Tucker Carlson and the Working Class

With Democrats newly empowered in Washington, the left is sorting out its priorities among pie-in-the-sky socialist dreams of universal health care and more practical policies such as restoring public funding for Planned Parenthood.  From the other side, its civil war is a delight to watch, as young blood takes on old for control of the party's soul.

The right is also undergoing its own internecine conflict, despite holding two and a half branches of government.  The battle has been brewing for some time, gurgling just under the surface of the mainstream depiction of conservatism.  The Lexington and Concord moment came from none other than the onetime Fox News host and bow tie aficionado Tucker Carlson, whose recent monologue exposed the divide.

Carlson's controversial monologue questioning the right's idolatry of markets, and his subsequent defenses of manhood and two-parent households, sparked numerous responses, both hand-wringing and agreeable, denunciatory and complimentary.  The opponents of it were the ones who yelled loudest.

Carlson's critics, besides having cartoonishly callow faith in the virtue of commerce, have the hardest time accepting his most controversial point: that the working class is not totally responsible for its fate.  By denying provincial layabouts their total agency, Carlson, some conservatives argue, sounds more like the paternalistic left, with all its scolding know-it-all-ism.

David French of National Review complains that "Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes...and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what they are doing to you."  The changes he cites are the civil rights movement, women's rights, the sexual revolution, and the explosion of the tech economy – all large societal restructurings that came about through top-down goading by elites (the civil rights movement, which had a powerful grassroots element to it, is the exception).

"Typically, conservatism has argued," Ben Shapiro explains, not without the condescending air of a teacher given an uninformed answer, "that if you live in a free society in which you have not been targeted unfairly, your failures are your own."  Shapiro, whose knowledge of historical conservatism seems to run from Marco Rubio to Donald Trump, has forgotten about the litany of conservatives who aren't hyper-individualists, the first being conservatism's intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke.

French, Shapiro, et al. do have a point: it's possible to explain away all individual failings by blaming abstract society.  The left falls into this trap often, excusing inner-city looting and violence as direct results of collective white supremacy, like a bunch of malevolent waldos directing helpless marionettes to burn down their local CVS.

Carlson's interlocutors are concerned that his blaming of callous elites will somehow pathologize bad behavior among those in the precarity.  Being told they're not fully at fault for their choices, the lower classes will soon find license to engage in increasing amounts of depravity, casting off the blame to some shadowy them.  This woe-is-me pitchfork nihilism, or "victim-politics populism," as French labels it, could encourage the people Carlson seeks to help to not just accept their lot, but embrace it.

Maybe, maybe not.  If elites are really to blame for their myopic and selfish governing, should we shy away from mentioning it just because a single dad in Akron, Ohio may use it to excuse his guzzling of another Bud Heavy?  I think not.

The truth is that our elites are to blame for inculcating the social substratum with an empty source of meaning that can't exist without quarterly GDP reports.  "One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters," Carlson contends, a remark his detractors took to referring exclusively to lawmakers.  "America as a whole isn't broken, and the parts that are cannot be fixed by politicians who care," rejoined Kyle Smith, also of National Review.

But the problems Carlson describes are generated not solely by politicians.  Yes, public policy is involved, but it's broader than that.  What Carlson describes isn't about how much you can stuff into your shopping cart and charge on your MasterCard; it's whether or not you feel the need to return your cart to its corral as a courtesy to others.  It's about family bonds, social cohesion, and fellow-feeling among Americans.

These nebulous-but-very-real ideas are affected not just by lawmakers.  They're formed and maintained by cultural leaders who, oftentimes, are more influential than statesmen.  Kim Kardashian was successful in persuading the president to commute the sentence of Alice Johnson for a reason.  She holds sway precisely because she's of the upper class.  It is from this rarefied echelon where we draw our behavioral mores and sense of meaning.

What Carlson wants is what non-revolutionary philosophers have wanted since Aristotle: a nobility that takes its duty to the greater public seriously.  Instead of separating themselves from the lower and middle classes, which has been occurring economically and socially for some time, our leaders should be concerned about all of our prosperity, not just the performance of their mutual funds.  As Richard Weaver wrote, "[w]here men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition."

This is the harmony Carlson indirectly refers to in taking elites to task for their conscious ignoring of the ongoing moral dispossession happening outside their gated communities and 24-hour-surveilled apartment buildings.

Culture matters.  Moral exemplars matter.  Noblesse oblige matters.  They shouldn't be disregarded because of an ideological aversion to government action.

Society is the balancing of fortunes upon a fulcrum that doesn't slip too far toward either forced collectivism or individual anomie.  Carlson understands that.  He's urging his fellow conservatives to stop looking at life through the false dichotomy of government versus no government, but, rather, adopt a more nuanced view of social forces.

