A Civilizational Crisis
The following piece is adapted from remarks that Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance gave at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Future of American Political Economy Conference in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 23, 2021. ISI invited Vance to address conference attendees on the topics of political economy and family policy in light of the recent Netflix film based on Hillbilly Elegy and his personal story of hard work and pursuit of the American Dream.
So much of what needs to happen in the conservative movement these days is courage. Courage to respond to the threats and the reactions of the left. Courage to stand on principle. Courage to offer new ideas to new challenges. And I’m going to talk a little bit later tonight about family policy, and I have to tell you a little bit of a story, which is the last time that I spoke about family policy in Washington, D.C., I think three years ago, and my remarks were picked up by the Washington Post. One of the arguments that I made in that speech is that we should care about the fact that there aren’t enough American families. There aren’t enough babies being born in our country. And of course the Washington Post said that when I said there weren’t enough American babies being born, what I must have meant, what I had to mean, is there weren’t enough white American babies being born.
It was one of the first introductions in my life to how vicious the media could be. I’d been criticized by the press before, but when those remarks were interpreted by the Post in that way, I lost business contacts. I lost investors. It actually affected my life materially. And what it made me realize is two things:
First of all, courage is really important.
And second of all, courage is impossible without good friends and friendship. And so many of the people in this room, even looking out at you now, I see so many good friends who have helped me be courageous in this moment in our country’s history. It’s so necessary and so important, so thank you. Thank you for having me, and thank you for being leaders in this movement that all of us care about so much.
So I want to talk just a little bit about this concept of the American Dream. The American Dream is not about the stuff that I think the media tells us that it’s about. It’s not about fancy degrees. It’s not about bestselling books. It’s not about a lot of wealth and a lot of power and a lot of privilege. To me, the American Dream is about a good life in your own country. The American Dream of my Mamaw, who did not graduate from high school, and the woman who really made me and gave me so many of the opportunities that I’ve been able to have in my life, she did not care what I did. She did not care where I went to school. She did not care how much money I made. She just wanted me to be a good husband and a good father. She wanted me to be able to provide my kids the things that I didn’t have when I was growing up.
And I’m proud to say that Mamaw’s American Dream for me has actually been realized. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve got a beautiful wife, the love of my life. I’ve got two beautiful boys. And I think, “Oh my god, I should have been the statistic.” But in this country, in this place of ours, I was able to live my dreams and have some of the same opportunities that Mamaw wanted for me. And I didn’t think even when I was a teenager this would happen. I didn’t think that I’d be able to build a business in my hometown. I didn’t think, most of all, that I would be able to provide my children and my wife the things that I didn’t have growing up. That’s the American Dream that we have to fight for in this country.
And I worry a little bit that when people hear the phrase “the American Dream,” their eyes sort of glaze over. Because the way that it’s been taught to by so many establishment Republican politicians is that the American Dream is the dream of Mitt Romney. It’s private jets. It’s fancy businesses. It’s a lot of money. But that’s not the American Dream that most Americans actually occupy. They just want to live a good life in their own country.
Now, this is more complicated than it sounds. As all of us know, we care a lot about the American Dream, but what does it actually mean? Well, to me, it means two critical categories of things.
The first is that it means if you work hard and play by the rules, you can support a middle-class family on a single wage. Good jobs that pay a good wage for people who work hard and play by the rules. That’s the first component. And it’s that simple thing. It’s why we care about our immigration policy, which undercuts the wages of American workers right now. It’s why we care about our trade and manufacturing policies. Why we don’t want the Chinese to build their middle class on the backs of the American middle class, because we want our own people to be able to earn a good wage so long as they work hard and play by the rules.
But it’s also cultural. And that’s where I’m going to focus my remarks tonight.
The cultural component of this is that to live a good life in your own country, you have to actually feel respected. And you have to be able to teach your children to honor and love the things that you were taught to honor and love. When I think about my Mamaw, who did not graduate from high school, as I said earlier, she was not an educated woman by definition, but she knew by name every single battle that General George S. Patton fought and won in North Africa. To the day that she died, she taught me to believe that we came from something proud. We were the people who landed in Normandy and defeated the Nazis in Europe. We were the people who put the first man on the moon. We were the people that defeated the Soviets in Europe.
