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Dear Reader (Even those otherwise occupied by their doorbell love),
Like Jeffrey Epstein when the new Sears Junior Miss catalogue comes out, I don’t know where to begin.
About 20 minutes ago (my time), I caught some of Senator Kamala Harris’s road show on Morning Joe. If there were a platitude-eating fungus that rapidly reproduced, by the end of the segment, everyone would have died from the crushing weight of the world’s largest mushroom.
I don’t really take offense at the platitudes, given that we are talking about a politician and also a U.S. senator running for president. What did bug me quite a bit, though, was how she oozed the sense that she was just nailing it. And no, this isn’t a sexist thing. I know we’re in the phase of the asinine conversation when we’re supposed to believe that finding a specific liberal woman annoying or unlikable proves that you hate all women.
I reject all of this and all attempts to bully me into compliance. I belong to the school that says women are human beings, and that means they are distributed up and down the likability scale, just like men. I find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likable, but not as likable as Amy Klobuchar, and more likable than Elizabeth Warren. And, just to establish a baseline, compared to, say, the late Helen Thomas (the Stygian goblin who used to roost in the White House press gallery, her scaly talons glistening under the camera lights), they’re all so likable I’d join their cross-country Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants if it meant not sitting next to Thomas on a short flight.
Anyway, former senator Bill Bradley had the same quality as Harris. He’d say something like “Elections are vital to democracy” and then stop talking, as if the audience needed time to absorb the shockwave of a truth bomb of such magnitude. I read somewhere that Bradley didn’t like to hear applause at the end of his speeches because he interpreted silence as a sign of the audience’s awe at his wisdom.
Harris wasn’t that bad, but it was close.
The Ties that Bind
But there’s a more important point to make. I caught her in the middle of a dense disquisition on how diversity and unity are not in conflict because we all have so much more in common than what separates us. I wasn’t taking notes, and there’s no transcript, but fortunately National Review ran a piece three days ago that has all of these supposedly spontaneous observations from this morning verbatim.
Here’s that version of those remarks:
“The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us,” Harris said. “When people are waking up in the middle of the night with the thing that has been weighing on them . . . they aren’t waking up thinking that thought through the lens of the party with which they’re registered to vote. They are not thinking it through some demographic upholster.
When they wake up thinking that thought, it usually has to do with one of very few things: It usually has to do with their personal health, about their children, or their parents,” she continued. “Can I get a job? Keep a job? Pay the bills by the end of the month? Retire with dignity?”
Now, taken as a platitudinous slurry of pabulum — and how else could one take it? — this is largely true of all Americans. But you know who else it’s true of? Canadians. And Germans. The French. And many, many other humans. Admittedly, in places like Yemen or Syria the middle-of-the-night concerns are more stark: “Will my house get bombed?” “Will the militia conscript my son?” But what Kamala Harris is really saying here is only slightly more interesting or profound than noting that Americans are united by their bipedalism or need for oxygen.
Harris’s riff reflects a profound tension running through contemporary progressivism that has roots going back more than a century.
I don’t think I need to remind readers that I have my problems with the new fad for nationalism on the right. But it may be necessary to remind some that I have been railing against the nationalism of the left for 20 years. For all of its problems, right-wing nationalism at least draws on important and diverse wellsprings of meaning — history, culture, religion, tradition, and, most obviously, the concept of a nation. Left-wing nationalism draws its power almost entirely from a single source: the state. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about left-wing nationalism is that it doesn’t even acknowledge its nationalism. AOC may want to nationalize industry in the name of national unity, but because she calls it “socialism” it’s not scary.
As I noted in my column about the Green New Deal (and in dozens of other columns, scores of blogposts, and at least two books), the through-line of 20th- and now 21st-century liberalism has been William James’s idea of the moral equivalent of war. From the progressives of the Wilson era to the progressives of today, the idea has always been to use the state to unify the country by turning citizens into clients of the government in Washington. Wilson and FDR had elements of right-wing nationalism to them because they were products of an age when liberals could still invoke traditional concepts and customs that today are considered atavistic carbuncles on the body politic. But programmatically, they were left-wing nationalists in the sense that they wanted to use the government in Washington to guide the whole country in a single direction.
