Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

They Said It:

The members of America’s new upper class tend not to watch the same movies and television shows that the rest of America watches, don’t go to the kinds of restaurants the rest of America frequents, tend to buy different kinds of automobiles, and have passions for being green, maintaining the proper degree of body fat, and supporting gay marriage that most Americans don’t share.  Their child-raising practices are distinctive, and they typically take care to enroll their children in schools dominated by the offspring of the upper middle class — or, better yet, of the new upper class.  They take their vacations in different kinds of places than other Americans go and are often indifferent to the professional sports that are so popular among other Americans.  Few have served in the military, and few of their children either.

Worst of all, a growing proportion of the people who run the institutions of our country have never known any other culture.  They are the children of upper-middle-class parents, have always lived in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and gone to upper-middle-class schools.  Many have never worked at a job that caused a body part to hurt at the end of the day, never had a conversation with an evangelical Christian, never seen a factory floor, never had a friend who didn’t have a college degree, never hunted or fished.  They are likely to know that Garrison Keillor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion is the source of the phrase “all of the children are above average,” but they have never walked on a prairie and never known someone well whose IQ actually was below average.

When people are making decisions that affect the lives of many other people, the cultural isolation that has grown up around America’s new upper class can be disastrous.  It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale law professors.  It is a problem if Yale law professors, or producers of the nightly news, or CEOs of great corporations, or the President’s advisors, cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers.

Charles Murray, “Belmont and Fishtown,” The New Criterion, January 9, 2012.



While most of the country spent the last four years getting “ready for Hillary” (to coin a phrase), a handful of conservatives and observers of conservatives were expecting something very different.  To these conservatives, the 2016 election was supposed to mark the triumphant and long-overdue rebirth of the movement spawned by Buckley and Kirk, introduced to the nation by Goldwater, and consolidated by Reagan.  It was supposed to be the year in which the common sense inherent in traditional, small-government conservatism finally overcame all of the obstacles placed in its way by the Democrat-media complex and, in the process, saved the nation from itself.

To most of Washington, 2012 was a disaster for the GOP, one that necessitated a complete overhaul of the party, of its message, and of its ideology.  The Republican big shots hired bigger shot consultants who told them that they had to change, that they needed to “evolve” and embrace the new cultural and demographic realities.  The Republicans had to “get with it,” and place diversity and contrived empathy above principles and tradition.

This small handful of conservatives knew better, though.  They understood that the post-mortems were always the same, arriving at the same shopworn and self-reinforcing conclusions:  You hire consultants to tell you that you need to hire more consultants who will tell you how to employ the advice given to you by other consultants whose job it is to explain how best to speak down to people who need to be spoken down to, that is to say the voters.  The conservative remnant hated this idea, and they knew it would never work.  They understood that the party didn’t need more clichés and trite pressure-group pandering.  What it needed was audacity, intelligence, and a respect for the needs and desires of the country class, as opposed to those of the ruling class.  Moreover, they knew that the GOP had those attributes in abundance.  The Tea Party’s chaotic and confusing beginning had nonetheless produced a conservative intellectual rebirth.

Congressman like Justin Amash (MI) and Jim Jordan (OH) joined Senators Mike Lee (UT), Marco Rubio (FL), Rand Paul (KY), and Ted Cruz (TX) in leading the revival.  All, save Jordan, were Tea Party candidates, insurgents who defeated mainstream candidates and dramatically changed the philosophical orientation of the party.  Of course, three of those insurgents ran for the GOP presidential nomination, and two are still in the race.

You see, 2016 was supposed to be the year that the new conservatism won the public’s heart and won the election.  Three candidates represented three factions of the new conservatism; Rand Paul, the libertarian faction; Ted Cruz, the constitutionalist faction; and Marco Rubio, the reformist faction.  In these three, the GOP had its brightest and best candidates in a generation, and one of them was supposed to win, to complete the conservative revival.

Now, it is still possible that one of the three will, in fact win, just as expected.  But the odds grow slimmer by the day.  We think we know why.  Indeed, we touched on the subject in our own pre-mortem for the GOP in a February 28, 2012 article in which we argued that while the “libertarian moment,” such as it was, was real, serious, and important, it was secondary in importance to the bifurcation of the nation and of the GOP as well.  We put it this way:

The fact of the matter is that the nation is bifurcating into two distinct classes, separated by a vast chasm on matters of values, culture, responsibility, and governance.  Examples abound. . .