American patriotism to her wasn’t just flag waving and Fourth of July parades, as important and fun as those things could be. American patriotism was about appreciating where you came from so you could know where you were going. That to me is what’s at risk in the culture wars that we find ourselves fighting today.
The left isn’t just criticizing our country. It’s not just making us ashamed of where we came from. It’s trying to take our very sense of national pride and national purpose away from us, because you can’t have one without the other. If you don’t know where you came from, you will have no idea where you’re going. When they take us away from that sense of pride in our own history, they make us completely unable to direct where we’re going to go in the future. That’s what this is about. It’s not about correcting systemic racism or systemic wrong. It’s about making us easier to control. It’s about making us ashamed of where we came from. We, the people right in this room, have to fight against it.
But I have to be honest with you. The culture war that we fight in this country, I worry that many conservatives, even many conservatives in this room, underappreciate the challenge that we face. Because the way the culture war is being fought, it’s not just about social pressure. They don’t just make you ashamed to believe certain things. They don’t just tell you that you’re not allowed to teach your children that the founding generation was something to be proud of. What they teach you is that “If you dare go astray of progressive orthodoxy, we’re going to make you pay. We’re going to punish you. We’re going to hit you where it counts, which is in your wallet.” That is what the culture war is about.
Another way of putting it is that the culture war in this country is a class war. And I mean that in two ways. The first way is that it is a war against middle- and working-class people. You look in the Democrat Party or the Republican Party, the most patriotic people, the best and most devoted to the country, whether they’re black, white, whatever, whatever party that they’re in, it’s almost consistently those without a college education. It’s the working- and middle-class people. It’s those people who send their children to fight in our wars. It’s those people who pay their taxes. It’s those people who believe that this is a country to be proud of. And if we’re going to stand for anything as a conservative movement, we ought to stand for them.
We can’t just stand for them by fighting the culture war as we’ve understood it. Because the second way in which this culture war is a class war is they mean to hit us where it hurts. Now, I mentioned earlier, I lost business contacts, I lost investors when the Washington Post published what I think was a libelous claim against me. Now, nobody should cry about me. Nobody should tell a sad story about me. I’ve had a very good life. But think of the middle-class people who are affected by this culture war on traditional American values. Think, for example, about the cake baker that we all hear from, from Colorado, who I think is now on his third litigation pathway to the U.S. Supreme Court, just for refusing to bake a cake that has messages that are against his faith. For simply refusing to put the words that he’s supposed to put on a cake, they’re taking him to the Supreme Court, now I believe for the third time. That is an economic war as much as it’s a culture war.
Think about the ways in which to even participate in polite society, you have to say the right things. You have to talk about these issues the right way. I remember even fifteen years ago, the proper way to talk about sexuality and gender was you had to be respectful of gay and lesbian Americans. LG. Then it became B, bisexual, T, transgender. Now, every time you see people’s profiles or Twitter accounts, it’s LGBTIAQ+, which I don’t even know what that means. The one thing I’ll say to our progressive friends is thank you for adding the plus so we don’t have to learn anymore acronyms.
But think about what this actually means to a working- and middle-class kid living in this country. If you don’t say the right things, if you don’t speak the right words, then you are not welcome in polite society. You can’t even work in some of our country’s most elite companies unless you say the things that they want you to say.
Now, I have a good friend. He’s a brilliant political scientist. And a couple years ago, he sent me a tweet from the Twitter account of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. And it said, “We stand with all LGBTQIA+ people, plus two-spirit individuals.” Now, I got to tell you, I’ve spent probably fifteen minutes of my life trying to understand what “two spirit” means. I still do not understand what it means. But I remember that because my friend who sent me that tweet, who is a gay man, said, “Look, we just want to be left the hell alone. I don’t even know what ‘two spirit’ means. Don’t blame us for this, blame the progressives. This is not my fault.”
