There’s not much to say about the Democratic debate Wednesday. Nothing happened to transform the race. Joe Biden’s inevitable gaffe was perhaps more cringe-inducing than normal, and Elizabeth Warren’s extravagant promises about the power of her wealth tax should have induced eye-rolls across the country. Amy Klobuchar was sharp enough to make people wonder why she can’t seem to gain traction. To the extent that any moment might matter, it’s this exchange between Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg:
I hear Democrats ask, “Who can go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump on the debate stage?” The scrap between Tulsi and Mayor Pete was minor, in a much less consequential moment, but it does provide a small data point—Buttigieg can counterpunch.
But that’s not the focus of this newsletter. I’ve got two items today, one brief and one much longer:
What the ‘Russia Hoax’ is and is not.
The GOP’s common-good capitalists have the correct diagnosis and the wrong remedy.
Understanding the true dimensions of the “Russia hoax.”
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and a Russia expert, is testifying in the House impeachment inquiry today, and there’s one section of her opening statement that stood out:
Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.
The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.
It’s worth pausing for just a moment on this testimony. The phrase “Russia hoax” has become so ingrained in partisan Republican minds that I fear many people are now rewriting history. They’re not just whitewashing Trump campaign activities, they’re whitewashing Russian culpability. So, if we’re stuck with using the word “hoax,” let’s break this down as simply as possible.
Not a hoax—Russia actively intervened in the American election to attempt to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton.
Hoax—Russia “hacked the election” or otherwise actively made Donald Trump president. There is no evidence that Russians hacked voting machines to change results, and there is simply no way to know if the Wikileaks dumps or other active measures influenced a decisive number of voters.
Hoax—Donald Trump is a Russian asset who actively cooperated with Russian intelligence in his bid to defeat Hillary. The Steele dossier is a noxious document that poisoned American politics. The Clinton campaign should be ashamed for its role in producing and disseminating its wild claims.
I’ve seen partisan Republicans denigrate any claim that Trump’s team made contact with Russians or Russian assets. I’ve even seen them denigrate the very idea of Russian interference. I’ve seen Trump himself do that. They’re wrong.
Yet I’ve also seen too many Democrats cling to the Steele narrative. It’s been debunked. There is no evidence of clandestine meetings in Prague. There is no evidence of “kompromat.” The sooner both partisan sides can grapple with the uncomfortable truths of 2016, the better.
It’s hard for a politician to be a prophet.
If you follow conservative media at all, you’re keenly aware that Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley have been out front in attempting to chart a new ideological course for the GOP. Rubio has drawn on Catholic social teaching to call for “common-good capitalism.” Hawley in a recent speech called for a “new politics of family and neighborhood—a new politics of love and belonging—a new politics of home.”
While the precise contours of the “new politics” are largely undefined, it philosophically retreats from both the free market and individual responsibility—two bedrock elements of small-government conservatism. For example, Hawley mocks “market worship” and says this about personal responsibility:
And where does this leave those without power or money? On their own.
If you’re a worker with a high school degree in the urban core who can’t get a good job, you’re told it’s your fault and you should work harder, get more education, stop being lazy.
If you’re a farmer or working a trade in the middle of the country and can’t support your family on what you bring home, you’re told you should move, that smart people live in cities, and you should have made better life choices.
It’s no wonder so many Americans feel so unappreciated and unheard.
Common-good capitalism also means recognizing that what the market determines is most efficient may not be best for America.
We must remember that our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market; the market exists to serve our nation. And the most effective benefit the market can provide is the creation of dignified work.
Before I critique Rubio and Hawley, let me offer a word or two of unreserved praise. They are exactly right to highlight the American crisis of deaths of despair, they are exactly right to highlight the indispensable role of American families in American culture, and they are spot-on when they decry the breakdown of institutions—from churches to sports leagues to civic institutions—that have long formed the bedrock of American communities and provided countless Americans with invaluable meaning, purpose, and fellowship.
Moreover, to the extent they endorse greater respect for federalism—the return of power to states and local governments—to a politics that is truly more local, a politics of your town and neighborhood, I stand with them. But in practice, their policies all too often pull more power to the federal government and place more authority in the hands of federal bureaucracies. Hawley’s social-media reform proposals would grant federal control over the design and operation of the social media apps on your phone. His social media political speech proposals would place a government commission in charge of regulating a vast amount of core political speech online.
Moreover, they’re just wrong to claim that America is in the midst of “market worship,” and to embrace a new national politics that rests on faith in the federal government to this time be able to properly influence and direct the world’s largest and most complex economy to not only spur economic growth, but growth in the right places, targeted exactly at the right people is to ignore decades of recent American history.
In fact, whenever I hear the phrase “market worship,” it’s hard for me to take the critique seriously. To track the last century (especially the last half-century) is to track the extraordinary growth of government intervention in the economy. At all levels of government, various kinds of economic activity have been regulated, licensed, incentivized, and protected.
