Government Of, By, and For the Elite

The authors of “Dignity” and “Hillbilly Elegy” reflect on Ruy Teixeira and Henry Olsen’s essays, describe the dynamics that lead to a politics disconnected from the economic and cultural mainstream, and identify possible glimmers of hope

This conversation is excerpted from an episode of the American Compass podcast, which you can listen to in full. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Oren Cass:

I’d love to start just with some general reactions from both of you to what Henry Olsen and Ruy Teixeira had wrote. What if anything jumped out as a particularly vital point or something that you think really missed what’s going on in the country?

J.D. Vance:

I had a couple of reactions. One, I feel like a lot of the left-right debates that we have these days fall into this very post-war presumption that America’s the leader of the world economic order. Teixeira’s essay touched on this when he talked about progressives feeling resistant to the importance of growth. Our politics operates from this common presumption that America has been and will be the dominant economic power, that growth happens automatically, and the real question of our politics is how to distribute it. On the Right, the market fundamentalists versus people like me maybe argue a little bit about that question. On the Left people argue about how to spend the money.

But there is a really important question that has informed most of world history, certainly most of American history, which is: how do we actually continue to grow and stay on top economically? It’s one thing to distribute the money. It’s something else entirely to ensure that the country’s actually making things, that it’s building real prosperity, that you can actually sustain work and community institutions on the backs of that prosperity. That strikes me as what was missing from both essays, just this concept that you’ve actually got to have a real economy. I think in a lot of ways, America has had an increasingly not-real economy over the past 30 or 40 years.

The other thing that I reacted to it in Henry’s essay, which I largely agree with, is that there’s a fundamental political-power equation that’s missing from a lot of these conversations on the Right. You talk about the market fundamentalists versus the American Compass types and you have all of these internal debates that are really about economic policy and what should we be doing. We should be mindful of the fact that power exists and it exists disproportionately in various communities. Right now American conservatives don’t have a lot of power. That seems weird to say, of course, because we have the presidency and we have one of the branches of Congress. But the cultural and financial institutions of this country, the media, Wall Street, the academy, they are all just deeply, deeply committed to the Left right now. And I think they’re likely to stay committed to the Left for a long time.

One way of talking about tax cuts, for example, is that they’re a bad economic policy solution to the real problems that we face. But another is that they’re a way of giving money to our enemies as conservatives. Do we really want to keep on fueling the people who are funding institutions, organizations, and ideas that we find abhorrent?

My answer to that is, obviously, no. So despite the fact that I don’t think tax cuts are great economic policy, I think they’re most stupid because they’re empowering our political enemies and we should stop doing that.

Oren Cass:

Chris, what about you? What stood out?

Chris Arnade:

What struck me coming the from Left, or when I think about the voters I talk to, they’re mostly people who don’t vote. I don’t see a big difference or they don’t see a big difference between the Left and Right. So what missed for me on the criticism from the Left was this idea that the Left was anti-growth, where that just doesn’t mesh with what I see—at least as to the powerful Left. They might be thinking of Bernie Sanders. But at least for the people who I know, Clinton or Biden or Obama isn’t any different than Jeb Bush. So these differences don’t filter down to the point where they can say they see the Left as being anti-growth.

They see the Left as being just as globalist. So which one of these do I want? Do I want one who’s going to ship my jobs overseas that at the same time supports gay rights? Or do I want one that is going ship my jobs oversea that doesn’t support gay rights?

The criticism on the Right that struck me as the most relevant one, and the one that I think is the strongest, is the issue of free markets and what we’re going to do about them. J.D. is talking about our place in the world. I think most people, voters I know, feel like the elites of both parties have decided that our place in the world is immaterial and that our place in the world is a place that has companies that ship jobs to other places in the world. So I don’t know if most voters see that big a difference between the two, and the differences generally are more cultural than economic.

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?

Oren Cass:

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?

Chris Arnade:

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.

Oren Cass:

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?

J.D. Vance:

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.

Chris Arnade:

When I hear that, I think of Michael Lind’s book [The New Class War] talking about how populism basically fails because it doesn’t have people to staff it. The machine—I don’t want to use the term “deep state” because I don’t think that’s fair, but—our ruling bureaucracy embraces free markets and austerity and all those things that drove people toward Trump. The irony is, Trump is a politician who defines himself by what he’s against, and he was very fortunate to have Jeb Bush as his opposition in 2016, so that he could run against that consensus. Then the reality is, four years later, he ends up being basically a Jeb Bush conservative in how he legislates.

