“Hawley talks again and again about the importance of community and criticizes those on both sides of the political aisle who pay fealty to an individualism that puts the self-creating individual at the summit of what constitutes the good.“
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley is one of the the most interesting politicians in America today. Several of his speeches have laid out a vision of where conservatism in America might go in a post-Trump future, reflecting similar themes rising in Britain as well. Of course, there is no guarantee that this will go anywhere—or produce anything productive. However, the fact that Hawley even raises the issues he does in the face of entrenched interests reflects a broader realignment taking place in Anglo-American right-leaning politics. This alone makes him worth paying attention to.
Let us begin with what Hawley has said so far in three major speeches: his maiden Senate speech, his speech at the National Conservatism conference in Washington this past July, and his most recent speech at the American Principles Project (APP) Gala. Each gives voice to an evolving worldview that characterizes the changing conversation on the Right. In each of his speeches, Hawley strikes a populist stance, talking about the alienation and suffering of those in heartland states like his native Missouri. Talk of the inherent dignity of honest work features strongly, as well as the importance of steady and stable jobs for a functioning and flourishing society. Paying tribute to the common man and woman, Hawley spends more time praising those who work than create. While entrepreneurialism is important, the fact is that only around 8% qualify as such. It makes sense therefore to speak to those who make up the vast majority of the American population.
Paying tribute to the common man and woman, Hawley spends more time praising those who work than create.
Hawley talks again and again about the importance of community and criticizes those on both sides of the political aisle who pay fealty to an individualism that puts the self-creating individual at the summit of what constitutes the good. Hawley raises the British monk Pelagius as an exemplar of this worldview—as someone who thought that individual salvation could be gained entirely through one’s own efforts. In his APP speech, Hawley spoke of the Promethean idea, of the, “individual as creator, as self-creator, maker of meaning and author of reality, rather like Prometheus who in the ancient myth created all mankind. So call this view of the human person the ‘Promethean self.’” There is little focus in this worldview on the word “limits,” central to Christopher Lasch’s work.
By contrast, Hawley speaks of people who live mediated by time and place, in concert with others through whom they gain a sense of identity, self-respect, and belonging. As the British think tank Onward has shown, this politics of belonging is also popular in the United Kingdom, with more people in favor of security than freedom. This focus on community is derided by more libertarian-leaning conservatives as being too close to some sort of collectivism, crushing the life from rugged individuals who need to be utterly unshackled from the ties that bind to realize their full, self-creating potential. However, what David Hume called the “common life,” at its best, values the uniqueness of the individual, while supporting him or her through a web of connections and loyalties, oriented towards a shared sense of what the good life is—and built around shared loves. Community helps build and support strong individuals. No man is an island, and we are not born in a state of nature, isolated from all others until we enter into relationships based only on consent. We are social animals, born into a social order that shapes and cultivates the habits that comprise what Aristotle called our second nature, which rests atop our innate human nature. This allows the freedom to live a good life.
The relentless focus on negative freedom, “freedom from,” needs to be reigned in. As Hannah Arendt wrote in On the Origins of Totalitarianism, loneliness and isolation was a key factor in paving the way for Fascism and Communism to steamroll their way over so many millions of lives. While we are not facing the same situation today, Hawley’s focus on the unraveling of the social fabric that conservatives claim to care about is rarely expressed by someone in his position. The statistics he cites in his APP speech are chilling:
“Suicides in this country are at their highest level since 1938. Alcohol-related deaths the highest since the start of World War One. And drug overdoses are at the highest level ever recorded.
The numbers are even more startling for the young. The number of 15 to 24 year-olds committing suicide is greater than at any other time since the government began tracking the data over fifty years ago.
For girls and young women, suicides rates have doubled during the 21st century. Doubled. Taken altogether, nearly 36,000 American millennials died ‘deaths of despair’ in 2017 alone. There is now a death from drugs or alcohol or suicide every four minutes in this nation.”
These deaths are the hard edge of a loneliness crisis that is sweeping through America and the U.K. As J.D. Vance has said, it is hard to see how simply calling for greater personal responsibility on the part of those surrounded by this collapsing social environment will be sufficient to meet this crisis. This is where Hawley strays even further from the conservative reservation by linking economic and social conditions through a populist lens. Hawley, Vance, and others are not saying that economic ills explain all social ills, or even most. They simply make the point that economic conditions have an effect on how people live, and that political decisions play a bigger role in shaping the economy than some on the Right wish to admit. As Hawley says, “the Promethean ambition leaves us lost and unmoored. And the market worship and cultural deconstruction the Promethean vision has inspired have failed this country.”
