Last Friday Kevin D. Williamson published an essay at National Review that in many ways represents mainstream conservatism’s highs and lows. By turns hilarious, insightful, bizarre, obnoxious, confused, and offensive, Williamson explores the ugly ways in which Trump and his cadre of right-wing media sycophants now perform a vulgar “real American” shtick to distract from the fact that they have nothing of substance to say and their fans have nothing to be responsible for. His critiques of right-wing elites land beautifully (admittedly, their intellectual and moral stagnation make such a task easier every day), but he goes further to reveal an equal or greater disdain for the “white underclass.”
As Williamson discusses the ugly world of poverty that he grew up in, he gets to a line that feels the most true and is thus the most insidious: “The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it.” He intends this to skewer the chattering classes of liberals who are overflowing with sympathy for the abstract “poor” but squirm at the thought of sharing a school or subdivision with actual poor people. It’s a fair enough point – there are a lot of those people, and they need more actual contact with the poor.
However, that argument is only accessory to Williamson’s main point, which he summarizes as thus:
Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.
One of the clearest lessons of the past two years is that “the conservative movement” has for some time been a large number of power-worshipping Trump-loving sheep waiting for their Trump, corralled by a handful of ideologues on the billionaires’ ranch. These ideologues have been shocked to see their principles abandoned in favor of vulgar might-makes-right tribalism and you can find any number of well-written essays from this past year reckoning with this disappointment and cursing the alliance of fools, cowards, crazies, and racists that have come to dominate right-wing institutions. Less plentiful are the conservative authors willing to say that ideological conservatism has been degraded because it didn’t have anything useful to say in the first place. (Notable exceptions include Avik Roy and Reihan Salam; Joe Carter noted some of these trends several years ago).
Williamson’s conclusion (and his funny but ultimately incoherent ramblings about Ice-T, which would require another entire essay to unpack) demonstrate this succinctly. If all conservatism has to offer is a stern message about personal responsibility and a repetition of something conservative-sounding you heard from that one black friend of yours, it’s no wonder nobody wants it. It’s simply not a political philosophy you can govern with, win votes with, or even communicate with. The reason why the vast majority of Republican voices are emulating Donald Trump’s gutter-speak, Paul Ryan’s incoherent fantasies, or Roy Moore’s fever dreams is that they’re filling in the very large blanks that movement conservatism can’t fill in.
Every traditional right-wing voting bloc has come apart at the seams: “National security” has given way to wars a decade and a half long and still counting and new escapades in countries most of us can’t pronounce or find on a map. It still includes supporting our allies in campaigns of terror against civilians. “Economic growth” has become a mindless reflex to ensure that no undeserving human gets a penny of government aid while no business that might possibly create a job in the next decade fails to get a subsidy. “Family values” have suffered the most because of non-political currents, but many in the “Moral Majority” demonstrated that their principles were just window dressings on political ambitions. (Anyone who was willing to vote for Trump in order to protect their religious liberty from Clinton probably would have caved when she cracked down.)
If personal responsibility and tax cuts were the path to prosperity and virtue, then Kansas and Alabama ought to be shining exemplars of governance. They’re not. Movement conservatism has been tried and found wanting; it has degraded into a parody of itself nationally because all three legs it used to stand on can’t hold anything up anymore.
Williamson’s statement about knowing the world of poverty and growing more unsympathetic is wrong in three ways. The first way he’s wrong relates to common tropes about welfare: the more poor people you know, the more you realize how little they get from the government and how few of them actually get anything. The most shocking anecdotes get our attention – a cousin or a friend of a friend who is a lazy drug addict and gets a disability payment – but these examples are far from representative. You can only know that, though, if you are actually spending time with poor people.
For example: Earlier this year, Commentary ran an absurd statistic claiming that half of prime-age men were Medicaid beneficiaries that inspired pearl-clutching throughout conservative Twitter. This is the sort of thing you can believe if you only know one prime-age man who is eligible for Medicaid. (I emailed the editors about this at the time and got no response.)
There are groups of people who can fool themselves into thinking their time on the job with the poor matters – I think especially of police officers, doctors, and nurses, who end up seeing humans at their worst by virtue of the fact that they are charged with facing the worst things humanity can suffer. Doctors can remember the one patient with a fancy phone on Medicaid a lot more easily than the five who are working and still can’t make enough to afford all of their prescriptions, or the person on disability who works under the table to make ends meet.
Trust me: if there’s an egregious example of someone locking the door to stability for themselves (and their kids) from the inside, I’ve seen it. However, these cases of self-destruction are not exclusive to the poor (as Elizabeth Bruenig points out), and given the great number of people who continue to make bad decisions despite not getting anything from the government, we have to think about other ways to inculcate virtue in the people who need it most. Mostly by being their friends and sharing in their pain.
