The Fox News host amplifies a debate the right needs to have.
The most interesting thing in conservative politics right now is not the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s flailing attempt to claim victory while being defeated on all fronts. Instead it’s an ideological battle over Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News soliloquy, in which he accused his fellow Republicans of building an anti-family, finance-dominated economic system that might be “the enemy of a healthy society.”
Carlson’s monologue was an expansion of themes that have dominated his reinvention as a Trump-era populist — the general folly of elites, the unwisdom of the bipartisan consensus on immigration and foreign policy, the failure of Republican leaders to defend the national interest.
But in expanding on those themes he went somewhere that Fox hosts rarely go — from culture into economics, from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism.
Just about every conservative worth reading was provoked into responding.
- One set of responses accused Carlson of a kind of conspiratorial socialism, which exaggerates economic misery, ignores capitalism’s fruits, and encourages ordinary people to blame shadowy elites instead of cultivating personal responsibility.
The other group basically said, no, Tucker has a point — the point being that market economies are inevitably shaped by public policy, that policies championed by both parties have failed to promote the interests of the working class, and that social conservatives especially need a framework of political economy to promote the institutions — family, work, neighborhood — upon which civil society depends.
If there is to be a healthy American right, after Donald Trump or ever, this is the argument that conservatives should be having. And it is especially an argument that Fox News should be highlighting, since Fox is frequently responsible for stoking populism but keeping it vacuous or racialized, evading the debates the right really needs.
Now let me attempt my own quick contribution. A key issue in the Carlson contretemps is distilled in this line from David French of National Review, one of the monologue’s critics: “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”
This is a crucial conservative insight, a caution for policymakers everywhere — but it can also become a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing. And that has happened too often for conservatives in recent decades: They’ve leaped to despair without even trying policy.
But in hindsight this was wrong, the feared inflation never came, and the economic recovery was slowed because of the Republican fixation on tight money. Of course, in the Trump era some Republicans have conveniently become dovish on inflation. But in the preceding eight years, wage-earning Americans suffered unnecessarily because of a wrongheaded right-wing counsel of despair.
A second example: While it’s true that family breakdown has deep and tangled roots, it’s also true that in the 1940s and 1950s, a mix of government policy, union strength and conservative gender norms established a “family wage” — an income level that enabled a single breadwinner to support a family.
Maybe it isn’t possible to recreate a family wage for a less unionized and more feminist age — but are we sure? Is there really nothing conservatives can do to address
- the costs of child care,
- the unfulfilled parental desire to shift to part-time work,
- the problem that a slightly more reactionary iteration of Elizabeth Warren once dubbed “the two-income trap”?
If marriages and intact families and birthrates declined as the family wage crumbled, perhaps we should try rebuilding that economic foundation before we declare the crisis of the family a wound that policy can’t heal.
A final example: Historically conservatism has been proudly paternalist, favorable to forms of censorship and prohibition for the sake of protecting precisely the private virtues that Carlson’s critics think government can’t cultivate. But in recent decades, the right’s elites have despaired of
- censoring pornography, acquiesced to the spread of
- casino gambling, made peace with the
- creeping commercialization of marijuana, and accepted the
- internet’s conquest of childhood and adolescence.
Yet none of these trends actually seem entirely beyond the influence of regulation. It’s just that conservatism has given up — once again, in unwarranted despair — on earlier assumptions about how public paternalism can encourage private virtue.
The deeper point here is that public policy is rarely a cure-all, but it can often be a corrective. And the part of Carlson’s monologue his critics should especially ponder is the end, when he suggests that absent a corrective that “protects normal families,” even the normal will eventually turn to socialism — choosing a left-wing overcorrection over a right that just says, Well, you see, we already cut corporate taxes, so there’s nothing we can do.
As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
There is a certain image that Canada projects to the world, one that is particularly compelling to Americans. It’s the image of Canada as a tolerant, progressive, kind and humanitarian nation, populated by mild-mannered and polite people.
.. The idea of Canada the Good — a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy, with the added bonus of multicultural harmony — is an attractive one, helpful in providing Canadians with some kind of national identity, and left-leaning Americans with a handy rhetorical device for political arguments: Look at what’s possible, right next door!