As we have argued over the last several weeks, and as the eminent Charles Murray has noted in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, this national bifurcation has common roots with the culture wars.  The battles over sex, sexual liberty, contraception, abortion, the role and definition of family, and all sorts of other cultural issues over which liberals and conservatives have been fighting for some 40 years or more, turn out also to be critical variables in any serious and comprehensive model of the social breakdown and concomitant economic dislocation that has taken place over those four decades as well.

All of which is to say that you cannot have a serious debate in this country about matters such as income inequality or the rise of a “new elite” or the “death” of the middle class without tackling as well the issues of the sexual revolution, sexual license, increased out-of-wedlock birth, the disintegration of the traditional family, and the cumulative impact of single-parenting on children’s prospects for overcoming poverty and achieving economic success.

Enter Rick Santorum. [The victor in the Iowa Caucuses and the leader in the GOP polls]

We would argue that Rick Santorum’s current position in the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest is not merely a case of him being the last Non-Romney.  We would argue that it’s not really about his purported populist skill either.  Most especially, we would argue that all of the commentators and critics who have declared that Santorum remains involved in this contest in spite of rather than because of his positions on cultural issues, and specifically issues related to sex, family, and birth control, have it precisely backwards.  Rick Santorum, culture warrior, is in this race because he is, in fact, Rick Santorum, culture warrior. . .

When it comes to the sources of many of the nation’s socio-economic struggles, there can be little question that Rick Santorum understands far better than most politicians what has and has not hurt poor and working-class men and especially women and children. The collapse of marriage and the family as the core social bonds, the increase in single-motherhood and related increases in childhood poverty, the upsurge in fatherless children all play a role in the social dislocation that characterizes the bifurcated nation.  All are related to some degree or another to the political and cultural changes unleashed upon the nation by the leftist cultural warriors of the 1960s.  And only Rick Santorum among presidential candidates is ready, willing, and able to discuss these matters.

What this means, we think, is that Rick Santorum is a harbinger.  He is not the retrograde holdover the left and the mainstream press want us to believe he is.  Instead, he is likely the herald of a new era in social conservative political activism.  Libertarianism is all good and well, we think, but there are other issues on the minds of the masses than just the size and scope of government.

Now, we know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking we’ve lost it.  Again.  You’re thinking that Rick Santorum was IN this race, up until Iowa, after which he dropped out, having received less support for the GOP nomination than native-Iowan Mark Melcher did.  Moreover, Santorum’s predecessor as the voice of religious Right – and his predecessor as the victor in the Iowa Caucuses – Mike Huckabee, was ALSO in this race up until Iowa and ALSO quit after receiving almost no votes.  The Christian Conservatives are done, fini, kaput; their power is gone.  And those that still have any sway in politics have thrown their support behind Ted Cruz, and he finished THIRD this past weekend in a state in which “values voters” always dominate the voting.

Worse still, while the holy rollers like Cruz, Santorum, and Huckabee are struggling, the guy who is winning – and who is increasingly looking like the next President of the United States – is, by most accounts something of a moral degenerate.  He is on his third marriage and has openly admitted that he cheated on previous wives.  He made most of his money on gambling.  He is unabashedly greedy and has used the power of the state to hurt the poor and to make him richer.  “Trump is,” as the notoriously leftist and derivative Gary Trudeau put it in his Sunday comic strip, stealing a bit from Jimmy Kimmel, “the living embodiment of the seven deadly sins.”  This whole thing is nuts!

Well . . . maybe it is nuts.  Maybe we’re nuts.  But if you look again at the bit quoted above, you’ll see something other than our expectation that social conservatism will rise again.  You’ll see that we predicted that the bifurcation of the nation will make the issues addressed by social conservatism substantially more important, the posturing of actual social conservatives notwithstanding.  And that’s precisely what’s happened.

