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An opportunity fraught with peril

Brad Littlejohn | The pros and cons of the populist moment in our politics


J.D. Vance signs a copy of Hillbilly Elegy for a supporter after he had announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in July. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Dean

An opportunity fraught with peril
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As voters across the country gear up for the 2022 midterm elections, many races are offering us clues as to just how much the Trump era has changed the landscape of the Republican Party. One race that has garnered particular media attention is the battle for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, where J.D. Vance, the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy (2016), has emerged as the foremost challenger to front-runner candidate, Josh Mandel. Vance’s bid was recently the subject of a lengthy, searching, and surprisingly sympathetic profile in The Washington Post Magazine and reveals much about the promise—and peril—of the current populist turn within American conservatism.

When it burst onto the scene in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy (and Vance) challenged the traditional partisan paradigms in ways that boded well for the future of American political discourse. In his profile of the decaying culture of the white working-class in which he grew up, Vance drew attention to the devastating effects of standard liberal policies (welfare handouts from distant bureaucrats) and conservative policies (a free-market fanaticism that offshored manufacturing jobs and onshored prescription opioids). Jointly, these policies conspired to deprive the working classes of the only thing that gave them dignity and agency: work. Neo-liberalism—the cocktail of moral permissiveness over sexuality and concern for financial capital over the common good—was subject to scathing criticism.

And yet the beauty of Hillbilly Elegy was Vance’s refusal to play the modern game of victimhood and grievance, insisting that although surely victimized, poorer Americans had been complicit in their own loss of agency, failing to take responsibility for their own destructive choices. Vance thus offered a blueprint for a new conservative politics, one that took much more seriously the plight of poor Americans and the role of big business in neglecting and exploiting them but still stressed the role that individuals and communities must play in conserving the conditions of their own flourishing.

The top question that voters in Ohio and throughout the country are asking of their candidates is: “Are you going to fight for us?”

Such a both/and is, of course, a difficult balancing act in the best of times, and the last couple of years have certainly not been the best of times. In times of heated political conflict, few people want to hear nuance, especially on the campaign trail. The top question that voters in Ohio and throughout the country are asking of their candidates is: “Are you going to fight for us?” In this climate, Vance has been forced to simplify his message: A corrupt elite alliance is victimizing ordinary Americans and it doesn’t care about their morals, their marriages, or their jobs. As Vance is quoted by Rod Dreher in the Post profile, “When you realize that culture war is class warfare, everything becomes easy.”

Easy, perhaps, but also more than a bit unsettling. After all, class warfare often turns out very badly—for all classes. The populist turn within conservative politics that Donald Trump and now Vance represent is one rich with opportunity but also fraught with peril.

On the positive side, it offers the opportunity to move beyond the state vs. market dichotomies of Reagan-era conservatism and to recognize the ways in which both state and market have conspired to wreck the morals and mores of middle America. Vance has been at his strongest in his fierce denunciations of Big Tech, whose very business model is addiction. Just as pharmaceutical companies made millions by purveying fentanyl to poor Americans, so the tech giants make billions by purveying pornography and addictive video games. These evils can be blamed in part on bad government policy, but the solution will not be smaller government but smarter and more moral government. To this extent, Vance’s campaign represents the spearhead of a new (but really very old) “common-good conservatism.”

At the same time, though, if the effect of the populist turn is simply to provide ordinary Americans with a much longer list of enemies, it may prove a profoundly un-conservative movement. Conservatives have historically stressed individual responsibility and the role of local communities in fostering flourishing and charting their own destiny. It is Marxists who have preferred to reduce the ills of human life to an abstract struggle of the elites vs. the masses, implying that the latter are merely passive victims and must realize their agency by rising against their oppressors. At some point, if you use the language of war long enough, the metaphor is apt to turn into reality.


Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a senior fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute-Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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Postmodern Redneck

Here is one change that has happened over the last 60 years--a widening gap between blue-collar and white-collar workers. In 1962 my parents bought a brand-new house in a rapidly growing suburb on the north side of Cincinnati. The price of that new house was $16,000. And in those days, blue-collar- and white-collar workers still lived in the same neighborhoods, shopped at the same stores, and often went to the same churches. At the congregation a mile away from our house that we attended, the elders and deacons included both blue- and white-collar people. My high school classmates came from both groups; and if their parents had gone to college (mostly on the GI bill), they were the first in their families to do so.

Even in the late '70s, you could still buy a newly-built home for under $30,000; the run-down fixer-upper that my wife and I bought and rehabbed only cost us $17,000. The stagflation of the late '70s and '80s started a rise in the cost of housing that far outstripped the rise of wages, and over time separated the two groups of workers more effectively than any intentional program could have done.

Here is a though I have for those World readers who are of white-collar, executive, or professional status: At the congregation you attend, are there any blue-collar people sitting in the pews? And do you ever talk to any of them? Are any of them among your friends?

SAWGUNNER

I still recall seeing pix of South Carolina textile mill workers wearing shirts promoting NAFTA. Incentivizing off shoring of basic industries and then dropping tariffs on the goods made off shore was incredibly short sighted. I guess the plan was for these new factory workers to (1) remain in places like Guatemala or Honduras, and (2) purchase US made items with their pay from sneaker or Tee shirt factories.

Postmodern Redneck

I am older than Vance, born in 1950, but also of Appalachian heritage; my maternal grandfather was a coal miner in Hazard, KY, who died of injuries from a mine accident. I grew up about twenty miles or so south of Vance's Middletown neighborhood. I also spent 7 years as part of a group of students and former students of the old Cincinnati Bible College that operated a storefront mission church in the Eighth and State neighborhood of Cincinnati--an Appalachian slum, mostly inhabited by people like some of Vance's family, who came north but didn't "make it." The big problem for most of them in the 1970s was still alcohol rather than drugs, but the result was similar. I have read Vance's book, and I appreciate his journey.
But I am not so sure the current populism is the cause of the problem; I suspect it is a reaction to a culture that has grown up among our elites over the past century. In the past week I finished reading "The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class" by Fred Siegel (Encounter Books, 2013). Siegel traces the disdain of the educated elites for the people they saw as beneath them back before World War I, including intellectuals like H. L. Mencken, who came up with the epithet "Booboisie," and Sinclair Lewis, who mocked the middle class in his novels. Their attitude continued on through the Depression and picked up again after World War II. It is in full play among the Intelligentsia to this day. Terry MacAuliffe's comment, that parents should have no say about their children's education simply expresses the attitude of the Establishment toward the people they regard as their inferiors, cost him the VA governor's office; but it also gave away the attitude of much of the upper class. The current populism in our society may very well be a reaction to the abuse from our "betters."

Allen JohnsonPostmodern Redneck

I think you write a fair assessment of the. masses with its resentment to the elites who disdain them. That is a main reason Trump has won them over. Yet a dangerous allegiance, I believe.
As for Littlejohn's essay, a fair assessment. I've written a generally positive essay on Hillbilly Elegy in a book of essays generally negative, "Appalachian Reckoning."

JDEY4731

I find some problems with Littlejohn's assessment of populism. Isn't the latter the way of the common person in light of rising oppression by new forces that we as a nation haven't seen before--by way of big tech, for example, to deny to people the rights of the First Amendment--such as freedom of speech and the press? It will soon spread to restrictions on freedom of religion, I think. In the realm of religion and churches, it has been the independent evangelical and Baptist chs that have allowed greater religious freedom--better than the larger denominations and reformed churches, I believe.

joansredpen

"...the solution will not be smaller government but smarter and more moral government." And a smarter, more moral government, especially one by the people, can only begin with smarter and more moral voters.

SAWGUNNERjoansredpen

Here we must recall the quote of Adams or Madison about how the Framers realized our new form of government would only work for a moral and religious people.