.. But it’s worth remembering that this image of Canada, currently personified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a relatively recent construction, largely put forth by Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Before that — and for most of the intervening years, between Trudeaus — the public face of Canada has looked a lot like, well, Jordan Peterson.
.. Canada is home to many more Jordan Petersons than Justin Trudeaus.
.. Mr. Peterson is — to use one of his favorite terms — something of a national archetype, the default setting of the Canadian male: a dull but stern dad, who, under a facade of apparent normalcy and common sense, conceals a reserve of barely contained hostility toward anyone who might rock the boat.
.. those who make a fuss are bothersome and ignorant at best, and probably dangerous and destructive too.
.. This is how “peace, order and good government” came to be the Canadian answer to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
.. Charisma is suspect here, and when Mr. Peterson uses that word to describe Mr. Trudeau, it’s not a compliment.
.. Suspect, too, is any whiff of revolutionary spirit. Pierre Trudeau might have technically been a liberal, but he was the kind of liberal who declared martial law in 1970 when a bumbling handful of Quebec separatists were deemed enough of a threat to justify suspending civil liberties en masse.
.. Our politics reflect our sense of unease with anything radical.
.. Liberals who think of Canada as a lefty haven should look to our most recent federal election: the New Democratic Party, ostensibly the major party farthest to the left, ran its last campaign on a platform of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Not even the Green Party dares to suggest divesting from Alberta’s oil sands.
.. On every issue, from peacekeeping to pipelines, carbon targets to Indigenous relations, Mr. Trudeau has largely continued the policies set by his predecessor.
.. Canadian conservatism is not brash. It not belligerent, it is not loud. It is not Fox News. But our most popular columnists all deliver the same message: Things are the way they are for a reason. Those who agitate for change are stepping out of line.
.. He reserves particular ire for young activists. “I tell 18-year-olds: Six years ago you were 12 — what the hell do you know? You haven’t done anything,” he says. “You don’t have a degree, you haven’t finished your courses, you don’t know how to read, you can’t think, you can’t speak.”
“It’s just not right,” he says, “to tell people in that situation that they should go out and change the socioeconomic structure of the culture!”
.. Delivered as a fiery sermon, this impassioned plea for humility and self-improvement gets laughs from Peterson fans. But in practice, it’s actually an argument for submission to the status quo that would have prevented any number of people, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Emma Gonzales, from ever speaking up.
.. Americans are raised to believe that individuals, even flawed ones, can indeed change the world, and sometimes should. Canadians, for all that we’ve managed to construct a society that Americans sometimes envy, lack this ethic.
.. The resulting mind-set, disdainful of idealism and suspicious of ego, is one we are now, evidently, exporting.
.. Jordan Peterson is considered a heroic figure of historical importance, the man who finally said “Enough!” to political correctness run amok, to mobs of rabid Social Justice Warriors, to an ideologically driven “leftist-Marxist” movement hellbent on destroying Western civilization itself.
.. Mr. Peterson can be more accurately described as a previously obscure Canadian academic who believed, erroneously, that he would soon be forced by law to use gender-neutral pronouns and who refused to bow to that hypothetical demand. The proposed human rights policy that made Mr. Peterson famous is now Canadian law, and no instance of “compelled speech” has occurred as a result of it or resulted in criminal charges, as Mr. Peterson feared. On the issue of legal requirements for pronoun use, things remain the way Mr. Peterson wanted them — the same.
.. Mr. Peterson was taking a stand not against power in that instance but on behalf of it. His acolytes, some of whom might consider themselves to be walking in the tradition of rugged American individualism, should note that they are in fact taking marching orders — “Rules for Life,” no less — from a line-toeing Canadian, preaching a philosophy not of American defiance but of Canadian deference.
To the extent that the presidential campaign focused on the Supreme Court with any specificity, the attention was on abortion, religion, gay rights, guns and other familiar issues on the social agenda. But going forward, the Roberts court may find the most pressing issues on its docket to concern core questions of civil liberties and the separation of powers.