An opportunity fraught with peril
Brad Littlejohn | The pros and cons of the populist moment in our politics
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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.
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.
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