But think about what this means for a kid who comes from a working- or middle-class family, who has not been trained how to speak the way the progressives want you to speak.
I believe it was the comedian Kevin Hart. Very, very funny black comedian, a few years ago, who lost his show. I think he was supposed to host the Oscars or the Grammys or something. He lost it. Great economic consequence to himself. The reason he lost his show is because he had said something anti-gay when he was seventeen years old. Now think about what this is. It’s not just you’re not allowed to say these things; it’s that you’ll face economic consequences if you do.
I’m reminded of someone in Ohio who published something on Facebook after February 2021 that was pro-Trump and critical of the new president, Biden. And he had a few of his Facebook friends who called a few of their Facebook friends. And they got ten people to call his employer and try to get him fired. This is a middle-class guy in Middletown, Ohio. Think about what that means to that guy. To even speak his mind in his own country, in the country that his parents and his grandparents built, he’s going to get fired for it. Economic penalties and punishment for daring to speak about who you voted for in what is supposed to be the greatest constitutional republic in the world.
The culture war is a class war. It is a class war against the people that we represent and we defend, and that’s why we’ve got to fight it.
Now, I have seen some folks at this conference whom I respect, even though we’ve gotten in some fights in the past. So one of my dear friends is Oren Cass. Oren, I think, is a brilliant guy. He’s one of the smartest thinkers about political economy in the country.
I also saw Richard Reinsch. Richard is a guy that I’ve actually gotten in Twitter fights with. But I read a lot of what Richard writes, and I think he’s a smart guy, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
And my point in picking on Oren and Richard, at least the little bit that I’ve done, is that I think all of us need to appreciate what exactly we’re up against, and we need to set aside debates that are important, debates that we should have, but debates that should not become definitive, because we can’t be fighting each other if we’re actually going to win the culture war against the left.
And here’s the way that I put it. Now, my views are clearly on the table. I do not think that America’s greatest and most powerful economy was built by socialism, but I also don’t believe it was built by what folks often call neoliberalism, or classic liberalism, or whatever term you want to provide. I know those are different things.
But I believe America’s wealth was built by an American system. By a recognition that we needed to build our own industries, protect our own technology and industries. And that system, from Alexander Hamilton, to Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, to Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, is part of why we’re the most powerful country in the world.
I understand some people in this room disagree with me. I’m going to make an appeal that you should agree with my view on a lot of these topics, not because I’m going to agree with you that the American system was more important than Hayek or Bastiat or any of these important intellectuals. I’m going to make a pure, raw, cynical claim. Because the simple fact is the thing that we all need to represent and respect is that we have lost every single major cultural institution in this country. Accept that. Think about it. Big finance, big tech, Wall Street, the biggest corporations, the universities, the media, and the government—there is not a single institution in this country that conservatives currently control.
But there is one of them, just one, that we might have a chance of actually controlling in the future. And that’s the constitutional republic that our founders gave us. We are never going to take Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and turn them into conservative institutions. We are never going to take the universities in this country and turn them into conservative institutions. But we might, if we work hard and we make good arguments, we might just be able to control the democratic institutions in this country.
And so if you don’t agree with me for political economy reasons, my argument is that we need to fight “woke capital,” “woke corporations,” and the governments that enable them, because we can’t win anywhere else. This is a raw fact of cynical politics. If we’re not willing to use the power given to us in the American constitutional republic, we are going to lose this country.
And what does that mean? There are all kinds of arguments. We could talk about protective tariffs and various approaches to ensuring that we have a good and powerful economy. There is Section 230 reform to fight big tech, or even breaking up the big technology oligarchy, which is my favorite approach.
There are all of these things that we could talk about to minimize the control of the most pernicious institutions in our society, but the thing I want to talk about, the institution I want to take aim at today for the remainder of my remarks, is I want to take aim at the left. Specifically the childless left. Because I think the rejection of the American family is perhaps the most pernicious and most evil thing that the left has done in this country.
