Don't Judge Me
Why a Non-Judgmental Populism Could Win America
Two weeks ago, The Atlantic published one of the most vicious attacks in recent memory on an aspiring politician. The author, Tom Nichols, contemplates several ways to describe J.D. Vance, who is now running as a Republican for U.S. Senator from Ohio: “contemptible and cringe-inducing clown,” “pathetic loser poser fake jerk,” “sellout,” “backstabber,” “traitor,” “apostate,” “craven” and among the “performative buffoons.” Finally, Nichols (a self-described “man of letters”) arrives at this: “To distill the essence of Vance as a public figure, the word that enters my mind is an anatomical reference beginning with the letter a.”
Vance’s personal story is the sort that might tend to give most critics bashful pause: He rose above the holler of Kentucky, enlisted in the Marine Corps, served his country in war, then matriculated at Yale Law School. His best-selling 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, not only comes clean about his own family history of drug addiction and dereliction, but compassionately describes the vast numbers of poor whites who feel left behind by a society that has little use for their labors and no remedy for a culture of self-defeat.
So why all the hate? What sins does Nichols attribute to J.D. Vance? Well, Vance tweeted a “performative fear about New York”; he criticized Twitter for banning white supremacist, Nick Fuentes. (Vance’s July 9 tweet stated that while Fuentes was “dishonest” and a “troll,” tech companies shouldn’t be allowed to “control what we’re allowed to say in our own country.”) Vance has taken campaign money from Peter Thiel; and he has vacillated between criticizing and praising Donald Trump.
For these, Nichols calls Vance, “as mossy a creature as the swamp ever produced” and a “smarmy and pretentious asshole.” (Even a Man of Letters, it seems, could not restrain himself from the a-word for even the length of an essay; it’s just such a great word!) But whatever else the review vents or achieves, its apoplexy is as powerful an indication as any that Vance is scoring hits on his chosen target.
Vance positions himself as a populist. He thunders against Corporate America, university endowments, and the billionaires of Silicon Valley. He is forthright about his defense of religious freedom and his support for many of the Trump-era policies. But he offers something that may be more important right now than any policy position: a conservatism that refrains from denigrating and dividing the American people.
Consider, for a moment, politicians that have overachieved in the years since Vance wrote Hillbilly Elegy. Donald Trump and Joe Biden both confounded their critics and exceeded expectations. The cackling finger-waggers—Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—all underperformed. There are other differences among them (sex often seems a factor), but at least one important difference between the winners and losers might be described in terms of who did – and didn’t – seem to look down on us. Our 45th President was a man who unapologetically inhaled two Big Macs and two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at supper and washed it all down with a chocolate shake. A man roundly dismissed as an idiot by the media elite, and every other type of elite. And our 46th, the man who would beat him—in my view, the only Democratic candidate who could—had suffered many more wrenching personal losses than all of his Democratic primary competitors combined. His son still struggles with addiction. For 2020, he dropped the smarmy comebacks of past campaigns and spoke with more humility and less self-righteousness. After an early primary debate in which Kamala Harris brutally scorched him for past missteps, Biden greeted her with, “Go easy on me, kid.”
For years, I received a monthly statement from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power stamped with a “sad face” at my family’s usage—and was reminded that we are awash in judgmentalism in America. The Left judges us as implicitly biased by looking at our skin color, castigates us for our energy consumption, scorns our resistance to activist-led race and gender educational efforts. The Left judges our choice of automobile, our decision to have three or more children, the food we place in our grocery cart.
But we have no stomach for right-wing Holy Rollers, either. It is impossible to imagine Ralph Reed dominating the Christian political scene today, as he did in the 1990s. His vision of righteousness has ceased to appeal or gain traction. Americans never warmed to Mike Pence, though his personal decency made an impression. They never adored Ivanka either, though she is beautiful and glamorous and promoted harmless things like getting more girls into STEM. Her rarefied perfection had a cold, hard, mineral quality. She may sous vide in the sewer of our culture—her Instagram-ready family, cushioned by a pocket of air—but those of us who lack her advantages, we’re forced to swim in this stuff. We were leery of her judgment.
A year ago, for a few months, we were prepared to be judged, and we catapulted White Fragility to the top of every best-seller list. Today, we can’t bear it. We lack the will to judge each other and the heart to let ourselves be judged. (Robin DiAngelo’s sequel released this June – Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm—flounders in the rankings on Amazon). DiAngelo and Kendi pound out the Left’s version of fire and brimstone, and they’re losing us: we’re tired of their angry and unforgiving deity.
When Trump lapsed into censoriousness, it cost him. Remember his worst moment of the (insane) first presidential debate? It occurred when he blustered: “Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use. And he didn’t have a job until you became vice president.”
Biden’s reply was simple, heartfelt, and his finest political moment: “My son, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem. He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him.”
More than 93,000 of us died of drug overdose last year—a nearly 30 percent rise from 2019. Do politicians realize how many American families have been touched by drug addiction? We all have.
