December 11, 2023

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Feel Good With Immigration

Inside Tucker Carlson’s Brain | Washington Monthly

On February 22, as tensions that would soon spill into war mounted on the Ukrainian border, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson opened his show—the most popular cable news program in the country—with a searing monologue ripping into the U.S. foreign policy establishment. At the center of it was a sinister question: Why should Americans hate Vladimir Putin?

In a series of rhetorical questions, Carlson asked

Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?

“These are fair questions,” he continued, coming to his point. “And the answer is no.”

Carlson’s defense of Putin immediately drew wide condemnation from liberals, who compared it to the way Donald Trump speaks about the Russian dictator. But another common theme of Carlson’s is not so obviously illiberal. In early 2019, for example, he announced that 

Republican leaders will have to acknowledge that market capitalism is not a religion. Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite. Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. A system like that is the enemy of a healthy society.

Carlson is hardly the only Republican striking this note nowadays. Republican Senator Josh Hawley regularly joins the show to denounce Big Tech monopolies. Senator Tom Cotton recently echoed Carlson’s hostility to free markets in a speech in which, even while claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan, he argued against “open borders, unfettered trade, and globalization,” summing up with the peroration: “We are a nation with an economy, not an economy with a nation.” In January, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy joined the new Republican rhetorical war on Big Business when he ripped into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying it had no place in today’s GOP. 

Where is this stuff coming from? Many of Carlson’s ideas and attitudes are shared by the Barstool conservatives in Fox’s core demographic, who are as alienated these days by “woke” capitalism and “forever wars” as they ever were by “feminazis” and “libtards.” But in fulminating against monopoly and NATO expansionism, Carlson is often showcasing or channeling ideas from public intellectuals with perches ranging from the New York Times op-ed page to professorships at Harvard and Notre Dame. Many have pedigrees in Catholic conservatism, but one prominent member of their ranks is the author of a book of political philosophy whose back cover sports a lavish endorsement from Barack Obama. Another guest with whom Carlson has communed learned about the evils of monopoly capital through his love of back-to-the-land, organic hippy culture, while still another has a resume that includes working on bank regulation for Bernie Sanders. 

Many other Democrats and progressives, though they loathe Carlson’s positions on Putin and cultural issues, also share his views (often without quite realizing it) on many key aspects of political economy. AOC and Elizabeth Warren might hate Carlson’s positions on abortion, gay rights, and immigration, but they share and influence his views on the need to beef up antitrust enforcement and rethink the kind of “neoliberal” trade policies that were embraced by the Clinton administration a generation ago. Meanwhile, even many of those aging liberal Baby Boomers, as well as many moderate conservatives turned Never Trumpers, share many of Carlson’s critiques of “woke culture,” whether they care to admit it or not. 

At a time when liberalism is being tested by dictators and would-be dictators both at home and abroad, we cannot risk doing business with people who won’t forthrightly commit to at least the core, classically liberal values at the heart of our constitutional republic.

Is there anything we can feel good about here? Throughout the history of democracy, progress has most often been achieved only when different factions come to the same conclusions for different reasons about some point or another. About 10 years ago, for example, many fiscal conservatives persuaded themselves of the need to shrink the prison population in order to cut government spending, while many religious conservatives began talking about prisoners as people worthy of compassion and capable of redemption. Liberals may have quarreled with some of the reasoning but embraced the conclusion. Subsequent bipartisan legislation led to a sharp drop in the incarceration rate.

Today, the stakes are much higher. At a time when liberalism is being tested by dictators and would-be dictators both at home and abroad, we cannot risk doing business with people who won’t forthrightly commit to at least the core, classically liberal values at the heart of our constitutional republic, including, most notably, democratic pluralism, limits on inherited privilege, and the rule of law. That includes Carlson, who has passed beyond redemption. But there is a remarkable amount of substantive overlap between Democrats and Republicans on many of the policy questions Carlson deals with. And it is just possible that at least some of the self-styled conservatives crowded into Carlson’s head might come around to discovering that they are liberals after all. 

One of the people who have gained a large influence over Tucker Carlson is Rod Dreher. In 2006, Dreher, a Louisiana native with working-class roots, wrote a book whose title summarizes its message: Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party). The book’s 10-point manifesto gave voice to themes that were almost entirely ignored by the power centers of the Republican Party at the time but that are now being mouthed by the likes of Senators Hawley and Cotton. They included the conviction that “Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government,” and also the assertion that “Small and Local and Old and Particular are almost always better than Big and Global and New and Abstract.”

