Tucker Carlson gave a great speech on Tuesday night. He linked various American anxieties together in a spellbinding way, telling a story about a nation adrift that channeled Trumpism better than Donald Trump ever has. But Carlson’s vision is fundamentally wrong. America as a whole isn’t broken, and the parts that are cannot be fixed by politicians who care.
Sounding much like a new FDR or a Sandersista, Carlson castigates the heartless, spineless “leaders” of our country who “don’t care” about those being left behind by globalism and automation. He is especially worried about post-industrial working-class men. Yet the political leader upon whom he rained fire is Mitt Romney, who has been a senator for about ten minutes. If anyone has sounded the alarm about the kinds of people Carlson is talking about, it’s the man who currently sits in the Oval Office. Does Donald Trump not care about Rust Belt men whose fathers were union members? Trump’s program of tariffs to punish imports and goodies to support domestic manufacturing seems to be exactly what Carlson wants.
And it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough. How could it? Because no matter how much our leaders “care,” they can’t do what Carlson suggests they could do if only they had some fight, if only they weren’t part of the establishment, if only they weren’t beholden to bankers and private-equity men, which is to turn back the hands of time. In a modern economy, strong backs are simply worth a lot less than communication skills, which is why women have made major economic gains at the expense of men. Factory workers were, in the glory years of the AFL-CIO, able to negotiate a one-time windfall based on America’s interval of unchallenged preeminence. That time is over. It isn’t coming back. America has overseas competitors. They aren’t going away.
At his most Howard Beale–ish, Carlson says, “Our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.” This tactic is endlessly effective when you need to wake up the people in the back rows at a gig at Caesars Palace — these clowns in Washington, am I right? — but beside the point. This is perhaps not quite demagoguery, but it’s demagoguery’s near neighbor. It sees demagoguery at the grocery store and knows the names of demagoguery’s kids.
The insane clown posse in Washington may not care about your problems, but they aren’t the cause of them either. The rise in single-parent families, and the mismatches in the marriage market that (for instance) make it difficult for high-achieving women to find husbands, are indeed worrisome, but is Sheryl Sandberg really to blame for telling women to lean in? Sandberg’s book is aimed solely at the narrow layer of women at the very top of the socioeconomic cake who seek the biggest jobs in their fields. The wealthy children of these wealthy women will be fine. The children of married people will in general be fine. (Can we really be worried about helicopter parenting and, at the same time, latchkey kids abandoned by their CEO moms?) Sandberg is a red herring. Carlson worked her into his spiel in a clever way, to capitalize on anxieties about changing sexual roles, but if Mom is a billionaire Facebook exec, or thinking about becoming one, you really aren’t the kind of person America needs to fret about.
The salutary effects of marriage, especially when it comes to rearing children, are well established, and government could shore up families a bit via tax incentives, but that doesn’t seem to be what Carlson is talking about. He’s talking about something deeper: Who killed the American working man?
Carlson’s chief suspect is Mitt Romney. Why, Carlson wants to know, is capital taxed at a lower rate than labor? Doesn’t this mean people like Mitt Romney get ridiculously rich? Shouldn’t we be angry about that? Note that Carlson is making a moral, not fiscal, case for higher taxes on the plutocracy. It’s exactly the case Barack Obama made in that 2008 debate when he averred that even if a tax hike on the rich could be shown to reduce overall revenue, it should be rammed through anyway in the interests of “fairness.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tucker Carlson are in agreement that being rich should get you punished. They’re too late: The bottom 44 percent of American earners pay zero in federal income tax. Most of the federal income-tax revenue comes from the top 3 percent of earners. The rich pay plenty. Every conservative knows this, or ought to. I think Carlson knows it too, but he calculates that there is a market out there for economic resentment.
Carlson is absolutely correct to point out that America’s goal is not maximum GDP but maximum happiness. The former is still a good thing, though. And the reason public policy deals with the former more than the latter is that it lacks the expertise to maximize happiness. Let’s have a bit of conservative modesty about what we think the government is capable of. Neither Carlson nor I would like what happens after the National Happiness Corps swings into action. Is Carlson seeking a new “politics of meaning” in which government agencies try to address what’s ailing our spirits? No thanks. If you lack the mental agility to deal with a changing landscape, see a pastor or a wise friend or a therapist (it’s on Obamacare!). The world economy is not going to bend to your needs, and no U.S. politician can make it do so.
Carlson finds that “economic and cultural trends . . . are destroying America.” This is sheer hyperbole. Changing, yes. Destroying? No. He warns that socialism is a given if the Republican party can’t do something for the working class. I don’t see it. Bumping up the income tax by a few points for the highest earners took all of President Obama’s political clout.
By no means should all of Carlson’s points be dismissed, but decrying problems is much less useful than identifying solutions. As David French explains, there are real, concrete steps that struggling people can take to improve their lot. Railing against the globalists and the bankers and the Sheryl Sandbergs may be a satisfying pastime, but it isn’t a solution. Neither is hoping for leaders who show more “caring.”