Why Tucker Carlson Plays a Critic of Capitalism on TV

Heartbreaking: The worst Fox News host you know just made a great point. Photo: Fox News

America’s capitalists and social conservatives haven’t always been friends. In the 1760s, Evangelical Christians led one of America’s first movements for progressive taxation, debt relief, and curbing the power of private finance. A little over a century later, rural-dwelling Bible-thumpers powered William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against Wall Street perfidy; some decades after that, they played a part in brokering the New Deal.

In other words, the marriage between America’s cultural traditionalists and its reactionary plutocrats is a relatively young one. And if Fox News’ prime-time programming is any guide, the former are contemplating a trial separation.

Last week, in a much-discussed opening monologue, Tucker Carlson informed the GOP base that congressional Republicans consider “it their duty to make the world safe for banking” (by sending your sons to die in needless wars); that thanks to supply-side economics, “an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money”; and that human beings do not exist “to serve markets,” markets exist to serve human beings. This being Fox News, Carlson seasoned his pseudo–social democratic sentiments with jabs at identity politics, affirmative action, feminists, immigrants, and millennial stoners.

But “free market” capitalism  was the true target of Carlson’s indictment; all those manifestations of social liberalism were mere charges on the former’s rap sheet. In Carlson’s telling, the Reagan revolution devoured its own children. The heart of his case is worth quoting at length:

Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.

What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government … There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.

… Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.

Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

Carlson’s story is replete with demagogic lies. But it also contains a few important truths (or, half-truths, anyway). Tellingly, conservative criticism of the host’s monologue has largely elided the latter. In the New York Times, Brett Stephens observed that neoliberal capitalism has been kind to people like Tucker Carlson – a point wholly compatible with the Carlson’s argument. In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argued that Carlson is a mendacious demagogue, whose monologue misled viewers about the prevalence of marijuana abuse in contemporary America. This is true. But it’s also irrelevant to Carlson’s central claim, which was that Republican economic orthodoxy is undermining conservative social values. To his credit, the National Review’s David French took square aim at Carlson’s thesis; to his discredit, this was the entirety of his rebuttal:

[Carlson] says, “increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.” Yet a healthy, faithful marriage is often the gateway to affluence. Affluence is not a prerequisite for marriage … In fact, it is still true that your choices are far more important to your success than any government program or the actions of any nefarious banker or any malicious feminist … While there is much talk of a shrinking middle class, a large part of that shrinkage is, in fact, due to the fact that so many Americans are moving up. In other words, the upper class isn’t a set population of exploiters and elitists. It’s a growing population of workers and strivers.

This is an assertion of faith, not a substantiated argument. And to the extent that it’s true, it’s only trivially so. The fact that it is possible for a given individual to achieve economic security by making sound personal choices does not mean that all individuals can do the same. Our economic system would collapse if everyone did as French advises. American capitalism can’t support an entire nation of ladder-climbing “strivers”; it requires tens of millions of “low skill” workers. In the coming years, we’re going to need increasingly large numbers of workers to look after the elderly and lift boxes in warehouses. If public policy fails to ensure that the people who perform such tasks earn living wages, then they will never be affluent — no matter how healthy their marriages are. Further, as Carlson suggests, workers who lack savings, job security, and access to affordable child care will find it more difficult to form and sustain healthy marriages. French is earnest, but fallacious. An individual’s decisions might well be the proximate cause of her success or failure in economic and marital life. But that assertion tells us nothing about whether public policies (or “nefarious bankers”) have created an economic system that selects for bad decision-making — or even one that requires many individuals to make the “wrong” choices in order for it to function.

The conservative movement’s apologies for “free market” capitalism have always rested on such sophistry. What’s new is the willingness of leading conservative commentators to say that the meritocracy has no clothes. In the days since Carlson’s monologue went viral, right-wing pundits like J.D. Vance — and institutions like the National Marriage Project — rallied to the host’s defense. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter (never to be outdone) announced her support for a 70 percent tax on concentrated wealth. All of which prompts the question: Why has a “class war” broken out at the heart of the Murdoch empire?

