Politics & Policy

Josh Hawley’s Striking Critique of American Life

Senator Josh Hawley in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 11, 2019 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
In a speech last night, the Missouri senator offered a dark vision of our nation’s problems. But what will he do to solve them? What can he do?

Missouri senator Josh Hawley might be the most interesting thinker the U.S. Senate has seen since Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Or at least, he’s the senator today who most resembles Moynihan as a sweeping and adventurous social critic.

Last night, at a dinner held by the American Principles Project Foundation, Hawley gave a remarkable speech. Like most good political speeches, it was straightforward and accessible. But unlike most good political speeches, it was also a searing piece of cultural criticism, an indictment of America’s economic and social arrangements. This is notable because at the moment, the president of the United States — a man who happens to belong to Hawley’s party — is touting the unparalleled success of the American economy.

Near the top of his remarks, Hawley denounced the emergence of an American “oligarchy”:

Discontent is the theme of our politics, the preoccupation of our popular culture. It is the very air we breathe.

But why? Why — in the words of another American senator — is this most prosperous of nations so troubled in spirit, so rent by division, so anxious and uncertain?

The statistics tell us that we are living in a new age of inequality. The divide between the wealthy and working Americans is wide, and growing wider.

You’ve heard the numbers. As to wealth: The top 10 percent of the country’s earners control 77 percent of the country’s total wealth. As to wages: Over the last several decades, inflation- adjusted wages for the working class have barely budged, while income for those at the very top has soared.

But the most telling economic divide in the country is between Americans with a high-school degree and those who have four-year-college degrees or more. A bachelor’s degree now earns a household in this country double the median income of a high-school diploma. As of 2016, families with a four-year degree or higher controlled roughly three-quarters of the country’s wealth. That’s a 50 percent increase since just 1989.

We are witnessing the rise of a new oligarchy of wealth and education. And not surprisingly, the leaders of this country’s government, its press, its corporations, and most of its popular culture most all belong to this same class.

Perhaps that is sobering to you, perhaps not. But Hawley’s discussion of the rise in “deaths of despair” — suicides, drug overdoses, alcohol-related deaths — certainly should be. Working from a report by Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, Hawley uttered a few sentences that made me shudder when I read them:

The number of 15- to 24-year-olds committing suicide is greater than at any other time since the government began tracking the data over 50 years ago.

For girls and young women, suicide rates have doubled during the 21st century. Doubled.

Taken altogether, nearly 36,000 American millennials died “deaths of despair” in 2017 alone.

There is now a death from drugs or alcohol or suicide every four minutes in this nation.

For basically my entire adult life, the default mode of Republican speechifying has been a kind of reheated “optimism” with lots of waxing poetic about the great reserves of American can-do waiting to be tapped. These attempts to recapture “Morning in America” have been delivered through clenched, Prozac-like smiles by men who promptly enter black SUVs to be hurried off back to their gated communities. I’ve always accepted that this is the way of electoral politics, which doesn’t have much to do with a conservative intellectual disposition that tends to be more dour, or at least skeptical.

But Hawley’s speech went from those baleful statistics to a prophetic critique of a cult of the individual and self that is “so thoroughly ingrained in American culture.”

Hawley called it the Promethean idea: “This is the individual as creator, as self-creator, maker of meaning and author of reality, rather like Prometheus who in the ancient myth created all mankind. So call this view of the human person the ‘Promethean self.’” He added that both parties have embraced some version of Promethean politics:

It is preached in our universities, celebrated in our music, rehearsed in our literature and film. It’s even the stuff of judicial decisions.

Remember this? “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That’s Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992. I doubt you needed the citation.

Hawley went on to say that “the Promethean ambition leaves us lost and unmoored. And the market worship and cultural deconstruction the Promethean vision has inspired have failed this country.” This is likely to be met with disdain or active resistance by many Republicans, including some of my own colleagues here at National Review. So too is Hawley’s mention of labor unions as one of the institutions that bring people together and ground them in their communities. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Hawley ended with a rousing call for “a new politics of family and neighborhood, a new politics of love and belonging, a new politics of home.” On a personal note, it would be wrong not to notice that his critique of contemporary life largely overlaps with my own. My book, My Father Left Me Ireland, is about recovering a vision of “home” in our political imagination that inspires the kind of selflessness our society and its institutions — including institutions of the state — need from us. So naturally, Hawley’s vision intrigues me.

Of course, I don’t know if speeches like this will make Hawley an effective senator or an agent of change within his party — though Moynihan was somewhat famous for writing like an intellectual with views somewhere between William F. Buckley and Christopher Lasch, his votes never distinguished him all that much from Ted Kennedy. But they certainly mark the Missouri freshman as a man to watch in the Senate.

Likewise, the heart of the question Hawley is getting at — the one that has sparked fierce intra-conservative debates for months — isn’t going away: It’s all well and good to thunder from Olympus, but what precisely is to be done? The answer in my book was personal and small-scale, if also foundational: Accept more children into our lives, and be good fathers to them.

Hawley has started to give his own answer, pioneering a new, adversarial approach to the titans of Silicon Valley. But what would he do to revive a healthy role for the labor unions he lauded last night? What will he do to revive neighborhoods and churches? What can he do to accomplish these things as a senator? The Scriptures say that if Christ’s disciples are silent, the very stones will cry out. The fact that Hawley is stepping in to give a prophet’s or a theologian’s reading of the times is remarkable, and I certainly wish him well. But I’m not yet sure if his emergence is reassuring or a sign of how deep our problems are and how mixed-up our institutions have become.

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