The second way that Williamson’s statement is malignant is that it actively discourages friendship with the poor and praises the sort of ignorance his statement is meant to lambast liberals for. The way that Williamson writes, it would seem that the best thing to do for our inner cities and Appalachia is to wall them off and open the gates when someone who works hard enough to buy a bus ticket out of there asks politely to leave in proper English. This is, for the most part, what we have been doing for many years now, coaching the best citizens of any community to get out at whatever cost and never look back.
In West Baltimore, I often heard people describe the “crabs in a barrel” phenomenon that Williamson would call a pathology of poverty culture. Like crustaceans grabbing a companion who is trying to climb out of the barrel, some community members intentionally try to hold back their neighbors who are putting in the hard work to succeed economically or academically. (Other cultures around the world – even Western ones like Australia – will share similar conventional wisdom like “The chicken with the longest neck gets cut.”) While this obviously has negative consequences, it is based in a very reasonable human desire for communities to maintain their equilibrium by not allowing all of their best members from leaving – for if all of the above-average leave, the average goes down.
The “coming apart” phenomenon that Charles Murray describes and many conservatives grumble about is in no small part a result of our obsession with meritocracy. When we are constantly encouraging people who are born with or acquire the virtues necessary to live a stable life to shake the dust off their feet and abandon their dysfunctional friends, those left behind stagnate in ever-more-toxic dysfunction. A culture of hard work, thrift, and personal responsibility only emerges when people have enough financial capital to make those virtues pay off (less and less a reality as wages stagnate and jobs require skills that aren’t taught in high school) and enough people practicing those virtues to be a part of that community.
Conservatism rejects the deterministic economics that denies people their agency, but the modern conservative movement has preached an atomizing freedom that eviscerates the structures and relationships that help people to exercise agency. This is why the eloquent ideas of politicians like Mike Lee or Ben Sasse ring hollow: They are only willing to tinker with a handful of policies that might stop the tidal wave of atomization our society is experiencing. If we want to create a conservative movement robust enough to deal with the challenges America is facing, we’re going to have to work a lot harder and spend a lot more time with the poor so that we can understand what they need, want, and can contribute.
Part of that work is doing our research and trying out more radical ideas. The most prominent right-wing writers at various outlets (with a few exceptions like Lyman Stone, Jonathan Coppage, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry) are always suggesting the old wineskins of 20th-century conservatism, which is part of why their reformocon ideas have never taken off. Conservative health care wonks are constantly trying to repaint the burning Hindenburg that is our employer-based health insurance system. No conservative publication had any mention of focused deterrence until yesterday. Conservative education policy is oriented around using vouchers to help a larger percentage of kids get good grades so they can get a useless college degree. The few good ideas (like E-Verify for immigration or closing prisons for criminal justice reform) get drowned out by the populist rabble or lobbied to death.
More importantly, conservatism needs to decide what it is we’re trying to conserve and rewrite everything else around that. Conserving the institutions that help people to flourish – churches and families most prominent among them – is more fundamental than “liberty” or “small government”. A focus on the family will almost certainly require, though, that we buck the individualist-atomist elements of conservatism that have become ideological orthodoxy. I’ve advocated before for some of the more radical ideas that the American Solidarity Party is pushing, mostly because the vision of society that they describe is one that is best able to conserve human dignity and the institutions that inculcate virtue.
Most of all, though, conservatism is doomed to degradation if conservatives neglect our pre-political relationships and do not use the freedom we have to be sympathetic and sacrifice for our neighbors. Here Williamson’s formulation is backwards: the more that one chooses to love and share in the pain of the poor, the more intimately you will want to know them and be friends with them. This is not only a necessary front in the war on the atomization, consumerism, and individualism that are picking us apart like crabs on a plate, but it is also what Christ demonstrates for us and demands of us.
The eternal truth that we ought to proclaim loudly in word and deed is that God’s love for the poor is not dependent on how much responsibility they demonstrate. The freedom and wealth God has given us in America is a blessing that must be shared with others; we can argue about the most prudent way to steward our blessings but we cannot disguise our disinterest in solidarity with some pablum about agency or even with appeals for redistribution. Being friends with a lot of poor people will probably incline you a bit more towards redistribution, but it will probably also ensure you mean what you say whenever you bring up agency.
Movement conservatism itself has, in Williamson’s words, failed to grasp that what is not necessarily our fault may yet be our problem, and that we must act and bear responsibility for what we have been given. Demonizing the poor will only corrode our faculties and hamstring our capacity for making policy. The way forward is to embrace our responsibilities to one another as citizens and choose to sympathize with the poor, but not in the abstract, cut-‘em-a-check manner that Williamson hates. Rather, we have to back up our words about agency and responsibility by exercising some of our own and putting in the hard work necessary to suffer with and learn from our less fortunate neighbors.