The Daily 202: Josh Hawley is the Senate's new culture warrior
WASHINGTON - Josh Hawley, the youngest member of the Senate, was born on Dec. 31, 1979 - the final day of a sclerotic decade. The freshman Republican from Missouri argues that the GOP must now move away from the shibboleths of his childhood to become the party that stands in unflinching opposition to elites.
"It's not 1980 anymore. We've got to wake up to the problems of today," Hawley said in an interview. "For my own party, there is a tendency to want to live in the past and to live in a time when Republican orthodoxy was fixed by the 1980 Reagan campaign. Listen, the Reagan presidency was extraordinarily successful and extraordinarily significant historically. But that's a long time ago now. And I think that it is past time for Republicans to stop living in the 1980s and start living in 2019 and facing the problems of this day."
Ronald Reagan famously declared during his first inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."
"Government has a role to play," Hawley explained. "We need a shift in policy. This is why I say it is time to move beyond the old and tired policy debates of the last 30 and 40 years, which we just rehash and rehearse over and over again. . . . In a weird way, our politics has kind of been captured by nostalgia in the last 10 or 15 years. As the glaring problems of the great middle of our society have become worse, in some ways politics has become more and more blinkered. It's just more trapped in the past. There's this aversion to facing things as they are. If anything, our politics has become more nostalgic and more backward-looking. We need to stop that."
For Hawley, stopping that means challenging the power of big technology companies and the pharmaceutical industry. "Prescription drug prices have got to get lower," he said. "We need prescription drugs that actually are affordable. We need a prescription drug system that actually is portable."
Hawley is trying to forge a future for Trumpism that is bigger than President Donald Trump, who won by breaking with GOP orthodoxy on a host of issues like trade and decrying what he railed against as a system rigged by elites. Much of the party, including Hawley, has moved with Trump. But it remains to be seen what the post-Trump GOP looks like.
Four months after his swearing-in, Hawley plans to address some of these questions on Wednesday with his maiden speech on the Senate floor. He shared a copy of the latest draft of his speech, which he's still tinkering with, and we discussed it last night. He sees a political realignment underway, accelerated by Trump, and he's trying to sketch out a populist vision that he believes matches the moment. The conservative mood has changed, and the appetite for using government to achieve desired ends has grown. So has the hostility toward big business.
"Most people don't want to live a life centered around high-priced wine and cheese and theater tickets and so on. They don't want to start a tech company. They don't want to be a tech billionaire . . . and there's nothing wrong with that," Hawley said. "They want to have a life centered around their school and their church, and we need a politics that recognizes that, respects that and makes that way of life possible. And my biggest concern is that that way of life is withering away and, as it withers away, our democracy is in danger because it is that way of life and the great American middle, the middle of our society, that has defined our common citizenship."
For Hawley, "the great middle" is more than geography. It's a state of mind. The 39-year-old, who defeated incumbent Claire McCaskill in November, said his interactions with people on the campaign trail impressed upon him the depth of anger and the need to do things differently.
"They are angry at Big Tech. They are angry at Big Pharma. They are angry at being ignored by Washington and by the elites. This is why President Trump won the state of Missouri by 20 points," Hawley said. "It's because they are angry and they don't feel that they have a voice in our politics, in our government or in our society anymore. That is a major, major problem for us as a democracy. . . . We've got to get a politics that honors that and is focused towards rebuilding and renewing those folks and their way of life. If we do not, then I think we'll probably look back on the rancor and the division of these years and say, 'That was pleasant,' in comparison to what might come."
Hawley believes politics is downstream of culture, and that the culture has become corrupted. "We must put aside the tired orthodoxies of years past and forge instead a new politics of national renewal," he plans to say, according to his prepared remarks. "We must begin by acknowledging that GDP growth alone cannot be the measure of this nation's greatness, and so it cannot be the only aim of this nation's policy. Because our purpose is not to make a few people wealthy, but to sustain a great democracy, and so we need not just a bigger economy, but a better society."
"We must repair the torn fabric of our common life," he will add. "We need a politics that prioritizes strong marriages and encourages strong families, where children can know their parents. . . . We need strong schools and churches and co-ops because these are the things that make liberty possible, for liberty is more than selling or buying or the right to be left alone."
Hawley grew up in western Missouri town of Lexington, population 4,500, studied American history at Stanford University, attended Yale Law School and clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts. That's how he met his wife, a fellow clerk named Erin Morrow. After three years of practicing law in the District of Columbia they moved to Missouri. He taught constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Columbia, got elected Missouri's attorney general in 2016 and jumped into the Senate race months later. In November, he denied McCaskill a third term.
