The Corner

Politics & Policy

Fumbling for Clarity, At Last

We live in a confusing political moment. There are a lot of obvious reasons for that. Just turn on your television and you’ll see. But I think that underlying many of those is the exhaustion of a particular mode of understanding the nature of America’s challenges.

You might say that in a number of key policy arenas—from foreign policy to economics, social policy to welfare and health care—we are living both with ways of thinking and with policy arrangements that were conceived and constructed around the circumstances of the latter part of the 20th century. That was not so long ago, and not everything has changed since then. But some important things have, and public policy has not done a good job of adapting.

Adapting would not mean abandoning old principles but rather applying them to new circumstances. Principles applied to circumstances are what public policy consists of, and when policy fails to change as circumstances do it tends to get overstretched, and therefore to grow rigid and brittle, as much of our policy infrastructure has lately. Applying enduring principles to changing circumstances is what’s required of our policymakers, but they’ve too often fallen short of it lately. Saying “again” or “for all” at the end of what you’ve said for half a century doesn’t amount to modernization.

The Trump era has made this task of applying enduring principles to new circumstances all the more difficult. The president’s thinking is often just horrendously disordered, and when it is a little better ordered it tends to be ordered by the structure of cable-news debates rather than national and global challenges. His narcissism almost always explains his pronouncements better than anything else, and his narcissism is not a durable foundation for policy thinking. So it seems increasingly likely that what people in our political and policy spheres will walk away with from the Trump years will just be more intense versions of whatever they came in with.

To do better than that, we’ll have to see some policymakers offering different ways to structure our thinking about contemporary problems—giving some order to the relevant questions, before we can even begin to make judgments about answers—and there just hasn’t been much of that lately.

But that’s why it’s worth noticing some exceptions to that depressing rule when they arise. And we have seen two important ones this month.

Last week, Florida senator Marco Rubio delivered a thoughtful and provocative speech at Catholic University, laying out what he called a “common-good capitalism.” My colleague Michael Strain offers a good overview here.

Rubio begins by laying out some crucial principles—especially about the need to balance rights with obligations in our economic life—and by framing his economic thinking in the context of Catholic social teaching, which puts the dignity of the human person at the center of our approach to social life, and therefore also to political economy. He describes himself as a defender of markets, but of markets as means to a dignified life, and then suggests some ways that our economy has failed to advance that broader purpose for some Americans in recent decades, and some things that might be done about it.

More important than the policy proposals he puts forward, at least for the time being, is the attempt to offer a vision of the contemporary American situation in context: Rubio articulates some enduring principles, diagnoses some contemporary problems, and offers a framework for how the former might help us address the latter.

I have some quibbles with the vision he puts forward: Above all, I think he describes what is at its essence a social and cultural problem in terms that suggest it is an economic problem, and so makes it harder for himself to put his finger on the challenge. Materialism tends to mislead us at times like these. The hinge of his speech is the suggestion that today’s economy is failing to provide dignified work for too many Americans, and it doesn’t seem to me like that’s actually the deepest essence of the social crisis we confront. But he may be right, and in any case he has offered a compelling coherent vision to consider and to work with even if you don’t agree with all its elements.

Then yesterday, in a speech at the Center for a New American Security, Missouri senator Josh Hawley sought to provide a similar service on the foreign-policy front. Hawley’s speech takes up the confusing character of this moment even more explicitly than Rubio’s. Hawley takes that confusion as his starting point—as, in a sense, the problem to be solved. He suggests that, in the wake of the Cold War, the left and right both sought a foreign policy that might facilitate the transformation of various non-democratic foreign regimes into democracies, whether through the work of international organizations (for the left) or of direct American engagement and deployment (for the right). But that aim, he says, was rooted in misguided expectations, and although we have gradually come to understand those expectations were misguided, we have not really thought our way to a different organizing principle for American foreign policy.

Hawley proposes such a principle:

We seek an international system that is free from hegemonic rule, free from suzerainty or control by any one state. We seek an international system where nations can make their own choices, where they can meet on a level field, where they can control their own destinies.

This is a general principle, of course, and it can point toward a variety of forms of engagement. Hawley suggests some, and says this principle would also rule out some forms of engagement—particularly those that would seek to remake foreign regimes. And above all, such a principle at this point would tend to focus American foreign policy on China and its ambitions.

Here, too, I could offer some objections. I think Hawley’s emphasis on combatting foreign hegemony makes a lot of sense but that his effort to ground that vision in what he describes as America’s middle-class republicanism makes less sense. But before even endorsing or rejecting or quibbling with his proposed framework, I think it’s worth first appreciating his effort to propose one, and the perceptive and ambitious way he does so.

As with Rubio, the fact that Hawley tries to take up concrete problems and understand them in context leads him to moderate his rhetorical flourishes and turn down the temperature a little. Rubio criticizes some capitalist excesses, but he is ultimately a defender of the market economy—indeed, a stronger defender precisely because he is also a friendly critic. Hawley is critical of open-ended American military engagements abroad, but he is no isolationist; he is critical of Chinese abuses but defends a free and open trade regime more broadly. Both are arguing for a modernized conservatism rooted in reality. They’re not just throwing rhetorical bombs.

Both Hawley and Rubio, in this sense, are trying to address one of the problems that have debilitated our politics. The exhaustion of the conceptual frameworks underlying our contemporary policy debates has to be answered by creative, principled statesmanship rooted in reality. That is no easy feat in the Trump era. But it essential to try, and it’s good to see two younger Republican officeholders ably taking up the challenge.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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