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Tomorrow’s Republicans Today

Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance augur a conservative future worth having
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Longtime readers know that I’ve been down on the Republican Party for years. I left it formally in 2008, disgusted over the Iraq War and cronyism (specifically, the fact that despite 9/11, the Republican president put a provincial GOP deadhead in charge of FEMA, which was not ready for Katrina). I almost always vote Republican in national elections, not with any enthusiasm, but because on the issues I care about most — abortion, religious liberty, and various “social” concerns — the Republicans are better than the Democrats. I was no fan of Donald Trump, considering him to be a vulgar, crooked, unstable and unprincipled politician whose chief virtue was that he wrecked the Republican Party establishment. That, and the possibility that he would appoint good judges. Well, he has generally appointed good judges. But I remain Not A Fan, and the GOP has not distinguished itself by forging a new kind of conservatism out of the rubble demolished by Trump.

However! In the past month or so, I’ve become interested in, and even excited by, the possibility of Republican politics in a way I haven’t been in over a decade. First there was this speech J.D. Vance delivered at the TAC gala a few weeks ago. Excerpt:

I have been criticized from the Right for writing a book that if taken to its logical conclusions, would lead to a lot of big government programs, and I’ve been criticized from the Left for writing a libertarian small-government manifesto. And I don’t totally know what that means, maybe I’m just not a very good writer.

But what I think it means is that I was and continue to struggle with this idea of where does personal responsibility interact with the responsibility of politics in the broader society? I was in Southeastern Ohio, which is really ground zero for the opioid epidemic not too long ago, and I was talking with a woman who’s the only licensed youth counselor in that section of Ohio, a very tough job in an area very hard hit.

And she was telling me about an eight-year-old kid of hers, an eight-year-old patient, who had become addicted to opioids. Now, the way this kid had become addicted to opioids is that his parents, like a lot of folks in the area, dealt drugs on the side to support their habit, and because they didn’t have a lot of money, they would reward this kid, they would send this kid on drug runs to deliver the drugs. And when he made a successful delivery, they would give him a Vicodin because they didn’t have a whole lot of money laying around, but they had a whole lot of pills laying around.

And so, at the tender age of eight, this kid is addicted to a substance with incredibly powerful and long-lasting effects on

J.D. Vance delivers the keynote address at The American Conservative’s May 9 gala in Washington, D.C.

his young brain. And it occurs to me that folks on the Left will look at a kid like that and say, “Well, if that kid just had better job opportunities and better educational opportunities, that all of his problems would go away.” That strikes me as so naïve, so ignorant of the role of family and community, so ignorant of the role of some individual choice, that despite that kid’s disadvantage, he still has some hope in the world.

But for the folks on the Right, and I think there’re unfortunately too many of them, who look at that kid and say, “Well, he just needs to exercise some more personal responsibility and he’ll have his fair share of the American dream.” I think that they’re missing something fundamental, something that Edmund Burke would’ve recognized, that the institutional and economic and community dynamics in which we’re raised, they influence us, they influence what’s possible to us, they influence what’s available to us, and they influence how we ultimately exercise that personal responsibility that’s so important.

And so, at a fundamental level, I think we have to develop a cultural aesthetic within the conservative movement that encourages that young boy to see himself as an agent, to see himself as a person with hope and optimism for the future. And one of the reactions I’ve always had to the politics on the Left is this view that somehow because people are disadvantaged, because they are poor, they have no control and they have no agency. I rejected that as a kid, it’s one of the reasons that I adopted the politics that I did.

But we make a mistake, I think, many of us on the Right, many conservatives make the mistake of looking at that kid and ignoring the role that politics must play in giving that kid a better shot and a better chance at his dreams. And I say his dreams because that is an important thing that is so often missing from this conversation about the American dream.

It’s a concept that if you ask 100 different people in this town, you would probably get 100 different answers, but Washington, D.C., as we all know, is fundamentally a town of strivers, it is a town of people who are seeking power, responsibility, influence.

But the American dream of my youth, and I suspect the American dream of that eight-year-old boy, is not to become a chief of staff to a powerful member of the Senate, it’s not to become an executive of a Fortune 500 company, it’s to become a good dad one day, a good husband, a person who works at a dignified and meaningful job that allows him to put food on the table.

Read it all. Seriously, do. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get to the end of it and wonder when this guy is going to run for office. If there were a hundred Republicans like him, we could have a very different party.

It turns out that there is already a Republican like him sitting in the US Senate: first-term Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. I was traveling overseas when he gave his first-ever Senate floor speech, and so I missed commenting on it at the time. Here’s a link to the whole thing — and it is remarkable. It’s a speech about dignity, and its sources. Excerpts:

The chattering class often tells us that all of this—the jobs, the despair, the loss of standing—is the result of forces beyond anyone’s control. As if that’s an excuse to do nothing.

But in fact, it’s not true.

Today’s society benefits those who shaped it, and it has been shaped not by working men and women, but by the new aristocratic elite.

Big banks, big tech, big multi-national corporations, along with their allies in the academy and the media—these are the aristocrats of our age.

They live in the United States, but they consider themselves citizens of the world.

They operate businesses or run universities here, but their primary loyalty is to their own agenda for a more unified, progressive—and profitable—global order.

These modern aristocrats often claim to be a meritocracy. And many of them truly believe they are. What they don’t see, or won’t acknowledge, is that the society they have built works mainly for themselves.