Hawley has made waves since arriving on Capitol Hill in January. The latest fight he picked is against Candy Crush. Yes, the children's game. He introduced a bill last week to prohibit video games popular among kids from offering "loot boxes," or randomized assortments of digital weapons, clothing and other items that can be purchased for a fee. These video games also would be banned from offering "pay to win" schemes, where players must spend money to access additional content or gain digital advantages over rival players. Hawley said such games exploit children, and that government should step in to stop them.
The conservative senator is open to breaking up Facebook. "All options should be on the table," he said. "We may need to break them up. That might be the right move from an antitrust perspective and from a policy perspective. I'm not sure about that. What I do know is that the Facebook business model of extracting information from consumers without telling them, monetizing it without their permission and then getting them addicted to your products so that you can make billions of dollars is not something that we should have going forward. We need to have a conversation as a society about whether this is really the best that we can do. . . . Silicon Valley needs to do better, and this had better not be the future of the American economy. Because, if it is, we're going to be in big trouble."
He wants to change the debate about the role of technology in society. "My great worry is that Silicon Valley might truly come to define our future economy, which is an economy that works for a small group of people who are billionaires and then everybody else gets their information taken from them and monetized," he said. "Are these social media platforms and the business model that animates them really good for our economy and our society? We need to ask those questions. We shouldn't just say, 'Oh, well they exist. So therefore they must be fine.' They're not fine! Their social effects are deleterious. Their economic effects are highly questionable. We need to have that conversation."
Hawley also argues that society's drift toward "the Uber economy" is a nightmare for the people he represents in the "Show Me" state. "Uber is paying its drivers 60 cents a mile ... but the cost of wear and tear on the vehicle is 58 cents a mile. That means that the Uber economy is an economy where the driver makes two cents a mile," he said. "Really? This is the future? We've got to get technology and innovation that actually produce something of value to our economy and our society and doesn't drain away value from the great middle of our society."
-- Sometimes his diagnosis of the problem - of regular people being left behind by powerful interests - sounds like something you might hear from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They too criticize Facebook, Uber and billionaires. But Hawley has a different prescription, and he keeps coming back to culture - not big money - as the root of America's systemic problems.
Hawley said that "big banks, big tech, big multinational corporations - along with their allies in the academy and media - are the aristocrats of our age": "The new aristocrats seek to remake society in their own image: to engineer an economy that works for the elite and few else, to fashion a culture dominated by their own preferences. These modern aristocrats often claim to be a meritocracy. Many of them truly believe they are. What they don't see, or won't acknowledge, is that the society they have built works primarily for themselves. They've effectively run this country for decades, and their legacy is national division and national decline. They live in the United States, but they consider themselves citizens of the world. They operate businesses or run universities here, but their primary loyalty is elsewhere, to their own agenda for a more unified, progressive and profitable global order."
In his view,Republicans have focused too much on promoting the selfish ideal of rugged individualism at the expense of the selfless virtue of communitarianism. "Individuals find control over their own lives and opportunities for their own lives in healthy communities," the senator said. "I don't see the two as being an opposition. In fact, I think it's one of the great mistakes of the last 30 to 40 years to preach a politics of unfettered individualism, that individuals can create and re-create themselves and should be able to choose their own destinies without family or tradition or community impinging in any way. This leads to the breakdown of community, the breakdown of the family and the breakdown of the neighborhood. And those are the very institutions that actually give individuals control over their lives and give them a sense of agency and empowerment to change their world."
Hawley said many problems come down to a question of who respects who. "The crisis reaches well beyond economics," he said. "Being a free person, being an American, isn't just about what you can buy. It's about the pride that comes in supporting a family. It's about contributing something of worth to your community. It's about being able to look a neighbor in the eye and know you're his equal. It's about respect, and too many Americans aren't getting it anymore. They're certainly not getting it from our elite-driven culture: The media, Hollywood and academia relentlessly press their values and priorities on the rest of us. . . . They idealize fame and preach self-realization through consuming more stuff. . . . That has produced, predictably, a good deal of dislocation and alienation and rightly so. People feel that they are not respected, that they are not heard, and it's produced what I do believe is the great crisis of our time."
Hawley is especially focused on the problems afflicting rural America, where life expectancy is declining, especially for women without high school degrees. Missouri contains several of the poorest counties in America, in rural areas that once boasted thriving small towns. He ran up the score in places like the Bootheel on his path to victory last fall.
The senator has been thinking about these themes for a long time, but he started putting pen to paper over the Easter holiday. His wife's mother unexpectedly passed away on her ranch in New Mexico, so Josh and Erin Hawley drove across the country with their two sons: Elijah, 6, and Blaise, 4. "I've gone through many different drafts trying to get it to the place where I feel like I'm saying what it is I want to say," he said. "I'm trying to speak to the needs of our time but also the hopes of our time. . . . I hope it's kind of a call to arms, because the future is here."