The hole in Josh Hawley's economic argument
Earlier this month, freshman Republican Senator Josh Hawley set off a minor firestorm among the liberal commentariat. His speech at the "National Conservatism" conference indicted an elite class in America that lives by what Hawley called the "cosmopolitan consensus."
"On economics, this consensus favors globalization — closer and closer economic union, more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms," Hawley said. But this consensus has also left everyday working Americans "with flat wages, with lost jobs, with declining investment and declining opportunity. We don't make things here anymore — at least, not the kinds of things a normal person without a fancy degree can build with his hands."
"If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren delivered those lines, no one would have thought twice," my colleague Damon Linker said of Hawley's speech. Which is more or less correct. So why, he asks, did liberals get so riled up over it?
There are a few reasons. First, there's a genuinely dark historical precedent for the particular fusion of arguments Hawley is making. Second, Hawley may represent a Trump 2.0 future for the GOP that the still fractured and disjointed American left is simply unequipped to handle. But most importantly — and what no one has really addressed head on yet — is the basic hollowness of Hawley's supposed anti-elite populism.
Half truths are always far more effective than outright lies though, so let's start with what Hawley gets right.
There is indeed a class of elites who largely run the major institutions of western power, and who constitute a kind of globe-trotting international blob — think of the crowd that attends the annual Davos conference. This class also favors a set of economic and corporate practices — free movement of capital, free trade, austerity and tight money to promote investment, relentless pursuit of efficiency and shareholder value — that really has decimated working-class jobs and communities in America and elsewhere. Moral cover is provided for these practices with a kind of half-baked "we are the world" meritocratic ethic that views, say, defending American jobs against Chinese competition as mere ugly xenophobia and that invokes a belief in progress and meritocracy to justify leaving smaller and more rural communities behind.
But Hawley also jams together whole swaths of people under the "cosmopolitan" umbrella that really need to be pulled apart.
There's the outright capitalist elite — not even the top 1 percent, but the top 0.1 percent or top 0.01 percent — described above. Then there's what you might call the college-educated professional upper class — the top 10 percent or so, made up of academics and journalists and lawyers and Wall Street accountants and so forth. These two groups do largely share the "cosmopolitan" cultural ethos that Hawley describes, but they are economically distinct. Hawley also lumps the bustling, multicultural, multiethnic experience of city life under the “cosmopolitan” umbrella, even though that's an experience shared by vast numbers of Americans up and down the entire income and wealth spectrum. "Hawley's cosmopolitan-versus-nationalist framework doesn't neatly map on to actual class or cultural divisions in the real world," Jeet Heer wrote at The Nation.
This is where observers on the left begin to get suspicious. To put it bluntly, the particular lumping together Hawley is doing here bears a real similarity to the basic structure of fascist politics.
Historical and sociological observers like Karl Polanyi described fascism as a kind of perverse response to the very real problems of elite capitalist exploitation of the working population. But fascism is also a last ditch effort to protect the elites against any real challenge. It takes economic resentments against those elites and re-channels them into cultural resentment against foreign "others" and the broader liberal upper class — a process that almost inevitably requires uniting an ethnically homogenous middle-class majority under an authoritarian government. On top of that, the term "rootless cosmopolitan" has a well-known history as an anti-Semitic slur in authoritarian rhetoric, with the Jewish people cast as the cultural elite out to undermine the common people.
Ultimately, as Heer argued, accusing Hawley of anti-Semitism is "a stretch." The Anti-Defamation League simply concluded that Hawley might want to pick his words more carefully. The fact is, "cosmopolitan" is a pretty widely used term that really does describe a particular cultural ethos that lots of people really do profess. (Even President Obama used it in a 2018 speech, though his criticism was gentler.)
Hawley's use of the word probably set off alarm bells because of the larger fascist-adjacent structure of his argument. Because, while Hawley's rhetoric may have been strikingly anti-elite, his substantive policy positions remain largely that of a standard pro-oligarchy Republican.
Hawley supports the right-to-work laws that have helped gut unions. He’s skeptical of the minimum wage. He does support wage subsidies, but absent any serious commitment to full employment, wage subsidies do little more than paper over inequality and employers' power to exploit their workers. Hawley, like any good Republican, is a devout austerian who supports a balanced budget amendment — which would make full employment impossible. Hawley defends the massive giveaway to the rich that was the 2017 tax cut, he thinks the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional, and he has happily participated in particularly craven legal efforts to dismantle ObamaCare.