Hawley cites the growing percentage of wealth controlled by the top 10% of American earners, as well as the stagnant wages for the working and middle classes since the early 1980’s, alongside increases for those at the top. Conservatives rightly caution against envy of success. And yet, as Matthew Goodwin shows in National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, relative deprivation is one factor in explaining why we’re experiencing the ructions across the West. Relative deprivation “encompasses strong fears among people that both they and their group are losing out relative to others in society, that a world of rising prosperity and upward social mobility has come to an end for them, and with it not just hope but also respect.”
It is not so much that people mind others getting rich, but they do start to mind if they lack a route to improving their own lives while those above them accelerate away into the stratosphere on a fiscal rocket built by the policies they enacted…
If one reflects even for a moment on the attitude shown to those below them by the bipartisan economic-cultural elite (what Joel Kotkin called the Clerisy), why are we even surprised that this is the case? It is not so much that people mind others getting rich, but they do start to mind if they lack a route to improving their own lives while those above them accelerate away into the stratosphere on a fiscal rocket built by the policies they enacted, while raining disdain down on those left behind partly as a result of those same policies. This is not a recipe for social harmony, something which conservatives should intuitively grasp, which Hawley at least shows signs of doing. His call to reweave the social fabric of civil society takes both social and economic factors into account, which is a welcome change from the divorce of these issues so often seen in conservative politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
This myth of Promethean man is arguably the Right’s version of blank slate politics. The Left sees man as infinitely malleable, with social change needed to re-make the human condition before heaven is realized on earth. However, as Jordan Peterson has observed, the Right’s emphasis on personal responsibility and individualism is its rendition of this worldview. The tale is that no matter one’s circumstances, one can always succeed by relying on one’s own resources—and that everyone is capable of rising to the top through their own merits. Of course, this emphasis on effort and hard work is admirable, as the Left’s vision of social forces can be defeatist and leave people feeling that their own abilities count for nothing at all.
And yet, we run into the problem of limits again. Just as Hawley considers this in domestic politics, he is equally willing to do so when it comes to American foreign policy. As with their elision of natural ability and temperament alongside environment at home, many conservatives have pushed a vision of the world that applies blank slate politics to foreign affairs. There still seems to be little acceptance that not everywhere is equally suitable for Jeffersonian democracy—and that culture and historical contingency matter to how societies develop. While there are certainly universal values, as shown by Donald Brown in Human Universals, these are not expressed the same way in all places, and they cannot be made to fit the same shape or take the same direction at all times. As Claes Ryn writes in A Common Human Ground, the universal striving to achieve a higher morality is expressed in particular ways and forms, which themselves point to the universal. Universality mediated and pointed to by the particular has been confused with uniformity of ideas and potential outcomes by some on the Anglo-American right. This is not a realistic or sustainable way to view the world or conduct foreign policy. The belief in abstract, universal dictums like “making the world safe for democracy” that so characterized the Right of the 2000’s took little account of these ideas that have long influenced conservative thought.
Even after Trump’s victory in the aftermath of the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it is disconcerting that so many on the American right still think military intervention everywhere, all the time and forever is a good idea. While this may be a slightly facetious exaggeration (and there are indeed competing streams within the Trump administration regarding foreign policy), Vice President Pence’s speech at West Point pointed to an extremely broad scope for American intervention abroad. Hawley seemingly adopts a different position, one that takes into consideration the reality of cultural difference and the inherent limitations this places upon America’s ability to reshape the world into a uniform mirror image of itself. He takes into account that, as Michael Anton writes, “form must always fit matter. ‘Matter’ in this sense is the actual country, the ‘facts on the ground’: the people, their language, traditions, customs, and religion(s); the topography, resources, and climate; the geographical site and situation, and relations with neighbors and other world powers. ‘Form’ is the regime, or mode of government, and above all the principles informing that mode.”
Hawley sums up his position neatly in his speech at the National Conservatism conference: “America is not going to become the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is not going to become America.” This fundamental vision of America’s role in the world suggests Hawley has clear priorities when it comes to foreign policy. Chief among these: Don’t launch wasteful and counterproductive wars in the Middle East and, instead, engage America’s closest geo-political rival, China, with a greater degree of commitment than has been seen up to now.
Whether Hawley and his ideological fellows can nudge the Republican party and the American conservative movement in this direction on foreign and domestic policy remains to be seen. Given the nature of political institutions, any change will take a long time. Even so, the fact that he and others like him are talking in this way is itself encouraging. As Edmund Burke wrote, “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” As much as this applies to states, it also applies to ideas, and this change to conservatism is what Hawley appears to be engaging in.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.