Real freedom required abandoning the individual pursuit of happiness and instead pursuing collective endeavors. As James’s disciple John Dewey argued, notions of individual rights and liberties were outdated impediments to getting us all to work together. “Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology . . . organized social control” via a “socialized economy” is the only means to create “free” individuals.
The great thing about war, according to James and his disciples, was that it caused people to abandon their sense of individuality and rally around the state for large causes. James was a pacifist, but he loved that aspect of war, which is why he thought America should organize as if we were at war to conquer nature (the idea behind the Green New Deal — that we must organize as if we are at war to conquer climate change — has some ironic differences, but it’s basically the same notion). FDR wanted to use the technique of war to fight the Great Depression. From Kevin D. Williamson:
Roosevelt’s statement upon signing the NRA’s enabling legislation (the National Industrial Recovery Act) on June 16, 1933, clearly invoked the holy grail of sacrificial solidarity: “The challenge of this law is whether we can sink selfish interest and present a solid front against a common peril,” the president explained. Roosevelt specifically called upon the memory of the First World War: “I had part in the great cooperation of 1917 and 1918,” he said, “and it is my faith that we can count on our industry once more to join in our general purpose to lift this new threat and to do it without taking any advantage of the public trust which has this day been reposed without stint in the good faith and high purpose of American business.” F.D.R. was hardly modest in his claims for the act: “It is the most important attempt of this kind in history. As in the great crisis of the World War, it puts a whole people to the simple but vital test: — ‘Must we go on in many groping, disorganized, separate units to defeat or shall we move as one great team to victory?’”
So let’s look again at the things that Harris says unite us. Concerns about personal health, the health of loved ones, the ability to work, pay the bills, and retire with dignity.
I am not saying that there is no role for government in addressing these concerns. But two things are worth noting: Nowhere does she say that the things that unite us are a concern about our rights and freedoms. Nowhere does she say that what we all share is a desire to pursue happiness as we see it, enjoy the fruits of our labors, or be allowed to practice our faiths or to raise our children the way we want to. Her definition of national unity hinges on the idea that we should all come together as clients of the federal government. In this, she’s offering nothing new to FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights.” All she’s doing is coating the pill with a film of cliché.
My Elite Problem — And Theirs
Until yesterday, I’ve stayed mostly quiet on the Tucker Carlson debate raging across the right. One of my frustrations, I must say, is that there were more worthy and timely opportunities to debate these issues than a cable-news diatribe aimed at defending the current administration and the forces it has unleashed. This debate is long overdue, but there were better touchstones for it, like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart or J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or even Rick Santorum’s presidential bids.
Anyway, here’s a very brief summary of the relevant and smart disagreements (there are a plethora of irrelevant and dumb disagreements) that probably leaves out way too much nuance. Tucker argues that “elites” have rigged the system for their own benefit and that they have done so deliberately. David French and David L. Bahnsen concede that elites have made some poor policy decisions, but they do not subscribe to the conspiracy-theory version of this tale. More importantly, they argue that the real problem is cultural and can be summed up in the phrase “personal responsibility.” Government policies — and larger economic forces that government has little control over — may have made circumstances more difficult for some Americans, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated as victims or see themselves as such. I agree with them.
Meanwhile folks such as Michael Brendan Dougherty and Reihan Salam argue that personal responsibility is of course hugely important, but that doesn’t absolve elites from their culpability, nor does it mean we shouldn’t fix the policies that have led to various problems. I agree with them, too.
Where I disagree with pretty much everybody is that we are mostly looking at the wrong elites. With the complicated and limited exception of the immigration question, I share David French’s skepticism that if we only had listened to the Oren Casses, Patrick Deneens, Tucker Carlsons, and Michael Brendan Dougherties of ten, 20, 50 (or in Deneen’s case 300) years ago, we wouldn’t have many of the same problems we see today.
The supposedly halcyon age of the 1950s and early 1960s was not as idyllic as the nostalgia merchants often claim (just ask blacks, women, Jews, gays, cancer victims, the disabled, people born too late for the polio vaccine, Korean War vets, et al).
More to the point, the factors that made the 1950s economy seem so desirable depended on things that cannot be easily replicated and/or were largely outside the power of policymakers to meaningfully effect. The Great Depression and World War II created enormous pent-up consumer demand at precisely the moment that America was singularly well-positioned to exploit. Europe was in rubble, and our industrial base was massively expanded. Returning soldiers were eager to get to work, and technology was poised to make all manner of gadgets and geegaws affordable.