In that 2012 piece, we noted that the bifurcation of the nation had its roots in the culture wars and had taken the form described by the great Charles Murray in his then-new book Coming Apart:  The State of White America 1960-2010.  “The battles over sex, sexual liberty, contraception, abortion, the role and definition of family, and all sorts of other cultural issues over which liberals and conservatives have been fighting for some 40 years or more,” we wrote, “turn out also to be critical variables in any serious and comprehensive model of the social breakdown and concomitant economic dislocation that has taken place over those four decades as well.”

What this means is that the points made by the social conservatives for decades about the state and its influence, about the sexual revolution, and about the collapse of the traditional family, were proving accurate.  The people of white, working-class and lower-middle-class America – the residents of “Fishtown” in Murray’s parlance – were suffering because of the cultural changes initiated in the 1960s.  While the elites who advocated change managed to hang onto their traditional values – education, religion, marriage, and two-parent families – the masses for whom change was advocated suffered.

They had sex, early and often.  They had kids, early and often.  They quit going to church.  They got divorced.  They raised more and more kids in single-family homes and therefore in poverty.  They saw the sources of their economic well-being shipped overseas, even as they had no forethought about the consequences of their own actions.  By the late 1990s and early 2000s, they had been crushed and left for dead by the state and its elites who promised them “liberation” and the end of religious tyranny.  They needed help desperately, and eventually they would find that help in the form of a political champion, a demagogue who would address them and their problems directly.

Enter Donald Trump.

Countless political analysts – ourselves included – have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last few months trying to explain the Trump phenomenon by looking at his supporters.  And while those supporters vary greatly in age, education-level, income, etc., the core of his constituency is and always has been the very same white working class that Charles Murray identified as the victims of the liberal social revolution.  Known alternatively as the “Scots-Irish” or the “Jacksonians,” this group has swayed this nation’s elections almost from the start, but has been abandoned of late by both parties, and especially the Democrats.

In December, we argued that Trump’s overwhelming and indestructible support among the Jacksonian white working class is one of his chief advantages over Hillary Clinton, who has squandered their support and helped alienate them thoroughly.  The white working class put her husband in the White House and kept him there four years later – just as they had done for other Democrats for most of the nation’s history.  Now, however, the Jacksonians are riled up and they’re riled up specifically at people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  And they’ve found their champion in Donald Trump.  Last month, the inimitable Walter Russell Mead buttressed our thoughts, putting it far more explicitly.  To wit:

What we are seeing in American politics today is a Jacksonian surge.  It is not yet a revolution on the scale of Old Hickory’s movement that transformed American politics for a generation. . .

Donald Trump, for now, is serving as a kind of blank screen on which Jacksonians project their hopes.  Proposing himself as a strong leader who ‘gets’ America but is above party, Trump appeals to Jacksonian ideas about leadership.  Trump’s Jacksonian appeal has left the Republican Party in deep disarray, demonstrating the gulf between contemporary conservative ideology and Jacksonian nationalism.  Indeed, one of the reasons that Trump hasn’t been hurt by attacks that highlight his lack of long term commitment to the boilerplate conservative agenda (either in the social or economic conservative variant) is that Jacksonian voters are less dogmatic and less conservative than some of their would-be political representatives care to acknowledge.  Jacksonians like Social Security and Medicare much more than most Republican intellectuals, and they like immigration and free trade much less.

Whatever happens to the Trump candidacy, it now seems clear that Jacksonian America is rousing itself to fight for its identity, its culture and its primacy in a country that it believes it should own.  Its cultural values have been traduced, its economic interests disregarded, and its future as the center of gravity of American political life is under attack. . .

The biggest story in American politics today is this: Andrew Jackson is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore.

The only correction we’d make here is that Jackson and his contemporary heirs aren’t really “mad as hell.”  Indeed, we don’t think they’re mad at all.  It has, of course, become something of a truism among political commentators that Trump and his voters are “angry,” that they’re just so ticked off at everyone and everything associated with the status quo that they’re willing to burn the whole system down and start again.  We don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Indeed, we think that Trump’s voters are far more desperate than they are angry.  They don’t want to burn the system down because they’re ticked off.  They want to burn it down because it has failed them miserably.  It helped create their problems and then left them to suffer.  They’re desperate and they don’t know where else to turn, except to the one man who promises to help them and to “make America great again.”