They’ve effectively run this country for decades. And their legacy is national division and national decline.


To those who despair at the task ahead, I say the hour is not too late, the crisis is not too deep for the determined effort of a great people.

And to those who feel forgotten and unheard, I say this is your time.

Now we must stand together to renew the promise of our enduring revolution.

We must put aside the tired orthodoxies of years past, and forge a new politics of national renewal.

We must begin by acknowledging that GDP growth alone cannot be the measure of this nation’s greatness. And so, it cannot be the only aim of this nation’s policy. Because our purpose is not to make a few people wealthy, but to sustain a great democracy.

And so, we need not just a bigger economy, but a better society.

We need a society that offers rewarding work for every worker who wants it, wherever she is from, whatever degree he might have, whether their ambition is to start a business or to start a family.

We need a society that will allow towns and neighborhoods to flourish across the great heartland of this country, not just in the mega-cities of the coasts.

We need a society that puts American workers first, that prioritizes them over cheap goods from abroad, and offers them the chance to better their station.

All this we must fight for and more.

We need to repair the torn fabric of our common life. We need a politics that prioritizes strong marriages and encourages strong families, where children can know their parents and be nurtured by their love.

We need strong schools and churches and co-ops.

Because these are the things that make liberty possible.

Read the whole thing. One thing that struck me about Hawley’s speech is how he identified Silicon Valley as an antagonist, and as one source of decay and decline. I commend to all of you Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism. This is not a right-wing book, but it is a political book, in that the former Harvard Business School professor discusses in great depth the control that Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have over our lives, via the personal data they mine, and how supine Washington is in the face of their lobbying.

I was also startled (in a good way) by Hawley’s attack on a Trump nominee for the federal judiciary. Michael Brendan Dougherty explains what happened, and what it means. Excerpt:

Hawley also got some conservatives’ attention by blasting Michael Bogren, a Trump judicial nominee to the U.S. District Court in western Michigan. Hawley hammered him for his legal work defending East Lansing’s ban against a Catholic farmer’s participation in a public farmers’ market because the farmer announced his intention on Facebook to continue renting his orchard for weddings, but not same-sex ceremonies. As part of his legal arguments, Bogren had said there was no distinction between the Catholic family running their orchard in accordance with their faith and the Ku Klux Klan persecuting non-whites. Hawley grilled the nominee, saying that his unflattering comparison failed the test that Justice Anthony Kennedy had outlined in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which anti-religious animus was deemed to be at work in Colorado’s application of non-discrimination law.

Our own Ed Whelan thought that Hawley was being impolitic. But the moment went viral among religious conservatives, putting them on notice that this young senator would zealously defend not only their legal rights, but — crucially — their social reputation. Hawley demonstrated an understanding that is rare among Republicans. Many of us had complained that Kennedy’s ruling invited states to discriminate against conservative religious people, only to do it more politely. But Hawley turned that on its head, essentially saying that anyone who even privately believed that the normal moral and sacramental beliefs of Catholics were hateful was unqualified to hold a public trust. Hawley understands instinctively that Catholics and Evangelicals will lose their institutions — their hospitals, colleges, and charities — if they submit to the progressive pretense that their religion makes them indistinguishable from racist terrorists. Americans let the KKK march in their idiotic uniforms, but no one would tolerate them running a college, hospital, or home-school cooperative. Hawley’s willingness to pick a surprise fight will put other judicial nominees on notice. That’s all to the good.

Yes, I agree. Reason‘s David Bernstein called Hawley a “first-class demagogue” because of this attack on the nominee. Bernstein, a law professor, said that Bogren’s job as city attorney was to defend the law in question as well as he could, and that he should not be penalized for doing so. Nor, said Bernstein, should the views of his client (the city) be necessarily attributed to him. I think that is a fair critique on the specifics, but it misses what I assume Hawley was trying to do here.

MBD is right: Hawley seems to understand that the movement in legal culture and certainly in popular culture to equate ordinary Christian belief on homosexuality with KKK ideology is laying the groundwork for the marginalization, indeed the demonization, and the dispossession of Christians in this country. Bogren may be right strictly as a legal matter, but if so, that fact ought to alarm millions of Christians in America who are at the moment completely clueless as to the coup taking place in courtrooms and in the moral imaginations of Americans. Several years ago, a well-known Evangelical leader told me that when he gives talks to congregations about the future of religious liberty, he tells them that the day is coming when the things they believe will be denounced as the equivalent of Klan ideology. That day is here, and Josh Hawley called it out. I repeat MBD’s line:

Americans let the KKK march in their idiotic uniforms, but no one would tolerate them running a college, hospital, or home-school cooperative.

If you are an ordinary Christian who holds standard orthodox Christian beliefs about sexuality, and you think for one second that your religious institutions will be left alone after having been tarred by attorneys representing the state, as well as the agents of popular culture, with the Klan smear, then you are dreaming.

Sen. Josh Hawley gets it, and is not willing to see Christians and their institutions destroyed for the sake of observing legal proprieties. Do any other Republicans? Many of the kinds of civil society institutions that both J.D. Vance and Sen. Josh Hawley recognize are necessary to reknit a badly fraying social fabric will be ripped to shreds by the Klan smear, both in law and in culture. Few if any Republicans have the backbone to make that explicit. Josh Hawley does. More, please.