The idea that all of our problems since then can be attributed to our trade, monetary, or industrial policies, and that we’d be better off if only the propeller heads at the OMB or Commerce Department had embraced economic nationalism, strikes me as wildly unpersuasive, and at times vaguely Marxist.
For instance, post–World War II feminism has many authors, but among the most important are technology and education. For centuries, the division of labor between home — where women ruled — and outside work, largely a male domain, was fairly equitable. Men did not have it great in the fields, factories, mines, or trenches, but the work required to maintain a home was no picnic. Modern technologies freed wives and mothers from often backbreaking and always exhausting labor. And that’s a good thing. Mechanization reduced the need for a strong back, and education opened the opportunities for women to do much of the same work that men did, sometimes better. And that’s a good thing. Betty Friedan’s claim that being a housewife was like being a Jew in a “comfortable concentration camp” was grotesquely asinine, but the more basic point that morally, philosophically, and practically there was no good reason to keep women barefoot and pregnant — when they didn’t want to be — was hard to argue with. Similarly, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, the birth-control pill had more to do with the breakdown of all sorts of norms than anything Gloria Steinem wrote, just as the automobile had done more to transform sexual norms than any French novel or German philosopher.
I bring this up because to the extent that the problems facing marriage and the family are the result of elites making bad policy decisions, the policy decisions that would have prevented most of those problems are ones few of those cheering Tucker’s monologue would consider reversing. I mean maybe Mike Pence in his heart would like to get rid of birth control as the first president of Gilead, but that’s not going to happen.
So which elites do I have a problem with? Let me put it this way. For years, conservatives have quoted my late friend Andrew Breitbart’s pithy rephrasing of a very old idea: “Politics is downstream of culture.” The odd thing is that, almost overnight, many of the same conservatives now argue as if industrial and trade policy is upstream of culture. Some even shriek about how the “neocons” don’t understand that the free market is just a tool, when it was the neocons who had made this argument for decades and were chastised by the “true conservatives” for it (see Irving Kristol’s “Two Cheers For Capitalism” or “When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness”).
Where I agree with many of my new nationalist brethren on the right is that patriotism is important. Assimilation is important. Gratitude for this wonderful country and all that it has done is important. Forget important, these things are vital. The elites who have helped fray the social fabric, who have argued that self-expression is more important than self-discipline, that religion is for suckers, that morality is situational but judgmentalism is immoral, that instant personal authenticity is the only ethical lodestar, these are the elites I have a problem with, because they have done more to undermine notions of personal responsibility than all of the U.S. trade representatives combined.
Capitalism does play a major negative role in all of this, as Schumpeter predicted and as I discuss in my book. It forces efficiencies on institutions that depend on their quirkiness to be attractive, erodes both good and bad customs and traditions, and makes instant gratification ever more attainable. But the solution to these problems must be cultural and rise from the bottom up, not statist and imposed from above.
I have been arguing with conservative nationalists for a couple of years now that my problem with nationalism as an ideological imperative is that by its own logic it must be centralizing, because the state is the only institution that can speak for the whole nation. The perplexed expressions from my friends in response to this critique has perplexed me. But in the wake of Carlson’s diatribe, many of the same conservatives have made my point for me. The government in Washington is now, all of a sudden, upstream of culture, and once good-intentioned nationalists control the knobs and buttons of the state, we’ll fix all of the problems with our culture. They sound a lot more like Kamala Harris than they realize.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: The dogs were very, very happy to greet us upon our return from vacation. They’ve been very good girls, though Pippa’s sense of entitlement is getting out of control. Yesterday, after we got back from our morning walk, she kept barking at the Fair Jessica and me, demanding additional fun in the backyard. When I manfully yelled “No!” she walked off in a huff to the dog bed and pouted. She would not even look at me. Indeed, both of them tend to look at me these days as if I owe them money or I forgot their birthday. But before you take their side, let me assure you that I still give them lots of attention. In other news, I’m taking my daughter with me for a speech in Florida today. But the Fair Jessica will be taking Pippa to the beauty salon for a new ’do. Fear not: We will not get rid of her trademark toupee, even though it sometimes leads to static problems.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.