Hawley only risks genuinely inconveniencing elites in areas such as tech regulation, student debt, and drug pricing. The first two happen to intersect with targets of right-wing cultural grievance (colleges, for incubating aggressive social progressivism, and big tech, for supposedly curtailing conservative speech) and the third is so universally reviled it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Unlike Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, both of whom present relatively comprehensive plans for challenging elite power, Hawley's ostensible populism is culture war-driven cafeteria-style.
Meanwhile, his speech also did a lot of work to muck up the distinction between economic grievances and cultural ones. "They [the cosmopolitan class] subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress," Hawley continued. "They regard our inherited traditions as oppressive and our shared institutions — like family and neighborhood and church — as backwards."
As New York's Eric Levitz argued, this comes close to implying that anyone who's socially progressive, who's not big on church, who's glad they left their hometown, who likes city life and its polyglot multicultural bustle, must also have a college degree and earn six figures. Which is patently absurd.
None of this is to imply that Hawley is somehow the second coming of Francisco Franco. It's more like he's irresponsibly playing with dynamite. Nor is it just him; it's the entire Republican Party and conservative movement. Obfuscating the difference between the professional upper class and the genuine capitalist elites, pitching anti-elite populism in cultural rather than economic terms — these are tricks going back at least to the George W. Bush administration and the Gingrich revolution of the 1990s. The most prominent conservative who avoids challenging the capitalist elites by casting upper class cosmopolitan liberals as the real problem is the New York Times' David Brooks. Hawley's implication that "social liberationism" is an elite plot to undermine the working class was pioneered years ago by the Times' Ross Douthat.
The aim here is not to end the working class' suffering; they aim to preserve and channel it to power their own preferred political project. Hawley is not an innovator in this regard. He's a particularly erudite presenter of a fusionist strategy long in the making.
The question of why many white middle- and working-class Americans vote against their own economic interests is well explored. Less appreciated is that the liberal professional upper class suffers from much the same problem. This group may share many cultural values with the capitalist elites, but they certainly do not share concrete economic interests. The total reorganization of American commerce around the needs of those at the very top has brought the upper class some ancillary benefits — like cheaper consumables and services. But it's also entrapped them in a genuinely debilitating and endless financial rat race that extends extraordinarily high up the economic ladder.
Yet, just like the white working class, the professional upper class often votes to entrench its own suffering: Hillary Clinton's victory over Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary can be seen as the mobilization of cosmopolitan cultural loyalties in defense of elite economic interests. The results of the 2016 general election certainly didn't defend cosmopolitan values, but for the capitalist elites that was never the point. Once the choice was Clinton or Trump — "a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash," as MSNBC's Chris Hayes put it — the capitalist elites were guaranteed a win either way.
More to the point, this is what gives Hawley and his ilk a patina of plausibility when they claim the cultural power of the urban liberal upper class, as opposed to the economic power of the 0.01 percent, is the real problem.
The American working class' suffering at the hands of the super-rich is very real. As Polanyi has written, the body politic will respond to that suffering one way or another, with a descent into ethno-nationalist authoritarianism being one of the very real options. Matt Stoller noted that a lot of liberals' disdain for Hawley was driven by the belief that "fascism is what lives in an individual soul." But fascism is an aggregate social event more than an individual creed — it's human politics' equivalent to an ecological collapse once the material stresses become too great.
What is needed in response is not so much cosmopolitan liberalism but cosmopolitan populism: a genuine and broad-reaching populism that can unite everyone, working- and upper-class both, against the capitalist elite.
Therein lies the trouble. Warren and Sanders are both offering something at least in the general vicinity of this strategy, as are the freshman Democratic congresswomen colloquially known as "the Squad" — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). But it's entirely possible neither Warren nor Sanders will be the Democratic nominee in 2020. And Democratic House leadership has been in more or less open war with Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots.
It simply isn't obvious the Democrats are willing or able to confront the particular threat that Hawley represents. That's probably the most fundamental reason the left is freaking out over him.