“The days are long, but the years are short.” It’s a common phrase among parents, but also an apt one for this moment on the political Right. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day anger of the news cycle and miss the robust debate happening in the Republican Party about how to apply timeless principles to the new challenges of today.
As I wrote last month in an essay for the Atlantic , there was once a path to a stable and prosperous life in America that has since closed off. The truth is that for too long, government and business leaders alike have stood back and endorsed supposedly unstoppable global forces that have made life harder for working Americans, their families and their communities.
I know from the people I represent, including those within my own community back home, that this reflects the lived reality for many Americans. But it has invited criticism from some conservatives. This criticism takes the form of two other running debates about the future of conservatism; namely, Tucker Carlson’s monologue about the pathologies of modern working America, and Oren Cass’s book, The Once and Future Worker. What we have in common is an assessment that more should be done for American workers than the last few decades have offered.
There are two main lines of critique of this view. One is that the problem we describe is real, but there is no solution. The other is that because there is no solution, there must be no problem.
In either case, the core question is about whether, and if so, how the American people should structure our society to fulfill the promises of American life. Because of the role government currently plays, conservatives have an obligation to participate in the debate over how government should structure our society in order to reinvigorate the nongovernmental pillars of society which give people purpose and security — work, family, community, and country.
The negative reaction to Carlson’s monologue in conservative circles simply denies government’s role in structuring the economy to support these institutions at all. National Review ran pieces with headlines like “What’s Broken, and What We’re Not Going to Fix” and “Government Can’t Heal Us, Tucker Carlson.” But the choice not to do anything about a known problem is as much a choice as anything else.
The American economy has shed millions of manufacturing jobs and made unemployed or underemployed the men who used to work them. This did not happen by some iron law of history, but by the public policy choices that made economy do it. These choices were not necessarily made with bad intentions, and they have yielded benefits like cheaper consumer goods. Yet that does not change the fact they were political decisions. We built the society we have, and now we have to reckon with it. That’s politics in its most fundamental definition.
Some conservative policy elites consider themselves above politics. They would rather parade their ideological purity, as if the 2016 election hadn’t happened, than play a constructive role in the necessary reckoning that comes next. It’s why so many conservatives in Washington D.C. and in other enclaves can only evaluate President Trump and other Republicans today by our adherence to tax cuts and free trade, rather than grapple with the hard daily realities faced by the Americans we represent.
Under this blinder, I was criticized in a recent piece at Bloomberg for losing my nerve and coming down with “ Trump Disease” for merely pointing out that my immigrant parents would be less stable in the 21st century than they were when I was a child, let alone arguing for policy to address this decline. According to its author, if you count government safety-net benefits as part of their income, people like my parents are not falling behind today.
That may be viewed as a brilliant point at an economic conference, but not in the real world. My father would have never viewed government safety-net benefits as his income. My parents were first-generation immigrants, working the majority of their lives as a bartender and a maid, and between lapses in employment, my father was often a day laborer. They made enough to own a house, raise four children, and even allow my mother to spend most of her time at home when I was young. They worked immeasurably hard to secure that life — but it was achievable, no handouts required. It was that way for so many of my generation’s parents and their families in a way that it simply is not today.
The society I was born into, and the America my parents immigrated to, was a different place than it is today. Just because the economic and social transformation that has occurred since then has provided great benefits, as well as great costs, does not mean we must accept it wholesale, as some suggest. For conservatism to remain relevant, we must identify what we should conserve, understand what we have lost, and decide how to rebuild a flourishing nation for the many. Not answering at all would be a dereliction of duty.
Originally published at www.washingtonexaminer.com on January 7, 2019.