The suicide attempt rates among teens and even tweens have gone vertical. For teen girls between the ages of 12 and 17, the rates increased by 26% during the summer of 2020 and 50% during the winter of 2021. The July issue of Clinical Psychiatry News reports:
From April 2019 to April 2021, the demand for pediatric behavioral health treatment at [Children’s Hospital Colorado] increased by 90%. In Colorado, suicide is now the number one cause of death among youth and occurs in children as young as 10 years of age.
The hospital has declared a state of emergency.
One of NYC’s top tourist attractions, The Vessel at Hudson Yards, may now permanently close to the public because of too many young jumpers. Is there any more damning indicator of a culture than that it produces hopeless children?
All of which is to say, if politicians have something they want Americans to hear, they ought to dispense with the habits of self-righteousness, superiority and blame. Those ugly tics may help raise the Twitter waves that the Democrats’ mean girls surfed to fame: AOC & Friends. But they are turnoffs to an America that knows there is no “us” and “them” when it comes to pain and hardship and worry.
We are racially mixed and religiously intermarried. Gay and lesbian and transgender Americans aren’t ‘the other’ – as Republicans fooled themselves into thinking for so many years. These are our families—all of our families—even conservative, traditional, and religious families. We worry desperately about money—not because of obsessive acquisitiveness, but because constructing a bulwark against a failing culture requires heaps of it. (How much is private security, in the absence of a police force? Private school, in the absence of non-racist public ones? Non-woke doctors, who will fulfill their oath to heal us? How much is all this going to cost, and how will we possibly afford any of it?)
We are awfully fatigued by the finger-pointing and division. We hear much about what’s wrong with America, and what’s wrong with us. All of our national heroes have been denigrated: The Founders, yes, but even those who destroyed slavery, like Grant and Lincoln. Our children are getting the message; they head off to the Olympics and turn their backs on the American flag. Spare us talk of their high-minded principles: Young people manifesting that level of disrespect aren’t headed anywhere good.
We could stand to hear a few things about what’s good about us, what’s great about this country. Pessimism about the future of America is high and rising across all age groups. Please tell us something, anything, that we might feel good about; please give us hope that America might be better next year.
Intellectuals may balk, but bills that promote patriotic education—a few classes on why we used to think America a unique nation—will sound pretty good to most. Our children should be allowed to feel grateful to inherit America, even as we teach them, forthrightly, the truth about the flaws and complications of her legacy.
The Left’s self-righteousness suffocates us. But the conservative itch to preen is every bit the turn-off. We’re glad you have your perfect faith; many Americans haven’t been to church in months or years. Now isn’t the time to remind us how much better our lives might have been, had we made different choices.
And all of this, J.D. Vance seems to know. He had an addict for a mother, a derelict for a father, and a childhood pockmarked by neglect and abuse. J.D. Vance does not appear to judge us.
“It’s one thing to take an appreciation that cultural circumstances matter,” Vance said to me, of his approach. “It’s another thing to wag your finger at people and tell them the reason they’re not doing better is because they’re just making bad choices. And I think conservatives have to be able to hold two thoughts in their head at the same time: Personal responsibility does really matter; we don’t want to tell everybody that they’re a victim… But also people’s circumstances matter too.”
He talks of Americans yearning to live not the great life and not only the good life, but something far humbler: “a normal life.” I asked him if this choice was deliberate. It was.
When he talks to Americans, he told me, he often thinks of the sister who largely raised him. “I think it’s kind of sad, honestly, that people like my sister who’ve lived a good life, who’ve raised a good family, that they pick up on the fact that a lot of elites don’t think they’ve made the right choices. That’s pretty sad—and pretty gross.”
We don’t need or even want smart cities. We can live without autonomous trucking or delivery-by-drone. No app will save America. Helping us recover a “normal life” will be the great project of the next generation of political winners.
I am a liberal forest worker and I get along better with conservative rural America than I do the professional meritocracy. These folk have real skills and values and get it when an overeducated elite looks down on them. Often the overeducated lack the self awareness to see the bigotry of the meritocracy. I also find it easier to disagree with conservatives on issues like abortion and guns then to disagree with liberals on gender creationism and grievance hierarchies. Thanks Abigail
Slightly off topic, but what happened to the Atlantic is sad. It is probably the worst example of media properties that spent 100 years building their brand and then flushed it down the toilet. Toilet is a good symbol for the kinds of stuff the Atlantic publishes now. I had a subscription to the Atlantic in the '90's. It leaned left on its articles about the economy or politics, but it was mostly very well written, long-form, general interest articles. The editing was also first rate. I haven't read anything on the Atlantic in years. Giving space to faux conservative grifters like Tom Nichols is a good reason why. I think Dems are scared shitless of people like Vance who move into politics, so they and their media allies are doing a preemptive campaign against him. They don't have a sustainable coalition if the working class fully abandon them, so attacking Republican politicians who appeal to working class is a top priority.