The conservative columnist George Will recently wrote about a movement called “national conservatism.” He was not complimentary.
We’re about to get into some academic weeds here, but stick with us: Eventually we’ll explain how this relates to Appalachia.
Classic conservatism, of which Will is perhaps the most famous literary champion, claims to believe in a light governmental hand when it comes to economics: Let the free market do its thing.
Lately, though, some conservatives have come to the conclusion that maybe free market economics aren’t working very well. Why else have so many American jobs gone overseas, or disappeared completely to automation? You can only blame “bad” trade deals so much. At some point the free market system itself is to blame. If companies can make more money by having people overseas make their products at a much lower rate than they’d have to pay American workers, then, by golly, that’s what will happen.
This has prompted certain conservatives to break from right-wing economic orthodoxy. One of the most prominent is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who earlier this year declared that “Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion” and that Republicans “have to unlearn decades of bumper sticker-talking points and corporate propaganda.” Another is U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who devoted a recent speech to a blistering attack on “multi-national corporations” that he said care more about profits than American workers.
In some ways, Carlson and Hawley on the right sound just like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left. Indeed, Carlson has even praised Warren’s economic policies for sounding like “Donald Trump at his best.” That’s where Will’s blood pressure went off the charts. Will called the conservative credentials of these “national conservatives” into question. “They call themselves conservatives, perhaps because they loathe progressives, although they seem not to remember why,” Will wrote. He said both seem to believe the federal government can somehow allocate economic resources better than the free market can. We in the South are long accustomed to a certain types of Democrat who style themselves as a “fiscal conservative but a social liberal.” Now it seems there’s a type of Republican who is claiming to be a social conservative but a fiscal liberal, although they’d never use those particular words.
Here’s what catches our eye about Will’s column and where things start to come home for us. First we need to review some of the things that Carlson and Hawley have said. Both have described themselves as being primarily concerned about rural America. “In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit,” Carlson said on his show. “The pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out-of-wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic.” He blames the loss of manufacturing jobs — and Republicans for letting this happen. “Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested.”
Hawley hit similar themes in his speech to the National Conservatism Conference: “We need new thinking and new policies to bring the work that makes for citizenship to every person in America willing and able to work. That means encouraging capital investment in the great American middle, in our workers, not just in financial assets. That means investing in research and innovation in the heartland of this country, not just in San Francisco and New York.” He didn’t say what those policies would be but he is at least acknowledging a problem: The nation’s economic growth is increasingly concentrated in a handful of “superstar” cities. This is a new economic phenomenon.
Here’s what Will had to say about that: “National conservatives preen as defenders of the dignity of the rural and small-town — mostly white and non-college educated — working class. However, these defenders nullify the members’ dignity by discounting their agency. National conservatives regard the objects of their compassion as inert victims, who are as passive as brown paper parcels, awaiting government rescue from circumstances. In contrast, there was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath), who, when the Depression and Dust Bowl battered Oklahoma, went west seeking work.”
Will is basically saying to rural Americans: Don’t like your economic situation? Then move. This is something we’ve heard before. The conservative writer Kevin Williamson wrote in The National Review in 2016 that “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.” Even President Trump, who rolled up massive margins in those same “dysfunctional, downscale” communities told The Wall Street Journal: “I’m going to start explaining to people when you have an area that just isn’t working — like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt – and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t — you can’t get people, I’m going to explain you can leave.”
That’s a fine thing. Americans have always been a people on the move. Go west, young man, and all that. But is the only message that Will, Williamson and even Trump have for rural America one of “if you don’t like it, move”? (Or, some might say, “love it or leave it.”) What if someone likes where they are but wants to see more economic opportunity? Why are those two things mutually exclusive? Will, Williamson and Trump are essentially admitting defeat — that there’s nothing that can be done, or at least nothing they will do. Why does no one seem to have any interest in, say, building a new economy in Appalachia? Is depopulating the region the only thing people can think of? We notice that Trump cites upstate New- York in his “leave” remarks. Easy for him to say. He risks nothing there politically, because New York votes solidly Democratic. But his logic applies to all the Republican-voting parts of Appalachia, as well. It’s just not something he’ll tweet, but his lack of interest policy-wise in rural America speaks more loudly.
We don’t have much use for a lot of what Carlson and Hawley have to say — they’re simply flat-out wrong on some issues, such as immigration. But on this one, they are on the right track. We’d like to hear more.