the same.

Tucker does a wonderful job decrying the silliness that says consumption is the be-all and end-all of life. This 20th-century economic maxim is not only the source of great economic destruction; it is at the heart of what is wrong existentially as well. At the heart of the “happiness” problem that both Tucker and I want to see solved is a lack of focus on production — not merely economically, but inherent to our being. Production not only drives economic health in that we can not consume until we first produce (consumption is the result of growth, not the cause of it), but it drives spiritual meaning because it speaks to the very essence of the meaning of life. Also from my own book:

Consciously constructing your life around production engenders gratitude, facilitates a useful life of service to others, and creates intrinsic value when you inherit the rewards of meaningful productivity and purpose.

Dignity will not automatically come from a higher GDP, and I appreciate Tucker saying so. But in a day and age where so many forces have failed to deliver the goods, I shudder to think that conservatives themselves will miss the chance to get the message right.

David L. Bahnsen — David L. Bahnsen is the founder and chief investment officer of the bicoastal Bahnsen Group wealth-management firm, a trustee at the National Review Institute, and the author of the new book Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It.

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