Dreher soon fell in with a group of other conservative-minded writers who had also become fed up with the Republican Party’s embrace of corporate America under Reagan and the Bushes. Many were attracted to the writing of Phillip Blond, an English theologian and political economist who in 2009 wrote a celebrated essay entitled “The Rise of the Red Tories.” The title referred to an incipient movement of people in the United Kingdom who were attacking the excesses of both left-wing statism and right-wing market fundamentalism, and who were starting to realize, Blond emphasized, that both sides were implicated in the “maintenance and escalation of monopoly.” When Blond came to America on a speaking tour in 2010, he shared a dais at Georgetown University with Dreher and with two other Americans who had become big fans and would help to spread his word over the next decade. 

One was Ross Douthat, still in his 20s but already a columnist with The New York Times. Douthat was part of a heterodox group of young, right-leaning writers whom the Washington Monthly at the time referred to as “Reformish Conservatives.” These were folks who had independently begun to question how the GOP could claim to be the party of family values and a champion of the working class while pursuing policies that shipped jobs abroad and prioritized tax cuts for the rich. Douthat coauthored a book with Reihan Salam called Grand New Party, in which they wrote approvingly of the New Deal but dwelt on how socially conservative that era’s liberals were by today’s standards. Drawing heavily on the scholarship of Allan C. Carlson, they pointed to such icons of liberalism as Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins and their deep commitment to using public policy to promote marriage and traditional, one-paycheck families. That’s why, they noted, the Social Security Act was crafted to provide pensions to married people even if they spent their careers as homemakers and never paid taxes into the system—a family policy that stands to this day. 

Joining Blond and Douthat on the dais that day was another public intellectual whose stature would soon grow enormously. Patrick Deneen, then a professor at Georgetown, hosted the event and helped to promote it by writing about Blond’s central insight. As Deneen described it, Blond realized that both “the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern ‘free’ markets” work together to destroy the “bonds of community,” including local governance, family, and religious devotions. 

Deneen pointed to the ongoing Great Recession as proof of the destructive symbiosis of Big Government and monopoly capitalism. Both parties had agreed to bail out banks that were “too big to fail” while millions lost their homes to foreclosures. “The crisis showed,” Deneen said, “that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years—that one had to choose between the State and the Market—was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was.” Deneen and a coterie of like-minded thinkers began publishing their work in a new online publication dedicated to localism, renewal of small business, and community life, called Front Porch Republic

These themes have a long tradition in Catholic thought. They were foreshadowed, for example, by the writing of Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 issued an encyclical called Rerum novarum, or “The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” in which he tried to reconcile the corrosive effects of unregulated markets on community cohesion and solidarity. That mantle was picked up by thinkers such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the latter of whom used “the Servile State” to refer to the corrosive forces of monopoly capitalism and its partnership with government to permanently keep workers in a state of property-less servitude. The celebration of localism and distributed power also has a long tradition among the Jefferson-Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, and more recently has resonated among the kind of liberals who embrace the agrarianism of Wendell Berry or who share a countercultural aversion to mass consumption and giant institutions. As Americans dug out from the Great Recession and tried to absorb its lessons, a revival of the kind of creative fusion between left and right exemplified by these traditions was seemingly well timed and filled with promise. 

Eight years later, however, Deneen began to lead his flock in a very different direction. In 2018, by then a professor of political science at Notre Dame, he published his big book, Why Liberalism Failed. It was generally well received. The back cover included quotes from Douthat and Cornel West. The New York Times’s review stated that the book “articulates something important in this age of disillusionment.” Writing in American Affairs, the Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule called Deneen “a worthy successor of Tocqueville.” The 2019 paperback edition even included a blurb from Obama, who praised its “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community.”

Deneen’s book appeared at a moment when many mainstream liberals were beginning to rethink their positions on global capitalism. Many who had embraced dropping trade barriers and deregulating financial markets during the Clinton era were now becoming worried that they had gone too far, as they saw the hollowing-out of rural heartlands and the loss of working-class jobs feeding the rise of Donald Trump and reactionary movements around the globe. Deneen’s description of an ailing Middle America in the grip of corporate monopolies was certainly not lost on liberals who were paying attention. 