So if he loses, I think that’s why: He didn’t deliver; he didn’t fight the consensus, certainly not economically. I think that really matters. I want to keep emphasizing this because it’s just something that it’s really hard for me to communicate, how disinterested a lot of people are in this whole process because they don’t really see a difference. The only difference they see is cultural, and that’s why it’s very frustrating.

Oren Cass:

I like how you broaden it from just the donors to, for instance, the bureaucrats. The donors are by definition those with the most money, but there’s also those with the most political and cultural influence. What they all have in common, I suppose, is these various forms of power and typically higher incomes and then also higher levels of education. And that’s the group one might define as representing a uni-party, at least on economic issues.

Thinking about, “Well, what would one do about it, where is change going to come from?”, for me, there’s a real question of diagnosis. Is it that the folks making these decisions, and the political consultants and strategists and policy wonks as well, they’re just out of touch, and from their own perspective they are doing things that they think are right and happen to work well for them? Or is it that they are heavily self-interested and pursuing policies that benefit them, regardless of what that effect might be on the broader population?

Chris Arnade:

I think it’s both. What frustrates me is the Left is well-intended. I mean, these people come with good intentions. They really do think they are doing the right thing for people. Yet, consequently, it’s harder to try to explain to them that they’re actually harming things. It’s what I call an “intellectual colonialism.”

And that’s where the self-interested bubble comes from, because politics feeds them. If you live in northern Virginia or you live in Tacoma Park, Maryland, or you live in Short Hills, New Jersey, whose administration is in power is going to impact you. It’s going to change your income stream. And if a real outsider like Sanders or Trump comes into power, you’re going to lose money and your career’s going to suffer, probably.

So they are self-interested, but they’re also cut off. They’re self-interested and they don’t acknowledge it. They don’t understand the impact of their policies beyond what they see in a spreadsheet. There’s a big bureaucracy of people who don’t necessarily feel rich, but they are, and don’t necessarily feel like the status quo is feeding them, but it is. So it’s got this big inertia that I can’t see how it’s going to change.

J.D. Vance:

I think what’s driving a lot of this is a fundamental ignorance across the political spectrum of how the real economy works. Think about this from the perspective of well-educated professionals in 21st century America: What are their friends doing? Their friends are working at big law firms, they’re working at consulting firms, they’re working on Wall Street. The financialization of the modern economy, with more and more American GDP going into the financial and related sectors, has made people ignorant about what’s going on in the real economy that eventually filters up to financial rents.

Not enough people are talking about what kind of an economy do we actually want to exist for the large majority of people in the middle? There’s this sense in which if you go to high school and you don’t go to college, then you can maybe work in a dying manufacturing firm. You’re probably going to be making Subway subs or doing something else in the services sector, maybe cleaning houses. All honorable work, but not work where it’s especially easy to support a family. And if you really want people to be able to live the American dream, then what you need to do is get them to go to Harvard Business School and become software programmers at quant funds on Wall Street.

I’m being a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think there are a lot of people who actually understand the economy in those terms. And not enough people are thinking about this incredible, broad, middle-class prosperity engine that once existed. I just find it a little disturbing how much American policymakers focus on this question of how much do we distribute to the losers and not enough on how do we build an economy where there aren’t so many losers in the first place.

Chris Arnade:

I completely agree with that. I would add to that, service industry jobs are very different from manufacturing jobs, and I think the volatility that comes with service industry jobs is a problem.

I’ll also go back to my original point about agency–how do you view the losers?

The leftists will say, “Well, they’re victims of our economic policy we built, so let’s give them more stuff. Or let’s take them out of their environment and bring them here and make them us. Let’s turn them into bankers or let’s turn them into lawyers.” It’s what I call the intellectual strip-mining of the U.S. It’s very much a condescending attitude: “Let’s go out and take these people and educate them to become us.”

And then the Right just says, “Work harder. You can become an entrepreneur. When you’re working at Subway, you can figure out a way to make better Subway sandwiches, and then you can start your own chain of companies.”

To people who are just working at Subway, it’s like, “Okay, the Left is telling me I got to go get more education and move. And the Right’s telling me I got to basically start my own chain of Subways. I just want a decent income to raise a family.” I don’t think anybody’s addressing that middle approach.

Oren Cass:

I want to be sure we spend a few minutes being upbeat and solution-oriented. Chris may have already sold me down the river on that one, and J.D. might in a minute. But I will carry on.

There’s a story in which we say, “This is just late capitalism, decadent democracy, and the great American republic just fades into obscurity this way.” But here are two other stories:

One is about leaders who really do want to do the right thing. And just realizing some of these problems and, particularly in a democracy, realizing there might be more votes to be earned behaving differently, they might change.