The right is long overdue for that debate.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0.

With Democrats newly empowered in Washington, the left is sorting out its priorities among pie-in-the-sky socialist dreams of universal health care and more practical policies such as restoring public funding for Planned Parenthood.  From the other side, its civil war is a delight to watch, as young blood takes on old for control of the party's soul.

The right is also undergoing its own internecine conflict, despite holding two and a half branches of government.  The battle has been brewing for some time, gurgling just under the surface of the mainstream depiction of conservatism.  The Lexington and Concord moment came from none other than the onetime Fox News host and bow tie aficionado Tucker Carlson, whose recent monologue exposed the divide.

Carlson's controversial monologue questioning the right's idolatry of markets, and his subsequent defenses of manhood and two-parent households, sparked numerous responses, both hand-wringing and agreeable, denunciatory and complimentary.  The opponents of it were the ones who yelled loudest.

Carlson's critics, besides having cartoonishly callow faith in the virtue of commerce, have the hardest time accepting his most controversial point: that the working class is not totally responsible for its fate.  By denying provincial layabouts their total agency, Carlson, some conservatives argue, sounds more like the paternalistic left, with all its scolding know-it-all-ism.

David French of National Review complains that "Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes...and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what they are doing to you."  The changes he cites are the civil rights movement, women's rights, the sexual revolution, and the explosion of the tech economy – all large societal restructurings that came about through top-down goading by elites (the civil rights movement, which had a powerful grassroots element to it, is the exception).

"Typically, conservatism has argued," Ben Shapiro explains, not without the condescending air of a teacher given an uninformed answer, "that if you live in a free society in which you have not been targeted unfairly, your failures are your own."  Shapiro, whose knowledge of historical conservatism seems to run from Marco Rubio to Donald Trump, has forgotten about the litany of conservatives who aren't hyper-individualists, the first being conservatism's intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke.

French, Shapiro, et al. do have a point: it's possible to explain away all individual failings by blaming abstract society.  The left falls into this trap often, excusing inner-city looting and violence as direct results of collective white supremacy, like a bunch of malevolent waldos directing helpless marionettes to burn down their local CVS.

Carlson's interlocutors are concerned that his blaming of callous elites will somehow pathologize bad behavior among those in the precarity.  Being told they're not fully at fault for their choices, the lower classes will soon find license to engage in increasing amounts of depravity, casting off the blame to some shadowy them.  This woe-is-me pitchfork nihilism, or "victim-politics populism," as French labels it, could encourage the people Carlson seeks to help to not just accept their lot, but embrace it.

Maybe, maybe not.  If elites are really to blame for their myopic and selfish governing, should we shy away from mentioning it just because a single dad in Akron, Ohio may use it to excuse his guzzling of another Bud Heavy?  I think not.

The truth is that our elites are to blame for inculcating the social substratum with an empty source of meaning that can't exist without quarterly GDP reports.  "One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters," Carlson contends, a remark his detractors took to referring exclusively to lawmakers.  "America as a whole isn't broken, and the parts that are cannot be fixed by politicians who care," rejoined Kyle Smith, also of National Review.

But the problems Carlson describes are generated not solely by politicians.  Yes, public policy is involved, but it's broader than that.  What Carlson describes isn't about how much you can stuff into your shopping cart and charge on your MasterCard; it's whether or not you feel the need to return your cart to its corral as a courtesy to others.  It's about family bonds, social cohesion, and fellow-feeling among Americans.

These nebulous-but-very-real ideas are affected not just by lawmakers.  They're formed and maintained by cultural leaders who, oftentimes, are more influential than statesmen.  Kim Kardashian was successful in persuading the president to commute the sentence of Alice Johnson for a reason.  She holds sway precisely because she's of the upper class.  It is from this rarefied echelon where we draw our behavioral mores and sense of meaning.

What Carlson wants is what non-revolutionary philosophers have wanted since Aristotle: a nobility that takes its duty to the greater public seriously.  Instead of separating themselves from the lower and middle classes, which has been occurring economically and socially for some time, our leaders should be concerned about all of our prosperity, not just the performance of their mutual funds.  As Richard Weaver wrote, "[w]here men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition."

This is the harmony Carlson indirectly refers to in taking elites to task for their conscious ignoring of the ongoing moral dispossession happening outside their gated communities and 24-hour-surveilled apartment buildings.

Culture matters.  Moral exemplars matter.  Noblesse oblige matters.  They shouldn't be disregarded because of an ideological aversion to government action.

Society is the balancing of fortunes upon a fulcrum that doesn't slip too far toward either forced collectivism or individual anomie.  Carlson understands that.  He's urging his fellow conservatives to stop looking at life through the false dichotomy of government versus no government, but, rather, adopt a more nuanced view of social forces.

The right is long overdue for that debate.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0.