For many decades, center-right politicians and pundits have advocated limited government, free markets, free trade, family values and personal responsibility. Center-right circles accommodate social conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians in a single coalition. In the case of the US, all the beliefs of these different factions have been melded into one cause. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were strong proponents of the capitalist system and flourished, following their victory over the communists in the Cold War—the center-right’s biggest success. Capitalism has brought prosperity and helped get people out of extreme poverty, exposed the lower to middle classes to more wealth and improved the standard of living. Yet the global financial crisis, the failure of the Iraq War and the confusions and inconsistencies of the stances they have taken in the culture wars have made the center-right less confident than ever before. Secularism has made attending churches, nurturing communities and families seem like less important priorities; there is wage stagnation in the branch of manual labor; and immigration, no matter how controlled, is seen by many as a threat to the national identities of Anglo-Saxon countries.
Conservative commentators in the US are still complacent about the fact that Donald Trump—a protectionist, nativist, isolationist and, most importantly, impolite billionaire—is now the new official face of the GOP. In the UK, the Tories are unable to leave the EU through a smooth negotiation, while European countries, such as Sweden, Germany and Spain, have witnessed the rise of hard right parties, whose main issue is immigration. Their middle classes have felt the effects of this. The populist moment hasn’t captured Australia yet, but the Liberal Party, its main center-right party, has the same aspirations as the center-right elsewhere. A stable liberal-conservative coalition seems ever more unlikely. The Liberal Party has no idea who their base is and face challenges by minor parties like One Nation and the Australian Conservatives.
The backlash against the center-right from populist constituents reveals less about either side than it does about how the ideas that have driven the center-right have become less meaningful. Smaller government and deregulation are concepts that have lost their appeal—their limitations have unfortunately been overlooked by their proponents. They are less appealing in this populist age. The center-right is on the verge of running out of new ideas, and they are also losing their ability to persuade newer voters. It would be easy to mock their most extreme constituents as backward-thinking demagogues, but that would be counterproductive. Two books—written by a former Canadian Prime Minister and a rabble-rousing Fox News presenter respectively—have captured the spirit of an ideological flexibility, which the center-right desperately needs in order to increase its own Overton window.
Tucker Carlson started out as a respectable writer before he became a TV presenter. He began his career as a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, under Bill Kristol’s editorship, where he covered the campaign trails of Al Gore and John McCain. His book Ship of Fools is dedicated to his former employer, despite a section which is highly critical of that employer’s arrogant support of the Iraq War and his propensity to push regime change every chance he got. Kristol’s thinking ultimately became integral to the Weekly Standard’s image and part of what defines establishment right wing thought nowadays.
Kristol is not Carlson’s biggest target. The book is scornful of elites—Silicon Valley moguls, plutocratic political insiders, frenzied imperialist neoconservatives, journalists and university administrators—are all given unreservedly harsh treatment. Ship of Fools is an all-out polemic, by contrast with many of Carlson’s earlier writings, which are wry and mellow. He expresses vehement disgust: for example, towards Jeff Bezos for Amazon’s poor treatment of their employees; and towards Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hillary Clinton for playing identity politics, while holding powerful positions in established institutions. Carlson is also aware that he is one of the elites himself. After all, his media career could be said to have begun right from his birth, since his father used to be a news anchor.
Ship of Fools is a general takedown of elites, mainly focusing on their hypocrisies and nothing else. But it channels many of the arguments in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deneen’s book proposes that liberalism, in the classical and progressive sense, has ran its course. As an elite project, its individualistic adherents inadvertently altered the social fabric of Western countries. Many people no longer go to church, communities and families have withered, and the advent of technology has brought only a form of escapism. Carlson quotes Deneen, who accuses the elites of abdicating the same accountability and responsibility that they tell the lower rungs to maintain, in the service of corporate social justice, designed only to serve the bottom line. Carlson displays deep skepticism about technology, which he believes was engineered to exploit people’s freedoms, and therefore does not deserve to be regarded as an integral part of those freedoms. He writes about the addictiveness of Facebook and points the finger at Zuckerberg for exploiting user information without the users’ consent. He also points the finger at Dianne Feinstein for demanding Zuckerberg exert more control over his users. Although this isn’t mentioned in the book, elsewhere Tucker has openly advocated regulating self-driving trucks, in order to maintain a manual workforce, and has even gone so far as to demand a federal law to ban kids from using smartphones—that’s something that the average American conservative wouldn’t advocate.
While Ship of Fools is rather too reminiscent of an Edward R. Murrow monologue, Stephen Harper’s Right Here Right Now is calm and sober. Harper, a political leader with a background in economics, understands that the world is complicated, and is willing to engage with populism, since he experienced it first hand as the leader of the Reform Party, which, through various alliances, gradually morphed into the Progressive Conservative Party and then into the Conservative Party, under whose aegis he was Canada’s Prime Minister for eight years. Right Here Right Now is a useful demonstration that center-right attitudes have their limitations, and that the reader who holds such beliefs will need to be more aware of those limitations, if we are ever faced with another populist moment. The main limitation of center-right thought, according to Harper, is that there are losers in any trade-off. Bringing in more immigrants can make the economy prosper, but insecure borders can also create economic risks, such as wage stagnation. Trade deals cannot by closed by merely clicking your fingers—despite the name free trade. And, while deregulation can enhance competition, sometimes it also brings about social ends that are ultimately good for the country.