The alliance between “family values” conservatives and free-market capitalists has always been a marriage of convenience.
To understand why social conservatives are turning on their fiscally libertarian co-partisans, one must remember why they partnered in the first place. The businessmen whose fortunes built the (literal and figurative) foundations of the conservative movement saw the New Deal state as its primary enemy. But the traditionalist whites (i.e. the overlapping constituencies of Evangelical Christians, culturally conservative white ethnics, and southern segregationists) whose votes put that movement into power never did. When the welfare state appeared compatible with the patriarchal family, traditional social values, and white racial privilege, they happily supported it. Only when the Great Society began undermining those institutions did such voters sour on “big government.”

As the political scientist Melinda Cooper argues in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, the New Deal bargain was compatible with social traditionalism in many respects. Male workers secured social insurance largely through private employment — and thus, women secured such insurance largely through their husbands. Meanwhile, by inflating blue-collar wages, strong unions made the conservative family model — a sole male breadwinner and stay-at-home wife — attainable for a much larger share of American households. And the racially exclusive eligibility requirements of many New Deal programs ensured that the median white family enjoyed access to more comprehensive public subsidies and private benefits than the median black one.

But by the 1960s, it became apparent that “big government” could also foster anti-normative behavior and challenges to the social order. As tuition-free colleges proliferated, young adults became less financially dependent on their parents, and thus, more willing to question inherited values. As welfare programs grew more generous, women became less financially dependent on the fathers of their children, and thus, more capable of choosing single motherhood over an unsatisfying or abusive relationship. And as African-Americans migrated North, the welfare state became more racially inclusive.

These developments (among others) made social conservatives amenable to arguments that framed the Great Society as an enemy of the traditional American family, (and in some regions, the traditional American racial order). And right-wing economists were happy to provide some. In fact, libertarian thinkers like Milton Friedman earnestly shared Evangelical Christians’ concerns about the decline of the traditional family — because they saw the family unit as an indispensable substitute for the welfare state that they wished to destroy. As Cooper explains:

Writing at the end of the 1970s, the Chicago school neoliberal Gary Becker remarked that the “family in the Western world has been radically altered — some claim almost destroyed — by events of the last three decades.” … Becker believed that such dramatic changes in the structure of the family had more to do with the expansion of the welfare state in the post-war era than with feminism per se — which could be considered a consequence rather than an instigator of these dynamics … Becker’s abiding concern with the destructive effects of public spending on the family represents a key element of his microeconomics — but one that is consistently overlooked by the critical literature. Indeed, at different times and in different contexts, each of the key figures of American neoliberalism can be found invoking the idea that the “natural obligations” of family should serve as a substitute for the welfare state, that the “altruism” of the family represents a kind of primitive mutual insurance contract and serves as a necessary counterweight to market freedoms.

Thus, the bedrock logic of the alliance between social conservatives and reactionary capitalists was this: One valued “small government” because it (supposedly) enabled the patriarchal family (and/or racial hierarchy), while the other valued the family because it enabled “small government.”

Social conservatives have paid a price for hopping into bed with the worshippers of mammon.
But social conservatives were always the junior partners in the GOP coalition. And when the dual objectives of rolling back the New Deal bargain — and reviving cultural traditionalism — came into conflict, the former took priority.

As a result, the logic of social conservatives’ alliance with capital has fallen apart. In his monologue, Carlson correctly observed that “free market” capitalism is deeply implicated in the social decay of white rural America — and that, in hindsight, it was also implicated in the social decay of “Detroit and Newark”; which is to say, in the very species of social “disorder” that led many fans of the patriarchal family to embrace libertarian arguments in the first place.