If the concern is with the excesses of “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” and “identity politics,” or with the tyranny of Big Tech oligarchs, then the solution is not to become Putin-curious or suggest that we all convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Yet the title of Deneen’s book was Why Liberalism Failed, not Why Liberalism and Conservatism Together Failed. Rather than emphasize a fusion of left and right in common cause against the excesses of corporate monopolies and a captured administrative state, he railed against a strawman version of liberalism that reduced it to libertarianism. Robert Kuttner, who wrote a devastating critique of Why Liberalism Failed for The New York Review of Books, was one of the few liberals who spotted the radical hostility of Deneen’s shifting message. In passages, Deneen blamed not just capitalism but the whole Enlightenment project for the fallen world he saw around him. His indictment characterized liberalism as “the greatest possible freedom from external constraints,” and then contrasted that with “the ancient concept of liberty,” which he defined as “the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires.” 

So liberalism became in this new telling not a program for channeling and regulating economic competition to serve public purposes. Nor was it a program for preserving individual rights from the tyranny of others, including the kind of tyrannies practiced by the slave states of classical antiquity or the Confederate South. Instead, Deneen increasingly emphasized that liberalism just amounts to a philosophy of everything-goes and every-man-for-himself. 

Since Deneen published Why Liberalism Failed, a group of like-minded writers, sometimes characterized as “post-liberals” or “national conservatives,” have gained prominence and taken his thinking in still more strident and distorted directions. These include younger voices like Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian immigrant, former editor at the New York Post, and now editor at Compact Magazine.* Tucker Carlson showcased his ideas when he interviewed him on the air in May 2021. 

Ahmari is perhaps best known for writing a polemic entitled “Against David French-ism.” David French is a religious conservative in his 50s who spent much of his career as a lawyer working on religious rights issues, often using First Amendment principles to defend the right of Christian groups, for example, to organize in universities and other public spaces. To Ahmari, French’s faith in the Constitution as a guarantor of religious freedom is a farce, because, Ahmari believes, the liberal program of radical individualism will never stop until religious conservatives completely surrender their values.

Many mainstream liberals who had embraced dropping trade barriers and deregulating financial markets during the Clinton era were now becoming worried that they had gone too far, as they saw the hollowing-out of rural heartlands and the loss of working-class jobs feeding the rise of Donald Trump.

He pointed in his article to an anecdote about the Sacramento Public Library sponsoring a “drag queen story hour,” where children are reportedly read to by people dressed up in drag. “The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all,” Ahmari wrote, echoing Deneen. “They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.” (Italics in the original.)

Douthat hosted a debate in 2019 between Ahmari and French at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. French pointed out that the same freedom of speech that permits drag queen story hours also allows Christian groups to organize and gain traction. The Constitution does not let you pick and choose which groups are allowed to hold events based on ideology. “You would undermine viewpoint neutrality in First Amendment jurisprudence?” French asked Ahmari.

“Yeah, I would,” Ahmari replied.

French reportedly won the room, but Ahmari carried the day with a widening circle of thinkers who increasingly dominate intra-conservative debates. It’s a group that includes the American Affairs deputy editor and University of Dallas politics professor Gladden Pappin; the Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold; and Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard. Along with Deneen, these men now regularly publish essays in a Substack entitled “The Postliberal Order.”

The group includes many younger conservatives who combine contempt for the usual targets of conservative bile (the media, Hollywood, universities) with a brief against the great monopolies of surveillance capitalism (Facebook, Google, Twitter), all while embracing, in many instances, a kind of white Christian identity politics. After hearing presentations from Rachel Bovard, Amanda Milius, Christopher Rufo, and other Millennials at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, David Brooks wrote about witnessing, in the new conservative movement, a “fusing of the culture war and the class war into one epic Marxist Götterdämmerung,” and pronounced himself terrified. 

Should we also be terrified? Emphatically, yes! But there are still startling points of actual and potential overlap emerging between today’s New Right and New Left. 

One is family policy. Though some of the people advocating for more public support for families with children may be motivated by fears of demographic decline or by hopes of restoring patriarchal privilege, the policies themselves are often little different from those long ago put in place by Swedish or French socialists and advocated by many American feminists for generations. 

