American Compass did a podcast with JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy and Chris Arnade, author of Dignity, discussing my piece on the Left's deadly sins along with its companion piece by Henry Olsen on the deadly sins of the right. It's really quite good and I strongly recommend it. By no means do I agree with all of what Vance and Arnade have to say about my article and Olsen's but I did find their remarks thoughtful and stimulating. I think you will too.
There is a partial transcript as well as the audio.
The way I see the difference between the Left and Right is encompassed by the two different books that J.D. and I wrote, or at least the cartoonish criticism of our books. People would look at J.D.’s book [Hillbilly Elegy] and say, “It embraces the Right because it gives the poor people, especially, too much agency. They’re responsible for their mistakes.” Then they look at my book [Dignity] and they say, “Well, you deny agency. You make everybody a victim who isn’t responsible for their own fault.”
I think that is what filters down to voters politically: “The Right blames me for my problems, and the Left treats me like a kid and says I’m not responsible for any of my behavior.” More and more since writing the book, that’s how I see the political camps being divided, is how they treat poor people or how they treat the voters. Do they treat them like children that have to be condescended to, who have no agency and are just victims of our elite problems who need to be helped? Or are they people who are weak and need to just buck up and work harder?
That’s interesting. If you think about where a lot of the mainstream economic policy on the Left has been then, as you said, it’s in some ways indecipherable from the mainstream Right-of-center economic policy. And then part of Teixeira’s point is that when you look at what reformers on the Left advocate, they are not reformers in the direction of actually solving the problems that a lot of people would describe. They are reformers in a different and more radical and less responsive direction.
Chris, do you feel as you look across both parties is there anywhere that you’d say that someone’s getting it right, and they really do have a finger on the pulse of either understanding what people feel like are the most serious problems or having an agenda that might address them effectively?
I’ll get yelled at for this, but I think to some degree, Trump did early on in late ’15, early ’16, in the early larval stage of his candidacy. I always say that I still think the missing quadrant is the economically liberal, socially conservative quadrant. Trump got pushed there by being anti-Jeb. He was running against the DC consensus, which pushed him that direction. Sanders gets there at times, on economics.
My biggest criticism of both the Left and Right, and the essays got at this in some sense, is I just don’t think the political donor base of either party knows the people they’re advocating for. Let’s take the Left’s idea of identity politics. What frustrates me about the whole conversation is that I think most Americans of all races support the broad goals of identity politics. They support the strategy, not the tactics, meaning the way that it’s framed, the militant, aggressive language that is used. Most people I’ve met across America are pretty open-minded and understanding and can get there, given the time. The problem is the framework feels like it’s being pushed on them in a condescending manner that causes a reaction to push back.
The broad public is a lot more tolerant than it’s given credit for, but the politics doesn’t understand that. The Left talks down to people. All these conversations feel like grad school seminars, arguing about people who aren’t there. I think the sins of both parties are reflective of that. The Left talks down to people, and the Right just tells them to do better.
J.D., jump in on the point about the parties not understanding who they’re advocating for. You’ve highlighted the difference between what Trump ran on and how he then governed and is now running. What happened? How do you explain the forces on the right-of-center that have been at play here?
The problem that the Trump administration has revealed on the Right is not that Republican voters are bad or unwilling to think about new solutions to problems. It’s certainly not, as the Left likes to say, that Republican voters are racist. It’s interesting that the identity politics point that Teixeira makes, a lot of Republican voters would make too, but then it would be called “racial resentment” by certain academics in our country.
The problem on the Right is that you have an existing institutional infrastructure that just doesn’t know how to govern outside of a very narrow set of policies, which primarily benefit the donor class. What Chris said about the donors on both the Left and the Right is exactly right and what you have because of it is this perception, I think in large measure a reality, of a uni-party that governs culturally a little bit to the left of the American people and economically very much to the right of the American people. And it just seems to go on no matter who wins, no matter who’s in charge. Even when a guy like Donald Trump runs against that consensus, his policy-making apparatus gets caught in the wheels of the machine.