Harper’s book is interlaced with interesting examples of how center-right politics can be whitewashed and caricatured by its own adherents. One example he cites is that of Ronald Reagan, whose policies diverged from free trade and immigration. Reagan was willing to impose tariffs if the options America faced weren’t fair and in 1986 he pronounced an amnesty, to allow three million illegal immigrants into the US. Harper describes this as a mistake.
Harper proposes a populist-friendly conservatism, which, as he acknowledges, is more of an attitude than a political movement. Conservatism, to misquote Benjamin Disraeli, is about cautiously improving the world, with the ultimate wish to preserve the good. Combine experience with this wisdom and conservatism can become cathartic. It’s a kind of faith, which renews your relationship with civilization and makes it deeper and better. Harper mentions the Wall Street Journal a few times in the book. He regards the paper as the essence of American conservatism: business oriented and abstract. If anything, conservatism, regardless of the form it takes, needs to communicate its policies better. Good policy communication has been lacking in recent years. This would involve, as Harper puts it, finding the right target audience and recognizing and discussing the discomfort some people have with others. Sometimes a policy itself may be to blame for its reception. But ultimately the audience is what matters most.
Harper and Carlson overlap in their critiques of free market capitalism. For both of them, the free market is a tool, not an end. Although he doesn’t mention it in the book, Carlson has expounded on this idea in a monologue based on Mitt Romney’s broadside in the Washington Post. Romney writes about the conundrum of supporting Donald Trump, on the basis that it is personal character which builds a nation—something Trump lacks. In his own monologue, Carlson concludes that, since our leaders show no faith in their people, markets shouldn’t be treated like a religion. These ideas have sparked a wider discussion in conservative publications about engaging with the working class and about the scope of government. Meanwhile, Harper argues that markets are powerful, yet imperfect, and that overconfidence has led to unethical deregulation, which have lowered trust in the banking and finance sectors.
Free markets have long been a sacred cow for American conservatism—but not for conservatism in other countries, especially not in Canada. Carlson therefore concludes that trust is a crucial factor in politics. One major flaw in Carlson’s market skepticism is that he ignores how historically transcendent the belief in the market is to American identity. Also, he wants to control markets in order to further his own desires. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg responded that economic liberty is as much a right as gun ownership for personal protection. But now a Canadian Prime Minister has made the same statement as Carlson, in his book—does that make a difference? Goldberg, Carlson and Harper all at least understand that economics, as Edmund Burke argued, should be approached more ethically, as culture. Harper reminds us that Burke, the godfather of modern Anglo-Saxon conservatism “was never about ideological rigidity.” Ship of Fools, on the other hand, views politics as a bottom-up conflict, between corporate entities and a bipartisan political class. Morality drives policy and decision making—and not just for individuals. Hence, the conservative instinct against free markets is justified when pitted against the crude version of economic rationalism that currently dominates center-right thinking. Tucker Carlson and Stephen Harper have both appeared, separately, on The Sunday Special with Ben Shapiro, a pundit who represents that attitude in its most serious and literal form. For Shapiro, market forces can never have as bad consequences as the expansion of government. We cannot scapegoat people for the choices they make. This begs the question: if the average man is told to be responsible for his actions, why can’t the same standard be applied to the elites, who come from a very different class?
Ship of Fools has received some support from segments of the hard Left. Carlson’s isolationist approach to foreign policy, his disdain for neoconservatives and his economically moderate outlook have made him the ally of people like Glenn Greenwald, Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey. Even Nathan J. Robinson, in his review for Current Affairs, acknowledges, that while the book’s flirtations with white identity politics are dangerous, Carlson’s economic views strongly resemble those of Bernie Sanders. Carlson mentions Ralph Nader, the independent candidate during the 2000 presidential election, upon whom the Left—including his own former admirers—have heaped scorn. Carlson condemns the Left for blaming Nader for Al Gore’s narrow loss to George W. Bush. Tucker Carlson feels an affinity with these self-styled leftists mired in controversy because both he and they are ideologically distant from the respective orthodoxies of their parties. This raises some questions. Is Carlson’s newfound vision just a dishonest version of socialism and identity politics, only acceptable among nationalists?
Both Right Here, Right Now and Ship of Fools describe our political moment and intentionally avoid proposing any specific solutions. However, without such solutions, the challenges they propose are empty and meaningless. Some solutions may seem, on their face, nonsensical. Carlson personally admits that he isn’t a policymaker, which is why his own prescriptions—regulating technology; returning communities to the mores of a bygone era, etc.—reveal a black and white element to his thinking. It’s worth sympathizing with his views, but his suggestions are too farcical to implement.
Carlson and Harper are neither the first nor will they be the last to observe that there are urgent challenges to face if the center-right want to have a healthy, viable future. There has been increased interest in democratic socialism among younger people and this should be welcomed and properly engaged with. When center-right parties finally earn the political and media power they desire and triumph in the cultural battles in which they are engaged, they should remember how much they owe to the people who put them there. Their responsibilities to those people are greater than they realize.