These aren’t new truths. But contemporary conditions have made them harder for red America to ignore. Thanks to a combination of global supply chains, corporate consolidation, and network effects, capital has been fleeing rural counties and concentrating in big cities — taking many conservatives’ kids along with it. America’s most paranoid reactionaries long feared that “big government” liberals had a secret plan to coerce urbanization; market forces (and Robert Bork’s jurisprudence) have achieved much of what “Agenda 21” never could. And as they’ve done so, the rural working class has found the normative family structure harder to maintain. Carlson’s suggestion that feminism — which is to say, efforts to grant women reproductive and economic autonomy — inevitably condemned countless men to empty, lonely lives is dangerous and false. But there is real sociological evidence behind the claim that women who enjoy such autonomy often prefer single motherhood to marrying men who struggle to support themselves financially. Reactionaries have tried to direct the backlash to this development exclusively at feminists, as though the plight of underemployed men would be more justly rectified by lowering women’s social status than by raising men’s wages. But even Carlson can’t help notice that it wasn’t feminists who killed off the unionized jobs that once provided blue-collar men in small towns with remunerative employment; “markets” did that.

Meanwhile, capital has paired its literal abandonment of culturally conservative areas (and concomitant undermining of family formation in such places) with more superficial slights. As upper-middle-class millenials have become an immensely valuable consumer block, corporate brands have begun advertising their “wokeness.” Television commercials now regularly sing the praises of social liberalism, feminism, and ethnic diversity. In today’s America, young, urban liberals enjoy disproportionate influence over corporate culture, while old, rural conservatives enjoy disproportionate power over the state. In this context, the idea that social conservatives should fear big government, and celebrate big business, has become less persuasive to social conservatives.

And that argument has been further undermined by the opioid epidemic. Simply put, it is hard to blame moral dissipation on the free market’s enemies when your hometown is suffering from a drug crisis wrought by pharmaceutical companies and lax regulation.

Finally, and most obviously, as rapid demographic change has increased the salience of nativism in conservative politics, the fact that corporate America supports expansionary immigration has become harder for social conservatives (of a certain stripe) to miss or forgive.

The more the GOP’s economic discourse changes, the more its economic policies stay the same.
The is no inherent connection between the ideas that life begins at conception and that capital gains should be lightly taxed; or that traditional gender roles foster happier families and that payday lenders should be lightly regulated; or that unassimilated immigrants are destroying America’s social fabric and that the IRS should target the working poor instead of the indolent rich; or that African-Americans shouldn’t have a leg up in college admissions and that coal companies should be allowed to dump mining waste in streams.

And yet, for the past four decades, the GOP has managed to translate the relative popularity of conservative social values (and racial attitudes) into a mandate for maximizing the profits of the party’s plutocratic benefactors. Whether it can sustain this gambit in the years to come is unclear.

The economic populism of Donald Trump’s primary campaign and Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show — along with reams of polling data — have demonstrated that much of the GOP base has no great fondness for Reaganomics. And since this aversion to conservative economic orthodoxy is rooted in (increasingly conspicuous) material realities, it is unlikely to be a passing mood.

Thus, it’s quite likely that more conservative pundits and politicians will echo Carlson’s heresies in the coming years. But it’s also quite plausible that this shift will remain more rhetorical than substantive. To change a movement’s rhetoric, all you need is a demagogue with a nose for unspoken resentments. But to change a party’s governing agenda, you need a well-organized opposition.

The red-state teachers’ strikes offered a hint of what such an opposition might look like — but teachers unions are never going to wield more clout over intra-GOP politics than the Koch Network does. And, for now, there is no other organized interest group in the Republican coalition that could mount a plausible challenge to its economic orthodoxy. The money-lenders own the Evangelical temples. The nativist groups will make some anti-corporate noises, but only in service of a politics that directs white class resentments downward. The Republican rank and file still resents social liberals far more than economic elites. And the Fox News hosts, for all their performative iconoclasm, are working hard to keep it that way; at the end of his tirade against neoliberal economics, Carlson informed his viewers that they nevertheless had “no option” but to support the Republican Party.

Why Tucker Carlson Plays a Critic of Capitalism on TV