Late last week, USA Today published an op-ed piece by a man named J.D. Vance, who is a contributor to National Review and the author of the new book Hillbilly Elegy.  Vance is a former Marine and a former supporter of Donald Trump.  He is also a member of the white working-class, the demographic to whom Trump appeals most and which is in the throes of a deep and relentless crisis.  Indeed, Vance’s book is subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”  In USA Today, Vance wrote thusly:

The presidential debate that evening pitted Trump against nearly a dozen would-be nominees, with donor favorite Jeb Bush taking a prominent position on stage.  Though I hadn’t chosen a candidate, I liked Bush: a conservative problem solver, a good governor and a man of first-class intellect.  I had even briefly considered working for the former Florida governor.  But during an exchange about former president George W. Bush, Jeb said something that made me want to scream: “As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure:  He kept us safe.”

My anger sprang, not from a difference over policy, but from somewhere more primal.  I wanted, as Walt Whitman might say, to sound my “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  Whatever I thought about Jeb’s education plan or record as governor, he had touched a raw cultural nerve.  His defense of his brother ignored and insulted the experiences of people like me, and he was proud of it.

In an instant, I became Trump’s biggest fan.  I wanted him to go for the jugular.  I wanted him to inquire whom, precisely, George W. Bush had kept safe.  Was it the veterans lingering in a bureaucratic quagmire at the Department of Veterans Affairs or the victims of 9/11?  Was it the enlistees from my block back home, who signed their lives on the dotted line while Jeb’s brother told the country to “go shopping” — something kids like me couldn’t afford to do?

Though Trump held his fire in the debate, he lit into George W. Bush on social media and in interviews afterwards.  Other candidates defended the former president.  They, too, failed to understand Trump’s appeal, how something so offensive to their political palate could be cathartic for millions of their own voters.

It is no coincidence, we suppose, that in this Vance sounds almost exactly like Jim Webb, the former Senator, former Secretary of the Navy, former combat Marine, and former Democratic presidential candidate, who literally wrote the book (Born Fighting) on the Scots-Irish contributions to American culture and especially its military.   Webb too resented George W. Bush’s military adventurism, the role that the political elites played it enabling it, and the damage that was done to the Scots-Irish community as a result.  In any case, Vance continued:

I quickly realized that Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd.  But as a Marine Corps veteran who grew up in a struggling Rust Belt town, I understand why many adore him — why I, if only briefly, cheered him on.  He tells America’s rich and powerful precisely what we wish we could tell them ourselves: that many of the things they view as accomplishments suck for people like us.

What unites Trump’s voters is a sense of alienation from America’s wealthy and powerful. . .

This alienation separates Trump’s voters from the constituency of another firebrand insurgent, Ted Cruz.  Cruz draws from married votersevangelical Christiansthe elderly and those who identify as “very conservative.”  These folks might be angry about the political process, but their anger is ideological and their lives — filled with family and church — are fundamentally intact.

Trump’s voters, instead, wear an almost existential sense of betrayal.  He relies on unmarried voters, individuals who rarely attend church services and those without much higher education.  Many of these Trump voters have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and myriad social benefits that come with it.  Their marriages have failed, and their families have fractured.  The factories that moved overseas used to provide not just high-paying jobs, but also a sense of purpose and community.  Their kids (and themselves) might be more likely to die from a heroin overdose than any other group in the country.

Cruz’s voters dislike Jeb Bush because he has strayed from conservative orthodoxy.  Trump’s voters loathe Jeb Bush because their lives are falling apart, and they blame people like him.

As a general rule, political elites – in both parties and across ideological lines – tend to frown upon social conservatives.  They think of them as moral scolds, party-poopers, religious nuts who want to impose their beliefs on others.  Indeed, the Left has taken to calling socially conservative politicians “Christianists,” suggesting a resemblance in beliefs and tactics to the Islamists who demand blind and absolute faith in religious values and who seek to build society’s legal code around their moral code.  In fact, though, nothing could be further from the truth.  Social conservatives don’t advocate morality in public life because they get their kicks from preventing others from getting theirs, but because they wish to avoid the social and cultural devastation that inevitably follows the abandonment of religion and traditional values.  Rick Santorum doesn’t want to restrict internet pornography because he thinks it’s icky.  He wants to restrict it because he knows the effects that it can have on families, relationships, marriages, and, in turn, on society more broadly.  And while he may be mistaken in his belief that the public policy process is the best means by which to address this issue, his concern is hardly that of a prude dead set on imposing his prudishness on others.

