The Corner

Politics & Policy

Independence, Isolation, Etc.

Bush 41, Bush 43, and Laura Bush at the inauguration of 43’s presidential center on the campus of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, on April 25, 2013 (The Bush Center)

For years, Barack Obama slammed Republican philosophy as “You’re on your own.” So did others, including Hillary Clinton. Republicans like me reacted indignantly, saying this was a slander, and explaining why. Then a funny thing happened: Republicans agreed with the Democrats.

In 2007, Hillary was running for president. She said that what President George W. Bush was calling an “ownership society” was really an “on-your-own society.” Obama won the nomination that year, and used the same rhetoric.

Accepting the nomination in Denver, Obama said that John McCain “doesn’t get it.” Obama continued,

For over two decades, he’s subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the “ownership society,” but what it really means is you’re on your own.

Short years later came Donald Trump and the transformation of the Republican party and the conservative movement. By the summer of 2018, even Marco Rubio was denouncing “the radical you’re-on-your-own individualism promoted by our government and by our society in the last 30 years.”

By the way, is that your view of what happened in America from roughly 1990 to 2020? If so, we must have been living in different countries. (After I publish a review, people sometimes tell me, “We must have been at different concerts!”)

A prime example of the new Republican is another senator, Josh Hawley. George F. Will has devoted a column to him, here.

The sails of Sen. Josh Hawley’s political skiff are filled with winds gusting from the right. They come from conservatives who think that an array of — perhaps most of — America’s social injuries, from addiction to loneliness, have been inflicted by America’s economy. Individualism, tendentiously defined, is the Missouri Republican’s named target. Inevitably, however, the culprit becomes capitalism, which is what individual freedom is in a market society’s spontaneous order.

Some more of Will’s column:

It is not accidental, Hawley asserts, that there is “an epidemic of personal loneliness and isolation — driven by the loss of community.” This is a consequence of being told “that to be truly free is to be without the constricting ties of family and place, without the demands of faith or tradition.” Oh? By whom have we supposedly been sold this caricature of individualism?

Yes, exactly.

I think of George W. Bush, who inaugurated his presidential center in 2013. Behind him on the stage were the other living ex-presidents, and their wives. (So that meant Hillary Clinton was present.) President and Mrs. Obama were there too.

In the course of his speech, Bush implicitly answered the longstanding criticism of the Left that Republicans stood for social Darwinism, a dog-eat-dog existence, devoid of heart.

“Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other,” he said. “A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”

Yes. I will repeat that first sentence, so important to understand: “Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other.”

By much of the Right these days, George F. Will and George W. Bush are not considered conservatives, while Trump, Hawley & Co. are. People define words in their own times and places. But if conservatism is redefined as a nationalist-populist statism, and liberalism, in America, remains a pink-hued statism, then our country will be a lot poorer (in more than one sense).

Has anything that has done so much for so many ever been less appreciated than a free economy? And when you try to divorce a free economy from freedom itself — you run into a frightful dilemma.

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