Another story is what I would call “sustainable disruption,” along the lines of what we’ve started to see from a Sanders or a Trump, but not as a one-time occurrence, as a movement that builds over time and supplants what we have.

I’m curious if you find either of those plausible and, to the extent one might at least be more plausible than the other, whether it seems more plausible coming from the Left or from the Right, given all the sins of each.

J.D. Vance:

Well, I’m obviously biased here, but I’ll give my biased answer: I do think it’s most likely to come from the Right. The simple reason is that that’s where the natural political constituency for this stuff exists.  If you look at where the wealthiest congressional districts are headed, where the poorest congressional districts are headed, if you look where the lower-education, middle-of-the-working-class voter’s going, where the professional class and more upper-income voter’s going, all of this points in the direction of the Democrats becoming an increasingly elite party and the Republicans becoming increasingly a party of the working and middle classes. That alignment is lumpy, with all kinds of exceptions. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, but I think it’s in the process of happening.

Not a whole lot can shock me these days, but I am increasingly surprised by how consistently very well-educated, very wealthy people on the Left tell themselves that they’re on the side of the working and middle classes. If you are part of a political movement that is disproportionately professional class, that has virtually every single one of the ten wealthiest people both funding and supporting your core causes, in what sense are you still part of the dispossessed political minority in the country? In what way are you on the side of powerless? So Republicans, though they may not want to be, find themselves on the side of the little guy. I hope that they do something with it. I’m not confident they will, but at least I think there’s a better chance on the Right than the Left.

Chris Arnade:

I’m pretty pessimistic. I’ve looked at the Right, and I just don’t see, certainly after the Trump administration, I don’t see them getting economically to a point where they can become the party of the working class. If you had asked me two years ago, I’d have said, “Maybe.” But I think what they’ve proven, especially over the last six months, is that when push comes to shove, they’ll side with their industry CEOs rather than the Democratic industry CEOs.

So I certainly don’t see the Republicans going in an economically liberal direction that I think they need to go to get where we have to get. I think the Democrats have a better chance to get there. And I think people on the Right are in denial on cultural issues where I think the population is actually more aligned with the Democrats. In strategy, not in tactics.

If the Left were to reform itself and the language they use on cultural issues, I think, yes, the population is more socially conservative than the donor class is, but they’re more easily sold on cultural leftism than the Right realizes. They’re more open-minded than I think they’re given credit for, than even I give them credit for. The Left could find that solution if they were to change the language they use around the cultural issues.

I would agree with J.D. if I felt like the Right could actually change its economic policy, but the last six months especially, and the last three years generally, has proven to me that the Right is still dominated by the economic libertarian camp, the Chicago camp, the Davos crowds, far more than the Left is.

Oren Cass:

What about that cultural side, J.D.? Do you buy the argument that the Left potentially, vocabulary aside, would have an upper hand on some of the cultural issues? I think Henry Olsen would say if the Right could just get its vocabulary right, it would have the upper hand on the cultural issues.

J.D. Vance:

Well, one, I’m sympathetic to Chris’s pessimism. I’m not confident this is going to go the right direction for either party, but I’m more skeptical of it happening on the Left. The momentum on the Left seems very much towards a hyper cultural progressivism that just alienates too many voters. This is part of Teixeira’s essay that I really agreed with, that it’s not even the policy specifically, though, obviously, I disagree with a lot of the policies. It’s that there’s an entire vocabulary that’s been created of, by and for the top 15% of the country that now dominates in elite institutions but has no purchase anywhere else down the line.

A number of Obama to Trump back to Biden voters that I know, that grew up or lived within an hour of where I sit right now [Cincinnati], even among those voters, they’re going to vote for Biden for the same reason they voted for Trump, because they were really unhappy with their healthcare. They’re still unhappy with it, and they’re just going against the incumbent. But they have no ability to speak the language that is dominant among 21st century cultural progressives.

It’s not going even in the right direction. It’s getting more and more isolated. So I just think as many challenges as the Right has in getting its economic policy out of the hands of donors, the Left has been taken over by cultural progressivism in a way that I find very difficult to imagine arresting.

Chris Arnade:

I don’t disagree with a lot of that. The language thing and the way it’s been done in a grad school seminar is a huge mistake. I just think that that can change quicker. The stickiness by which the economic conservatives have managed to dominate the Republican Party just makes me feel like that’s a hurdle that it’s not going to be able to get over.

J.D. Vance:

It’s a fair point. It’s not going to be easy for either one of us to steer our respective coalitions in the right direction, but we are where we are.

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Chris Arnade

Chris Arnade is a writer and photographer covering addiction and poverty in America. He is also the author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.


J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Hillbilly Elegy.