Where Populists and Neoconservatives Meet

Senator Josh Hawley in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 11, 2019 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

An agenda for economic opportunity should counter civic disintegration and protect individual liberties and the republican order.

A  recent exchange between a Washington Post columnist and a freshman U.S. senator reveals some of the underlying issues in contemporary policy debates on the right. George Will, a stalwart of classical liberalism in the Beltway, criticizes Josh Hawley, Republican senator from Missouri, in a recent column. According to Will, Hawley’s reservations about American policy over the past few decades reveal a Marxist-like economic determinism, little faith in the market, and complete faith in government: “Individualism, tendentiously defined, is the Missouri Republican’s named target. Inevitably, however, the culprit becomes capitalism, which is what individual freedom is in a market society’s spontaneous order.”

Whereas Will offers the market as the expression of individual freedom, Hawley in his rejoinder argues that individual freedom is not reducible to market operations — that it depends on nurturing various social institutions that can sometimes be at odds with the market. For Hawley, Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of society today are “faltering under relentless pressure from the ‘global economy.’” And he calls for government policy to correct those trends (whether through reversing concentration in the tech sector, reforming trade policies, or other efforts).

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The clash between Will and Hawley has a long pedigree. Indeed, it casts light on the way that some of what is often called “populism” or “nationalism” today could in some ways be seen as a successor to the initial wave of neoconservatism. Though such neoconservatives as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Irving Kristol may have differed on many issues, they shared some important affinities, including support for policy experimentation and for the idea that both the market and government had significant limits.

Having been youths during the Great Depression, many neoconservatives were essentially supporters of the welfare state, but they also diagnosed some of the ways in which the welfare state could undercut its supposed aims. The Public Interest, a major neoconservative organ, was stocked with articles about how some Great Society welfare efforts might end up not ameliorating but rather entrenching poverty.

However, the neoconservatives were emphatically not proponents of laissez-faire. Not only did they often support robust government efforts; they also had deeper reservations about the dynamics of the market. Irving Kristol famously mustered only two cheers (not three) for capitalism. While the material wealth produced by capitalism was in many ways a good thing, the endless pursuit of profit could also degrade traditional communities and sap important moral virtues. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell offered a sociological elaboration of this theme; the elevation of consumerism in an age of American plenty could undermine the virtues, including prudence and discipline, that a successful market economy requires.

This double-edged skepticism about both government and the market led neoconservatives in the direction of policy experimentation. Parts of the welfare state could be retained but reformed. While the market had considerable advantages, it also had to be monitored in the name of the public interest. Moreover, the froth of economic productivity was no substitute for the bonds of faith, family, and community. (In light of that, it’s not surprising that National Affairs, in many ways a successor to The Public Interest, should serve as a venue for thinking out various policy options and offer nuanced discussions of the textures of lived liberty.)

When Hawley denounces the political vision of an autonomous “Promethean self,” that sounds rather like two cheers (or maybe one and a half) for capitalism. Just as neoconservatives looked at an American economic and political system under increasing pressure in the Sixties and Seventies, many of those sympathetic to a “populist” or “nationalist” correction see in the contemporary United States signs of disappointment and socioeconomic strain. In the 21st century, economic growth has slowed by many measures. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed. Partisan rancor and dysfunction hold the Beltway in their grip. Political radicalism, from socialism to the “woke” left to the “alt-right,” has gained new currency in some parts of the public.

These trends have left a black mark in the lives of many Americans. But they also might augur ill for liberal democracy and a market-based economy. Policy reforms to correct them can be less a flight from liberty and more a way to make the practices of liberty sustainable, a theme that has pervaded accounts of liberty in America from Hamilton to Tocqueville to the neoconservatives.

These trends have a bearing on the ability of the United States to project power abroad, a concern of many neoconservatives. Internal division makes it harder for the United States to be a responsible power on the world stage. Moreover, maintaining a certain industrial and infrastructure base — an enterprise currently associated with “populism” — is also a prerequisite for great-power status. Marco Rubio’s recent push for an industrial policy is a great break from neither conventional Republican policy nor neoconservative strategy. In this meeting, for instance, of the editorial board of The New Republic in 1986, Charles Krauthammer made a case for an oil-import fee (see around the 31-minute mark). He based his argument primarily on geopolitics: Cheap oil from abroad was putting downward pressure on domestic oil exploration, and so placing a tariff on foreign oil would encourage domestic production of this key strategic asset. (Decades after that meeting, the fracking revolution, which was influenced by sustained high prices in oil, would lead to a substantial increase in the American production of oil. The growth of fracking has also altered the American geopolitical calculus by making the U.S. less dependent on the whims of oil producers abroad.)

There is a second-order question about which policies might be most effective at nurturing communities and promoting an integrated body politic. For instance, one might not agree with the tradeoffs involved in Krauthammer’s proposal of an oil-import tax. People might disagree about the best mechanisms for deconsolidating the financial sector — or even about whether such a deconsolidation would advance the goal of local empowerment and ground-up economic growth. Such second-order disagreements are important — politics, after all, is about designing policy to achieve goals, not just about setting them — but consistent with the broader center-right tradition of using policy to regulate the market in the name of the public good.

It would be a mistake to press affinities into absolute identity. If the original neoconservatives were to take a time machine to 2020, some would no doubt disagree with some of the policy proposals advanced by contemporary allies of populism. They also might be bemused, even provoked, by the current occupant of the White House. (In an interview late in life, Glazer made a characteristically multivalent assessment of the president, criticizing both his conduct in office and those who saw in the Trump White House the descending shadow of fascism.)

Of course, certain variants of nationalism and populism offer no reforms to moderate the market or renew civic resources but rather spout invective and exacerbate division and paranoia. Seeking to sustain national integration is very different from trying to impose some racial or ideological homogeneity on the body politic. Spittle-flecked denunciations of the “elite” are far from serious policy efforts to enhance economic opportunity. An agenda for national unity in which the rights of individuals are trampled and minority groups are demeaned may be as uncongenial to democratic liberty as Promethean atomization.

In the last third of the 20th century, neoconservatives sought that middle way between a worship of the market and an adulation of the state. Recognizing that both the market and the state had a part to play, they offered a series of reforms to counter the faltering New Deal–Great Society consensus. In our time, the consensus of high neoliberalism has long been stumbling, and its disruptions in turn call out for their own policy response. The possible responses are many. An agenda to strengthen broad-based opportunity within the American economy could serve to counter civic disintegration and protect our individual liberties and the republican order. Some might term such an agenda “populist” or “nationalist,” but it could also be called “neoconservative.”

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