Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why J.D. Vance Will Not Back Down in the Culture War

The Ohio Senate candidate sees no tension between pressing cultural and economic issues.

It’s been barely a month since J.D. Vance’s senatorial campaign launched, and he is already pretty sick of being accused of using culture war issues to distract from economics. From the Washington Post to Vanity Fair, the consensus is that the author of Hillbilly Elegy has turned from an explainer of Trump to an imitator. So, I asked him: How does he respond to those who say he’s simply trying to gin up low-information voters with red meat irrelevant to their daily lives?

“I just find this argument so preposterous,” Vance replied. “Everyday people are not just mindless drones who go to work and earn a wage and feed their kids and go to sleep. They’re actually people with values and morals and a sense of what’s right and wrong. To engage in the culture wars is really just to respond to the fact that the left has attacked the core values of a lot of normal Americans. Somebody has to stand up to them, and it might as well be us.”

Which is not to say he hasn’t gotten this criticism directly. “This frustrates me a fair amount because I hear this a lot from my friends on the left who say J.D., we appreciate your focus on trade and manufacturing—that stuff is really important,” he told me. “However, middle-class Americans don’t just care about their jobs. They also care about what their kids are taught. They care about religious values. The idea that engaging in the culture war is a distraction from the concerns of normal Americans is preposterous if you talk to normal Americans.”

It is Vance’s approach to cultural issues that makes his candidacy so interesting. Back in 2019, he was one of the speakers at the National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C. In a speech titled “Beyond Libertarianism,” he called for conservatives to move away from libertarianism and utilize political power to accomplish good ends. He specifically cited the poisonous pandemic of digital porn that has infected an entire generation, and our duty to protect children from being exposed to this toxic material. It was a deliberate shift away from the hands-off approach taken by those who shy from using government power.

To put it simply, Vance rejects the idea that we are helpless in the face of these cultural ills. “There have been lots of examples throughout history where we’ve recognized that a given product or service is harmful and made a decision to protect those kids through legislation or regulation,” he told me. “You could do a straightforward ban on pornography for kids under the age of 18; you could give parents more active control over the devices in their kids’ hands so that parents could do it more actively. We know that some of the biggest tech companies actively fight back when parents try to exercise more control over their children’s phones because the companies make more money when children spend more time on their phones.”

“Some of these fixes aren’t going to be easy, but it requires the political willpower for us to say enough is enough. This is not magic. The idea that you can’t regulate the internet in a way that protects children is just absurd.”

The way Vance describes it, this seems obvious. “In the scope of American history, the internet is very new and the idea that a 9-year-old can watch a gangbang on the internet is very, very new. We have to make the argument that it is objectively bad for kids, bad for parents, and bad for society to have an entire population that grows up being exposed to something no generation in American history has been exposed to.” This is strong language in a culture where something becomes a right almost immediately after it becomes available.

Part of conservative reticence on issues like digital pornography is due to the generation gap. Those who did not grow up with highly addictive sexual toxicity available from smartphone screens 24/7 through puberty still frequently conceive of porn as Playboy centerfolds and so fail to realize the extent to which screens are shaping American lives and consequently, culture (something described in chilling detail in Nancy Jo Sales’ book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers). In that context, it made sense to leave issues like this to parents. In an era where 17 states have declared porn a public health crisis, the calculus has changed.

“They grew up in an era when parents really could control what their kids were seeing or not seeing,” Vance told me. “I think that what we have to appreciate is that we’re living in an era where the internet companies have very maliciously taken power away from parents and put it onto themselves—and in that era, parents need help.” This is indisputably true. As Dawn Hawkins of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation says frequently, in this culture, she cannot prevent her children from seeing porn, and thus she must instead prepare them for the first time they will see it despite her best efforts.

In short, to differentiate cultural matters from matters of everyday life is to create a false dichotomy—especially when parents are swimming upstream and the left has long abandoned the “life and let live” lie they utilized to gain power. Issues such as transgenderism, critical race theory, a potpourri of boutique LGBT causes—all of it ending up in the curriculums forming the next generation from kindergarten to grad school—these are shaping America and the way young people live. To ignore all of this is to cede that to the left.

“There are so many fronts in the culture war, in part because the left plays to win,” Vance told me. “Let’s take a moment to respect the evil genius of many on the left—they are constantly choosing new battles and always on the offensive. The reason the issues seem to change so much is because the left is constantly pushing this stuff. I tend to think that all culture war issues focus fundamentally around questions of race and gender.” The left fights relentlessly for their worldview—while “conservatives have a different view and we should not be afraid to push that view.”

But as Dennis Prager likes to joke: Have you ever met a Democratic activist with nine kids? In short, can we win a culture war with part-time warriors who have better things to do—like raising families, for instance?

Vance admits that this worries him. “It handicaps us because the left is naturally more radical than normal, conservative Americans,” he said. “I think we’re waking up to the fact that if we want to preserve a lifestyle worth living, then we have to get more active and engaged in politics. That’s why you see a lot of stay-at-home moms getting involved in these local school board fights. Literally at every grassroots event I go to now, I meet at least one mom who is running for school board because she’s terrified about what her kids are learning at school.”

What all of this means, practically speaking, is that conservatives are going to have to fight with all of the tools at their disposal. That means using government power for good, and it means relitigating the terms of the right-wing coalition between social conservatives and libertarians.

“I definitely think we’re in the midst of a transition period,” Vance told me. “The libertarian impulse is very valid in one important respect, which is that there are unintended consequences to all of this stuff. We have to be mindful that social policy isn’t as easy as pressing a button—you have to be mindful of the incentives and the unexpected consequences. The libertarians have an important voice in these conversations. At the same time, one of the things that made the libertarian argument harder within the conservative coalition is that many of the most powerful corporate interests in this country have gone from neutral or right-wing to actively on the side of the Left in the culture wars.”

“A lot of social conservatives recognize that to the extent that we’re giving our biggest companies more and more power in our society, we’re actually giving them the power to silence traditionalists and social conservatives in the process. There needs to be a rethinking of the bargain, and that’s happening right now. The underlying coalition politics in the conservative movement are changing, and I think they’re changing in a positive way.”

From a cultural perspective, things look pretty grim at the moment—and the right is clearly losing the culture wars. I asked Vance if his optimism was misplaced.

“We’re in a civilizational-level crisis in this country right now,” he replied. “But I tend to think, in part because I’m a person of faith, that these crises are not hopeless. I think the lesson of history is that sometimes, very unexpectedly, things go in the right direction. Our role, as people who care about these issues, is to fight where we can, win where we can, and prepare ourselves for a moment when we can move things in our direction.”

Perhaps this is why so many are eager to call Vance a sellout, or a culture war grifter—because he appears determined to fight.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.