Hawley is worried about family farms? Excellent. He joins a long, long line of politicians who’ve been using the levers of power to try to prop up American farming for decades.
Rubio is concerned about American manufacturing? Fantastic. Politicians have been intervening in the economy to protect manufacturing my entire adult life.
In fact, one of the central economic insights of modern conservatism is that technocratic interventions—typically undertaken by the brightest of people with the best of intentions—often don’t work and are frequently counterproductive.
Let’s take a previous generation’s consensus view of “common-good capitalism.” If you rewind the American clock a short 15 years, you’d find a remarkable public/private consensus that home ownership was a key to achieving the American dream. The purchase of an appreciating asset like a home increases family stability and provides families with a real sense of home and place. The real estate bubble that resulted wasn’t just the result of Wall Street run amok, it was the result of a witch’s brew of misguided public policy, corporate greed, and—yes—personal overreach.
In the last half-century Republican presidents have implemented wage-and-price controls, imposed tariffs, and transferred billions of dollars to farmers to keep American farming afloat. At the state and local level Republican governors and legislatures have shoveled public dollars at large corporations to induce them to relocate and build in Red America. America is simply awash in efforts at “common-good capitalism,” and it’s still not adequately addressing the (very real) problems that Rubio and Hawley identify.
Market worship? Hardly. The conservative movement has only been able to tap the brakes on a generations of broad-based bipartisan, technocratic efforts at market intervention. Americans enjoy less economic freedom than Canadians, Brits, Australians, the Swiss, and citizens of seven other developed nations across the world. Now, with Rubio, Hawley, and many others calling for more technocracy, I’m starting to wonder if “nationalism” is simply how the GOP spells “progressivism.”
The conservative argument, by contrast, should be that more market freedom—not less—is the real “common-good capitalism.” Our technocrats simply aren’t wise enough, bright enough, and agile enough to command a national economy for the common good. In fact, as recent history demonstrates, they’ll often harm the very communities they seek to protect. Rubio and Hawley decry elitism and oligarchies, but increasing federal control over the American economy further empowers the elite. It by necessity entails rule by the few. Again, just look at Hawley’s social media proposals. A small, powerful governmental elite regulates the user experience of hundreds of millions.
Moreover, any brand of Republican politics that actively denigrates the role of personal responsibility in economic outcomes will ultimately do more harm than good. Look, I get it. Politicians can’t speak honestly about their own constituencies and remain politicians for long. The plight of their communities ultimately has to be someone else’s fault. Politicians can make excellent populists. They are terrible prophets.
And so they spin out fictions—lionizing the American worker in spite of the fact that (truth be told) the American worker (with an assist from the American managerial class) contributed to the decline of American manufacturing. There was a reason why so many American families bought Hondas and Toyotas in the 1980s, and it wasn’t just because of price. Hondas and Toyotas worked, and American cars for a long time were substantially more unreliable.
We spin out more fictions—that the economy has left hard-working Americans behind, in spite of the fact that truly hard-working Americans still enjoy an immense amount of economic opportunity. Is it too much to ask a person to seek an education or learn a trade? Our economy still rewards industry. It still rewards effort.
Why is the American upper-middle-class growing so robustly? It’s largely because the very people that GOP populists deride as the “elite” or part of the meritocratic oligarchy worked very hard, for a very long time, and are now faithful spouses, loving parents, and productive employees.
Ask any person who employs blue-collar workers, do you have too many workers who show up on time every day, work hard, and are willing to work overtime? Or not enough? The answer is almost always “not enough.”
I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, not far from Appalachia. I have seen the transformative power of economic opportunity—my hometown is a substantially different place in large part because of an immense Toyota plant located not far from my childhood home. I’ve also seen countless government interventions and countless efforts at economic development turn to ash. When a man can’t routinely pass a drug test, there is no economy any technocrat can create than will give him the life he wants.
The American system depends on reciprocal responsibilities. Yes, the government has a responsibility to its citizens. It must protect their liberty. Without violating their liberties, it should enact policies designed to advance the common good—yet with an extreme degree of humility and recognition that technocrats have failed before and will fail again. But the citizen has responsibilities to himself, his family, and his community. And that includes obligations to be faithful to a spouse, diligent in work, and resilient in the face of adversity.
Our cultural and spiritual malaise requires a cultural and spiritual renewal, and while our politicians can, on the margins, enact policies that nudge our culture in the right direction, they must not overpromise, they should not tell false tales about the recent past, and they should not divert a person’s gaze from the individual who is still (in the vast majority of circumstances) most responsible for the success or failure of his personal, familial, and economic aspirations—the man in the mirror.
One last thing . . .
This isn’t from the Grizzlies, and it’s not the GOAT, but this is still pretty darn fantastic (NBA bench reactions are the best, by the way). Enjoy: