One of the paradoxes of the American right has always been its full-throated embrace of capitalism. In some respects, of course, this embrace makes perfect sense: Capitalism is a pillar of American national identity; markets (at least in theory) promote conservative virtues such as thrift and responsibility; and the Hayekian critique of government planning, according to which economies are too complex for humans to fully understand, is a form of classical conservative skepticism regarding the limits of rational knowledge. Yet if one thinks of “conservatism” in the broad sense as a preference for continuity over change — for history and tradition over novelty and innovation — it fits uncomfortably with an economic system that tends toward a relentless abolition of the old. In Europe, conservatives have tended not only to take a more positive view of the state than Americans do but to regard capitalism as, at best, a necessary evil — something to be defended against left-wing leveling but that has the potential to dissolve the sorts of traditional social bonds that conservatism exists to protect. As the conservative Catholic journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote recently in National Review, “the traditional conservative position on ‘markets’ has always been one of guarded appreciation for private property, mixed with a little suspicion for commerce and wage slavery.”
In Dougherty’s sense, the American right prior to the 2016 election was profoundly nontraditional. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that before Trump came along, most conservatives saw very little wrong with the United States that couldn’t be fixed by cutting taxes, slashing entitlements, and educating Americans in the virtues of self-reliance. Today a few prominent voices on the right are beginning to reconsider. Tucker Carlson, for instance — a former libertarian who reinvented himself as a fire-breathing populist — has attacked the Republican mainstream for its worship of markets at the expense of “normal Americans.” Journals such as American Affairs and First Things are mounting a slightly more highbrow, often religiously inflected assault on neoliberalism, which they blame for the social collapse now devastating the white working class. Some thinkers, such as the Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, have gone so far as to claim that liberalism itself — including the American right’s “classical liberalism” — is a failure. These voices, with the partial exception of Carlson, are not totally mainstream, and conservative think tanks and magazines are still filled with defenders of the old religion. But the market triumphalism that has dominated the American right since Reagan seems, for the first time in a generation, to be on the back foot.
2016 poll from PRRI, for instance, found that Republican voters who reported that they “seldom or never took part in community activities” were twice as likely to support Trump as Cruz; similarly, Trump won primaries in eight of the ten Iowa counties with the lowest scores on Senator Mike Lee’s social-capital index (which considers data on crime, marriage, trust, philanthropy, and other indicators of communal health) but lost nine out of the ten highest-scoring counties. This conclusion — that in white areas, social collapse correlates with Trump support — provides Carney with the leitmotif for the rest of his book.
work on economic mobility, David Autor and his colleagues’ work on the China trade shock, Robert Putnam’s work on declining social capital), much of Carney’s story will be familiar. Still, the compilation of all these statistics in one place — the decline of male wages and workforce participation, the fall of marriage and rise of single-parent households, the emergence of “social-capital deserts” in poorer sections of the country, and the explosion of “deaths of despair” among American whites — paints an impressive picture of anomie. And as Carney repeatedly points out, these social pathologies are concentrated at the bottom half of the income-distribution range. While there is a popular rhetorical style on the right that blames godless elites for the decline of community and family, Carney notes that the wealthy and well-educated of both parties are far more likely to go to church, volunteer in their communities, and maintain strong social connections than are those in the working class. For Carney, this is particularly alarming because community, which gives life purpose and helps people through hard times, is all the more important for those without much material wealth.
leading lights still are. But at the same time, by delivering an account of a country facing full-blown social collapse and then retreating into calls for local, voluntary solutions, Carney ends up restating the basic premises of an old conservative consensus — it’s not the government’s job to fix your problems — that, as a political philosophy, has contributed to the alienation Carney so convincingly describes. It may be true, for instance, that the state is ill equipped to re-create devastated communities, but it is also true that state policy has enabled or even accelerated their devastation, and not merely in the sense that overregulation has hurt small businesses or that the welfare state has crowded out private charity.
notes that the international harmonization of economic rules has focused on tariffs, financial liberalization, and intellectual property while avoiding areas that would benefit the Western working classes, such as wages, labor standards, and tax laws. Even some of the more diffuse cultural shifts lamented by conservatives have been midwifed by the state. As Harvard Law professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk Gersen have argued in their study of the evolution of Title IX, civil-rights laws designed to protect women’s equal access to education have created, through bureaucratic drift and activist institutional capture, a vast federal regulatory apparatus that treats socialization into “traditional” gender roles as a public-health risk and attempts, under the guise of fighting sexual assault, to inculcate among college students a progressive view of gender and sexuality.
broadside against fusionist conservatives who, in his view, waste their energies calling for the resurrection of vanished civil-society traditions “that worked only as culturally embedded practices dependent on the traditions of aristocratic centuries.” Instead, Pappin demands conservatives ask themselves, “What can we do with the reins of power, that is, the state, to ensure the common good of our citizens?”
It remains to be seen whether anyone will take up Pappin’s call and, if they do, whether such a conservatism of the state would be effective or popular. But if Middle America’s condition really is as dire as people like Carney make it out to be, it’s hard to imagine that “go to church” will turn out to be a political winner. Carney ably describes the sort of malaise that led Republicans to flock to Trump, but if there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that desperate people want a leader who promises to try something different, however flawed his solutions might be.
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