Now let me ask you a question. I’m going to get in trouble for this, but I want to ask the question anyway. Separate Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. The three elder Democrat politicians who have run for president before but who, except for Biden, may not run for president again. Consider all of the next gen of the Democrat Party. If you go on any of these prediction markets, they’ll tell you who’s most likely to win the democrat nomination for president in 2024 or 2028. Think about all those people. The names are obvious. They’re well-known people. Kamala Harris; Mayor Pete Buttigieg; who’s now the secretary of transportation; Cory Booker; AOC. Think of all these people. They come from different walks of life, different parts of the country. What is the one thing that unites every single one of them? Not a single one of them has any children.
Why is that? Why have we let the Democrat Party become controlled by people who don’t have children? And why is this just a normal fact of American life? That the leaders of our country should be people who don’t have a personal and direct stake in it via their own offspring, via their own children and grandchildren?
Now, let me do the necessary throat clearing, because I do think it’s important. Look, a lot of people are unable to have kids for very complicated and important reasons. I know good friends of mine who struggled to find the right girl, find the right guy. There are people, of course, for biological reasons, medical reasons, that can’t have children. The target of these remarks is not them. It’s important to point that out. There have always been people like that, who, even though they would like to have kids, are unable to have them. Let’s set them to the side.
It’s one thing to recognize that there are people who don’t have children through no fault or choice of their own. But it’s something else to build a political movement, invested theoretically in the future of this country, when not a single one of them actually has any physical commitment to the future of this country.
Now this also true of a lot of folks in our media. What you find is that many of the most unhappy and most miserable and most angry people in our media are childless adults. Let’s just be honest about it. Because look, the elite model, the American Dream to the elites is get as much credentials as you can, get as much money as you can, get the most prestigious job, and that’s where you’re going to find your self-worth. But I gotta be honest with you, most of our mainstream reporters are not impressive enough to find a lot of self-meaning in their jobs. They’re just not good enough at it.
But what society has built its entire civilization, the flow of information, the leaders of its country, political and governmental, and also corporate, around completely childless adults? It’s never happened. This is a new thing in American life, but I think probably a new thing in world history.
It’s not good. It’s not healthy. You see the obsessive, weird, almost humiliating aggressive posture of our media and you wonder how could these people possibly seem to be so miserable and unhappy? Well, the answer is because they don’t have any kids. Kids are the ultimate way that we find self-meaning in life, whether your own children, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews.
No matter what, the most important thing in my life is going to be my two beautiful boys and my wife who loves me. It will always be them. That recognition makes us healthier people. It makes us more stable people. And we should worry that in America, family formation, our birth rates, a ton of indicators of family health have collapsed.
Now, my proposal today, my argument to you is that whether you agree with my views of political economy, we should treat this as a crisis in this country. The fact that we’re not having enough babies, the fact that we’re not having enough children, is a crisis in this country. It’s a crisis because it makes our media more miserable. It’s a crisis because it doesn’t give our leaders enough of an investment in the future of their country. And it’s a crisis because we know that babies are good.
Now, I could sit here and tell you all kinds of reasons why they’re good. There’s a ton of economic evidence that suggests that children make economies more innovative, more productive, more geared toward the future. There’s even psychological evidence that suggests that, for example, fathers of young daughters—I don’t have a daughter yet, we’re working on it—fathers of young daughters are more compassionate and more understanding, even that they use different words in their vocabulary when they have daughters.
A country that has children is a healthy country that’s worth living in. We care about children because we’re not sociopaths and we don’t want to live in a society of sociopaths. Now, there are a few concrete ideas for how we can make it easier to raise American families and support American children. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who is of course the bugaboo of nearly every liberal in the mainstream American media, has implemented a couple of policies that I think are really interesting. One is that in his country, they offer loans to new married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples eventually stay together and have children.
Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we actually promote family formation here in our country? Why can’t we give resources to parents who tell us the only reason they’re not having kids is because they can’t afford it?
This is a civilizational crisis, and if we’re not willing to spend resources to solve it, we’re not serious about the very real problems that we face.
So we should do it. We should give resources to parents who are going to have kids. We should make it easier to raise American families. And we should send the signal to the culture that we are the pro-family party and we’re going to back it up with real policy.