The general patterns of cause and effect in all of this are well known and backed up by myriad data.  Religion has an effect on relationships, longevity, and stability.  Relationship stability has a profound effect on the incidence of two-parent households.  Two-parent households have an undeniable effect on the physical, mental, emotional, and financial well-being of children.  The well-being of children has an effect on their ability to avoid social pitfalls and to mature into responsible adulthood.  Mature adulthood has an effect on career and family prospects.  Career and family prospects have an effect on relationships and religious beliefs.  Etc., etc., ad infinitum.

All of this has been well documented in minority populations for decades.  Blacks were the first to be devastated by the growth of the state, its pernicious welfare, and then the collapse of the family, religion, and, in turn, economic prospects.  Hispanics were next.  And now, working-class whites have nearly caught up, suffering first the same collapse in family life and then the collapse in economic prospects.  And now they’re desperate.

We’re not the only ones to have noticed all of this and to have made the connection.  Indeed, in response to J.D. Vance’s piece, Rod Dreher penned a piece for The American Conservative that he called “Trump:  Fishtown’s Revenge Against Belmont.”  We don’t know that we’d go so far as to say it’s Fishtown’s “revenge,” but we take his point.  Someone eventually had to hear Fishtown’s cries of desperation.  That it was Donald Trump is somewhat surprising but also mostly irrelevant.  For whatever reason, Trump has managed to transcend his own cultural limitations, and in so doing, has become a hero and a rescuer to the people of Fishtown and a real and serious threat to the residents of Belmont.  He is the man who has given the white working class real hope for the first time in a long time.  And for that they will remain loyal to the end.

What that end will be is anyone’s guess, of course.  Trump may well be elected president.  If he is able to translate his empathy for the plight of the white working class into a similar connection with and understanding of the plights of other unhappy and dispossessed groups, then he will be unstoppable.  If, for example, he is able to convince blacks that he understands their plight and the “establishment’s” role in it, then he will defeat any possible Democratic candidate in a landslide.  We’re not sure how it happened or why it manifested itself only now, but Trump’s political skillfulness is a wonder to behold, a phenomenon that has repeatedly defied conventional political analysis and prognostication.  It would be foolish, we think, to assume that this skillfulness will suddenly vanish over the course of the next few weeks or months.

As for the likelihood that he will be able help the white working class, or even the black and Hispanic working classes, we have our doubts.  If Trump should be elected, he will go to Washington and begin to reverse the policies that he and his supporters believe have caused their problems.  He will try to limit free trade, especially with China.  He will attempt to halt immigration.  He will do whatever he thinks is necessary to roll back the economic damage done to the working classes.  What he won’t do is make any attempt at all to address the CULTURAL damage that has been done to them and which is unquestionably the precursor to the economic damage.

Thrice married, four-times-bankrupted, and morally free-wheeling, Donald Trump doesn’t quite seem to grasp that his ability to overcome the mistakes of his past has everything to do with his class and nothing to do with him personally.  His kids survived his divorces not because he was an extraordinary father, but because he and they had resources available to them to which the working classes – and most of the middle class as well – simply do not have access.  He survived his poor choices in life because he is economically and culturally privileged.  His supporters are unable to do the same because they are not.  And no trade war with China is going to change that.

We suspect, therefore, that Donald Trump is Fishtown’s first political savior, but he won’t be the last.  His candidacy represents the importance of social and cultural issues, but neither he nor his handlers seem to recognize this fact.  Rick Santorum might recognize it.  Mike Huckabee might as well.  Heck, Ted Cruz might recognize it too.  But none of them speak to the consequent frustration and desperation as powerfully as Trump does.  His ignorance probably helps him in the electoral sense, but it will almost certainly hurt his most loyal supporters in a real sense.

Obviously, this isn’t the conservative revival the libertarians, constitutionalists, and reformers expected to see 2016.  But it is the conservative revival that we have.  More to the point, given the bifurcation of the country and the ongoing collapse of working and middle classes, it is the conservative revival we’re likely to have for some time.

Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.