Perhaps the most startling point of intersection, however, is on the question of corporate power. Pappin, who appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show this year, advocates strengthening unions and reestablishing regional supply chains, and using antitrust and labor laws to disassemble Amazon, Uber, and social media companies. Another guest of Carlson’s a few years ago was Matt Stoller, who formerly worked on Capitol Hill for Bernie Sanders and more recently published his book Goliath, which calls on Democrats to reanimate their long populist tradition of prosecuting monopolies. 

Similarly, in an interview with one of us in January, Deneen spoke of his admiration for Barry Lynn, founder of the Open Markets Institute and one of the leading figures in elevating the issue of monopoly among progressives. (Lynn is also a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly.) “He’s someone I see as pretty compatible with my view on, and I think a conservative view on, monopoly,” Deneen said. “It undermines public power. He makes powerful arguments. If you seek to preserve a democratic republic, there needs to be sufficient political power against concentrations of private power.”

In this quote, he aligns himself with a “democratic-republican” anti-monopoly tradition that has been at the heart of America’s liberal creed from the Founders forward. It’s a creed that only went into eclipse in the 1980s with the rise of market fundamentalism in both parties, and that today people like Senator Elizabeth Warren, Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan, and many other leading progressives are now working hard to restore. (For more on this, see Caroline Fredrickson, “The Too Supreme Court,” page 49.) When Deneen says liberalism failed, he apparently doesn’t mean actual liberalism, which, as Deneen well knows, has historically been all about opposing monopolies, including monopolies of organized religion and political speech, in order to preserve a democratic republic. 

The tragedy is that Deneen and others who profess to share many of his general views about the need to contain corporate power and foster community, like J. D. Vance or Josh Hawley, and perhaps even Tucker Carlson himself, have failed to acknowledge how deeply aligned they are, or should be, with the tenets of the actual liberal tradition in the United States. That tradition is not reducible to libertarianism. Rather, it is a creative hybrid that fuses the power of government with the power of markets. In the 19th century, that brought “internal improvement” like privately owned but publicly financed and regulated railroads. In the 20th century, it meant saving capitalism from itself through Progressive Era and New Deal regulation of markets and vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws. In the 21st century, the great challenge is to apply the same principles to global imperatives like reducing carbon emissions, checking surveillance capitalism before it destroys private life, and offering free and prosperous alternatives to the gathering forces of authoritarianism. 

Yet leading post-liberals continue to draw and inflame angry crowds by attacking a Trumpy, Fox News, cartoon vision of liberalism in which a putative laptop class tyrannically oppresses the thrifty and the faithful while pandering to perverts and idlers. The best of the post-liberals know better. It’s one thing to take issue with the idea that America is an essentially racist/sexist/reactionary society founded in 1619 rather than 1776. It’s another thing to reject 1776, as well, and claim, in effect, that America’s true founding came in 1620 when the Pilgrims established the white, Christian nation God intended America to be.

Many younger conservatives combine contempt for the usual targets of conservative bile (the media, Hollywood, universities) with a brief against the great monopolies of surveillance capitalism (Facebook, Google, Twitter), all while embracing, in many instances, a kind of white Christian identity politics.

In point of fact, the liberal order established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has produced a society in which a higher percentage of the population goes to church than in any other advanced nation. And, as Steve Waldman and other scholars of religion have long pointed out, that’s due in no small measure to the fact that in America—unlike in, say, Russia or Hungary—we don’t have an official church that monopolizes organized religion and thereby makes it sclerotic and beholden to Caesarism. Instead, we have many denominations fairly competing for souls with entrepreneurial vigor and arguably saving more of them in the aggregate than under any other system. 

So Post-Liberal Americans need to decide and declare forthrightly which side they are on. Since Rod Dreher wrote his first book questioning the Republicans’ inflated faith in markets, he has been on a journey that has included first recommending monastic retreat, then praising Putin’s use of propaganda to promote cultural and religious conservatism, and most recently traveling with Tucker Carlson to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and serving it up as a model of what the United States should be. This is, to put it gently, the wrong path. If the concern is with the excesses of “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” and “identity politics,” or with the tyranny of Big Tech oligarchs, then the solution is not to become Putin-curious or suggest that we all convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Instead, the best way forward is to align with and help to restore a true liberalism, which historically has been, for all its faults, the best model not only for guaranteeing freedom of speech and of religion, but also for taming the ravages of godless monopoly capitalism.

*Ahmari’s job title has been updated to reflect that he is now an editor at Compact Magazine, and a former editor at the New York Post.