We ca debate the policy details, but I hope we all agree that more healthy American families is a good thing. I worry that there is a structural democratic disadvantage built in to our society right now. I’ll be simple and direct about it. Compare, for example, the leaders of the Democrat Party, the people who may very well be the next president of the United States, compare their investment in this country, compare the fact that they don’t have families against a middle-class Ohio family that spends a ton of resources and a ton of time educating their children, teaching them to love their country. When those kids get older, those kids will go off and fight in American wars. And when all of us reach the point that all of us will reach, they will be the ones who take care of us in old age.
That’s not something you can buy if you don’t have people. These children are the future of this country, and yet the parents who have them actually have no advantage in our democratic process. They have a smaller voice in some ways, in very many cases, than the people who don’t have any children at all. The children who come from these families have no real representative in our democracy. Why don’t we change that?
Now some people will say this is radical and this is crazy. The Democrats are talking about giving the vote to sixteen-year olds. But let’s do this instead: let’s give votes to all children in this country, but let’s give control over those votes to the parents of those children. When you go to the polls in this country, as a parent, you should have more power. You should have more of an ability to speak your voice in our democratic republic than people who don’t have kids. Let’s face the consequences and the reality. If you don’t have as much of an investment in the future of this country, maybe you shouldn’t get nearly the same voice.
Now people will say, and I’m sure the Atlantic and the Washington Post and all the usual suspects will criticize me about this in the coming days. “Well, doesn’t this mean that non-parents don’t have as much of a voice as parents? Doesn’t this mean that parents get a bigger say in how our democracy functions?” Yes. Absolutely.
So let’s do it. Let’s push better public policy, but let’s also make this a pro-family country, not just in the way that we vote, not just in the policies that we enact, but in the very structure of our country.
I’m sure there are a whole lot of ideas out there. I’m sure that there are other things that people might suggest, but this to me is the purpose of the conservative movement. Whether it’s immigration, or crime, or election integrity, everything that we care about traces to this fundamental fact that we want people who work hard and play by the rules to be able to live a good life in this country. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we stand for.
Now, I know I’m speaking to a lot of college students, or a lot of folks who are involved in college education programs, and so I want to close out with just a couple of thoughts along those lines.
First of all, I admire you. I admire you for being conservative and being willing to fight for your principles at a time when the social and economic costs of being a conservative are great. But I want to remind you, it’s not just courage that this is about. I don’t just respect you. I need you. We all need you. This room, this country needs you.
I’m going to tell you a little story about a woman that I think a lot about. She’s actually from a town not too far from where I grew up in southwestern Ohio. And she came up to me at a political event, and I’m trying not to choke up just because she’s a very sweet woman and reminded me a lot of my grandma. She’s a woman who’s taking care of her baby grandson. And she’s taking care of her grandson because her daughter was taken by a heroin addiction and heroin overdose.
And I think about this woman. Her husband’s dead. She lives on a single fixed income. She was not expecting to have to take care of a grandbaby, both emotionally and financially, but she does it. She does it because it’s the right thing. Now her number one issue, the thing she cares most about in the world, is the immigration crisis. The reason she cares about it is very simple. Now the left will tell you that she cares about the immigration crisis because she doesn’t like brown people, because she doesn’t like Mexicans. She cares about the immigration crisis for much simpler and much better reasons: she doesn’t want the same poison that took her daughter from her to take her grandbaby from her. That’s why she cares about the immigration crisis. That’s why she is a conservative, because she wants a strong southern border to protect her grandbaby, the grandbaby that no one else is looking out for but her.
We talk so much about freedom, about limited government and big government, about social conservatism and all these important things that I believe in. But they’re all abstractions. This is about real people. Ladies and gentlemen, this movement should stand for that grandma and that grandbaby in Lebanon, Ohio, who cares enough about her grandchild to take care of them. This movement is not just about courage for courage’s sake. It’s about courage for the people who built this country and will continue to build in the future.
So thank you. Thank you for caring about this country enough to fight for it, and let’s keep going. God bless you.
J.D. Vance is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy and a U.S. Senate candidate.