The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t dismiss Josh Hawley

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) at the Capitol on April 28. (Tom Williams/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Democrats primarily know Sen. Josh Hawley for his objection to the electoral college results on Jan. 6, but they would be wrong to dismiss the Missouri Republican for that mistake. Hawley is constructing an alternative vision of conservatism rooted in family and community that is fast gaining traction among Republicans.

The thoughtful first-termer’s philosophy challenges the idea that individual free choice ought to be a free society’s highest good. He laid out this view in an 2019 speech to the graduates of the King’s College, a small evangelical Christian school in New York City, where he argued that America had embraced a modern version of the 4th-century heresy from the British monk Pelagius, who believed humans could perfect themselves by choice, will and effort.

That idea, Hawley contended, was identical in substance with the logic underlying the Supreme Court’s ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that affirmed a woman’s access to abortion. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, holding that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence [and] of meaning.” The result, Hawley concluded, “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community; a philosophy of unrestricted, unfettered free choice.”

Hawley believes this mind-set has devastated the American promise and causes misery for the majority of Americans. He contends it has led to the notion that economic efficiency ought to triumph over social needs, resulting in the outsourcing of industry and economic stagnation for Americans without a college degree. And it has produced a vast oligarchic hierarchy of the educated, who control the mass of the nation’s wealth. That explains why we have a society that confers honors on those who excel rather than on those who practice ordinary virtues.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

“The people at the top of our society," Hawley argued, "have built a culture and an economy that work mainly for themselves.” For the rest of America, it is essentially dystopian. As he told the American Principles Project in 2019, suicides were at their highest since the Great Depression; alcohol-related deaths were the most since World War I; and drug overdose deaths were at the highest level ever. Overdose deaths have only become worse since then because of the pandemic’s lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, which have disproportionately hurt less educated Americans who couldn’t work remotely.

The alternative to this for Hawley is a return to the American promise. “What unites us,” he told the American Principles Project, “is the deep conviction that every life matters, that you matter, that every person is uniquely called and gifted.” This means overturning the new paradigm of unfettered freedom and reestablishing the traditional view of American liberty that placed the health of families, communities and the nation first.

Hawley has introduced or proposed a series of bills to implement this vision. He is one of the leaders of the movement to regulate and break up Big Tech, even advocating allowing parents to sue social media platforms for their physical or mental harms to children. He wants the United States to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and instead focus on multilateral agreements with democratic nations that share common values, removing jurisdiction over trade disputes from an unelected body that has overwhelmingly ruled against the United States for decades. He has even proposed creating a wage subsidy for low-paid workers employed by small businesses as an alternative to a minimum-wage increase. Together, these and other ideas represent a full-frontal assault on the free-market fundamentalism that has been GOP orthodoxy for decades.

These ideas are fiercely resisted by the D.C. conservative elite, which conservatives outside the Beltway increasingly deride as “Conservatism, Inc." Elites have long overlooked the extent to which the reigning orthodoxy has not worked for tens of millions of Americans. More free trade with low-wage countries won’t help high school graduates looking for jobs that will help them raise a family in America. Social media, like all human inventions, creates good and evil, and the fundamentalist view that society must endure the evil to access the good flies in the face of human experience. Why shouldn’t parents be able to sue companies for the damage they inflict on their children? Hawley’s philosophy resonates with Americans because it comports with their lived experiences.

Overturning the conservative orthodoxy won’t be easy, but Hawley is up for the fight. His political hero is Theodore Roosevelt (Hawley wrote a book extolling Teddy’s “warrior republicanism”), and he surely knows that T.R. was often disdained by GOP leaders of his day. Roosevelt’s vision of a muscular nationalism that regulated big business for the common good, however, ultimately became American dogma. Don’t be surprised if Hawley, like Roosevelt, wins out in the end.