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Populism Has a Responsibility Problem

Tucker Carlson's populist manifesto would push conservatism into the same side as liberalism in its belief that people can't be responsible for themselves.
January 21, 2019
Populism Has a Responsibility Problem
(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Tucker Carlson’s now-famous monologue, in which he made the case for a post-Trumpian populism, has accomplished something no TV news show has done in a generation: Ignite a serious debate about ideas. No small feat, that.

Carlson’s on-air treatise was met with thoughtful support from some on the right and pointed attacks from others. The most serious criticisms of Carlson’s presentation have tended to focus on personal responsibility and the degree to which individuals with agency have contributed to their own unhappy condition, because this represents a flashpoint in conservative thought. During the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives tended to believe that the misery present in the inner-cities was caused, in the main, by government social welfare programs which unintentionally perpetuated family disintegration and poverty. The conservative prescription tended to be less government and more individual responsibility.

Now, looking at the misfortunes of white, male, working-class voters the populist analysis blames not government programs, but private-sector elites who, along with a corrupt and feckless political class, have created and perpetuated this impoverishment.

The villains have changed but the diagnosis is the same: Whether one considers the plight of inner-city blacks in the 1980s or rural whites in the 2010s, some conservatives now believe that the self-motivated actions of slippery elites created the crisis.

This interpretation is dangerous.

Ultimately, it is a view that relies on infantilization and denies people agency in their own lives. When Americans are told by populists that they are not responsible for their own conditions, Wall Street financiers and elites and Mexicans and the Chinese are, the very real causes of their problems are obscured. And the simple fact is that there are larger forces at play and these forces have little to do with elite humans and everything to do with the rapid pace of technological change. The shadowy forces making life difficult for working-class whites are real. They include the internet, robotics, the mobile revolution, the globalization of capital, increased mobility of labor, and advances in shipping. And the truth is, these changes are much more challenging to manage than a shadowy cabal of elites would be.

Because if the elites were the problem, then you could disintermediate them and replace them with wiser actors. You cannot put technological and economic genies back in the bottle. Ignoring the real causes because they are more implacable does no one any favors. Worst of all, it assumes that the objects of these forces are too unsophisticated to understand what is really happening to them, and why.

Politicians on the right and left have tried to capitalized on this perceived immaturity—that’s why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won nearly half of all the primary votes cast in 2016. One of the interesting exercises with Carlson’s brief is reading it as if you were a liberal populist and trying to figure out where the points of disagreement might be.

Which leads us to another danger. Beginning in with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (or FDR’s New Deal, depending on how hard-core you are), America’s political parties took divergent paths on the question of personal responsibility. Democrats looked at an increasingly complicated world and decided that individuals were ill-equipped to navigate it on their own. Their response was to create a welfare state designed to help relieve people of the burden of misfortunes or bad outcomes. Republicans looked at this world and, while accommodating themselves to the idea of social safety net, attempted to slow its growth.

Because ultimately, the question of personal responsibility is a question about the proper size of government. Which is why, for all the complications and caveats, for two generations it was not incorrect to see Democrats as the party of bigger government and Republicans as the party of smaller government. And this tension is what defined the progress of the American system.

All of which means that a populist pivot on the Republican side puts the party functionally on the same side as Democrats on the question of personal responsibility and therefore, on the question of bigger government.

There is a foreign policy component to the populist pivot, too. Carlson makes a case against what he sees as a Republican duty to prosecute “ever more foreign wars.” As with personal responsibility, this view would put Republicans on the same side as Democrats.

But the duality of the foreign policy question is this: Over the past 40 years of mostly-interventionist foreign policy, far fewer Americans have died in combat around the world than in the previous 40. What is seen by the populists as wasteful applications of American military power could just as easily be viewed as the table stakes of world leadership. And this leadership position has worked to the benefit of most Americans.

Here, too, you can view the divide as a question about responsibility: The responsibility of the world’s dominant power actively seeking to protect and sustain its influence, security, and prosperity. The populists say that America need not shoulder such burdens. Classic conservatives would argue that they should, for both moral and practical reasons.

It is often noted that most Americans under the age of 40 have experienced some state for war for most of their lives. What is rarely discussed is the kind of war to which they have not been exposed: The horror of great power war. And it was these multi-state, total wars which gave birth to the modern liberal international order—an order that has served America’s security and economic needs superbly. Leadership of this order has always required additional U.S. responsibility. We would undercut this order at our collective peril.

These parallel evasions of responsibility, on the personal level for the choices one makes that contribute to economic hardship or addiction, and on the international level for the requirements that attend to world leadership, are dangerous aspects of America’s emergent populism.

A politics that seeks to aid and abet these evasions will result in a poorer and less secure nation.

Bryan McGrath

Bryan McGrath is the deputy director of the Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower and the managing director of The FerryBridge Group LLC.