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Sean Speer: What elite commentary gets wrong about J.D. Vance

Commentary

One of the highest-profile candidates in the United States’ 2022 mid-term elections is Ohio Republican senate candidate J.D. Vance, who came to prominence in 2016 due to his best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which detailed his life growing up in working-class conditions in Appalachia. 

The book, which was a massive commercial success, including an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey and a subsequent Netflix film adaptation directed by Ron Howard, brought mainstream expression to the socio-economic conditions in the American rustbelt that contributed to Donald Trump’s shocking election in 2016. 

At a moment when the elite commentariat was searching for answers, Vance provided a first-person window into a world that they didn’t know or understand. He was instantly shot into superstardom. 

His mix of personal trauma, military experience, and a Yale degree made him a powerful voice for those Americans suffering from the consequences of de-industrialization, family breakdown, and the opioid crisis. He spoke about these issues with a unique combination of empathy, nuance, and personal connection. Vance’s story was fundamentally a meritocratic one (and in turn resonant with elite voices): he succeeded based on a combination of his intellect and initiative and in spite of his household and broader community failings. 

Although his politics were broadly conservative, his temperament was moderate, his ideas were balanced, and he was explicitly anti-Trump. He was widely accepted in elite circles from the Aspen Ideas Festival to the New York Times’ editorial page

Back in those halcyon days of early 2016, one had the sense that Vance represented just about America’s best hope at bridging the country’s political divide. He had Red State sensibilities and Blue State credentials. He projected a unique ideological and political amalgam (including a message of personal responsibility on one hand and a view that government ought to better support disadvantaged families on the other hand) that might appeal to both Democrats and Republicans in a swing state like Ohio. 

The intervening time has dashed these hopes. American political polarization has only worsened and Vance has categorically chosen a side. No longer an author selling books, and now an aspiring politician competing in a hotly-contested Republican primary race, Vance’s moderation has been replaced by a much harder-edge and uncompromising conservative populism. His inflammatory Twitter posts stand in stark contrast to some of the ideas in his book or accompanying interviews, op-eds, and speeches. 

He’s argued, for instance, in favour of nationalizing the Ford Foundation for its left-wing philanthropic activities, reiterated the famous Richard Nixon quote about how “professors are the enemy” and since come to apologize for his pointed 2016 critiques of Trump. He has in short drifted from a National Review conservative to a Newsmax conservative. 

These changes in Vance’s politics have been noticed by many of the same progressive commentators who were initially interested in him and his book. There have been a series of recent articles and columns in the Globe and Mail, New York Times, and The Atlantic documenting the “shocking transformation” and so-called “moral collapse of J.D. Vance.”

A common assumption across these different commentaries is that the change in Vance’s politics is fundamentally performative: he’s disingenuously trying to replicate the adversarial tone, messages, and topics that vaulted Trump to the presidency for his own political ends. As New York Times columnist Ezra Klein explained in a July 2021 podcast episode: 

“[Vance is a] kind of genteel, thoughtful guy, a venture capitalist for Peter Thiel. [He] writes this book about actual cultural failings in Appalachian white communities and how a lot of it is an individual responsibility collapse. And as he’s become more ambitious in Republican Party politics, he has just turned himself into the weirdest, most awkward, most visible way into this copy of sort of Don Trump Jr… this constant owning the libs and super conflictual on Twitter… [H]e’s a smart guy and he’s reading the electorate. And he has decided, it seems to me, that they want something very different than what he was.”

There’s no doubt that there’s something to this line of thinking. Vance and other Republican office-seekers have clearly assumed some of Trump’s political characteristics including his inherent combativeness. They are indeed reading the Republican electorate and seeing that there’s obvious upside for conservative politicians who take the fight to progressivism and what has come to be described as “owning the libs.”

The so-called “culture war” doesn’t feel like a war at all. It’s a one-sided shellacking. 

The problem with this analysis, though, is that it’s incomplete. By assuming that Vance’s harder-line politics are wholly insincere, these left-wing commentators ignore the extent to which it may be a response to the leftward shift occurring in progressive politics. In particular, they fail to see how the mix of issues and impulses that sometimes gets described as “identity politics” has come to dominate left-wing politics and increasingly mainstream institutions (including large companies, newsrooms, and universities) and in turn contributed to a hardened conservative response. 

Polling shows that in the United States, for instance, the Democratic party has moved more to the left than the Republican party has moved to the right over the past quarter-century or so. That trend only seems more pronounced in the current moment of complicated pronouns, half-mast flags, and the mainstreaming of academic jargon about race, privilege, and sexuality. 

As we’ve seen in a series of recent cases—from Microsoft ads in which staff self-identify their gender, race, and appearance, to the brief yet still notable inclusion of anti-racism text in Ontario’s math curriculum—these issues are no longer merely isolated to the fringes of left-wing politics. They have, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed last week, “permeated the language of many important institutions, from professional guilds and major foundations to elite private schools and corporate human resource departments.”

These developments, it seems to me, are not an insignificant factor in understanding the growing reactionary politics on the right. The pace of cultural and social change is unrelenting, and conservatives have come to feel like mainstream culture and the institutions that dictate and transmit these progressive ideas are increasingly hostile to their own ideas and perspectives. The so-called “culture war” doesn’t feel like a war at all. It’s a one-sided shellacking. 

As the National Post’s Colby Cosh warned in a prescient 2016 column:

“The ‘social conservative’ side of these arguments gains no peace and receives no mercy when it loses, or even when it surrenders. Every new stage in the liberal jihad is a fresh opportunity for progressives to intimidate and castigate the hopelessly backward; the language and tactics used against those on the wrong side of the line grow ever more contemptuous and supercilious, not less.” 

One can certainly think that Vance’s political trajectory is regrettable and wrong. His populist positioning has undoubtedly led him in a reactionary direction. He recently told a conservative audience that “if our enemies are using guns and bazookas, we damn well better fight back with more than wet noodles.” This is a message rooted in what political scientists call “affective polarization”—a politics of zero-sum opposition rather than positive-sum aspiration. Polarization on one side, in other words, necessarily begets more polarization on the other.

It may help him to galvanize core Republican voters, but it will almost certainly constrain Vance’s ability to build a broad-based consensus around his priorities. His brief foray into elected politics has already significantly narrowed his appeal and it’s hard to see a scenario where he’s able to recover it. Social media and the internet are permanent after all. 

There’s also a case that Vance’s political strategy underestimates the broad appeal of the core messages of Hillbilly Elegy, which were about social mobility, personal initiative, and the role of civil society, broadly defined, to help those who are striving for a different and better life. In an alternate universe, it would be instructive to run a parallel campaign that tests the hypothesis that a 2016 version of Vance could actually find a large audience of support among core Republicans as well as swing voters.  

But the key point is that it’s not enough to attribute these changes to Vance’s politics to mere political opportunism. That’s a necessary yet insufficient explanation. There’s something deeper going on here. Progressives who lament the loss of another “genteel” conservative ought to ask themselves whether their own uncompromising politics have played a role. 

Reactionary conservative politics has to be, by definition, in reaction to something. That’s the part that Vance’s critics fail to reckon with. They should. 

Opinion: Canada needs a more ambitious agri-food policy

Commentary

Since 1867, Canadian agriculture has been one of two areas of joint federal-provincial-territorial jurisdiction. This has been both a blessing and a curse.

For most of that time, the two levels of government struggled with how to make the relationship work. Those struggles led governments to agree to the first Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) in 2003.

Almost 20 years later, the time has come to ask how the federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) policy framework can become a more strategic tool to support the agri-food system—a system that is responsible for one in eight Canadian jobs, seven percent of Canada’s GDP, $70 billion in exports, and is an essential tool in the fight against climate change.

The APF addressed concerns about program inconsistencies and inequities in federal spending across producers, regions, and commodities through five-year funding agreements.

But while the APF created stability, certainty, and relative equity, it should be properly characterized as a spending agreement. Governments themselves refer to it as a “$3 billion five-year investment.” The approximately $8 billion spent on business risk management programs over the agreement is an additional “investment.”

What the current agreement is not is a policy framework, in as much as one would expect a policy framework to define policy objectives or goals, a strategy through which to meet goals, and to generate programming solutions that implement a policy. These are important gaps and represent missed opportunities.

It is important to acknowledge the significant policy work and development that does go into the APF process. Across the country there are hundreds of officials that dedicate part or all of their time to the process. Ministers meet multiple times a year to offer political direction. Farm groups and other stakeholders engage in consultations and offer recommendations.

However, there are limitations to the status quo. Without a clear strategic element to the process, the renewal of five-year agreements ends up with high-level objectives such as “growing trade,” “advancing science and innovation,” and “supporting public trust.” Changes are biased toward tweaks or minor variations to the existing programming set, or, conversely, any significant changes are spread across broad programming areas, often driven more by tightening budgets than by changes in strategic direction.

A deep analysis and consultation should guide the renewal of a multi-billion dollar five-year agreement. This analysis should focus on the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s agri-food system, including how its position, international customers, and competitors have changed. Not to mention how stakeholders’ preferences and aspirations—including farmers, processors, and consumers—have evolved. The analysis should be made public and be consulted on. It should also include a clear set of objectives, with targets, by which performance can be assessed and accountability encouraged.

The expectations for agriculture and food have never been greater.

The agri-food system would benefit from a renewed approach that builds on the existing spending agreement. A first step would be to have FPT governments develop terms of reference to establish a more strategic agenda to guide the current funding agreement.

This process should articulate objectives, again with measurable targets for the coming five years, a strategy for achieving them, and analysis/consultation of policy alternatives with programming concepts. The outcomes could then be reviewed and renewed through a public process.

The expectations for agriculture and food have never been greater. The time is right to make the existing framework more ambitious and transparent with agri-food policy development. Governments have set targets for exports and domestic sales, greenhouse gas emission reduction and biodiversity, food security, and more. The risks facing the sector, from erratic international market access and farm prices, increasing input costs, and shifting weather extremes have never been greater. The pressure to obtain new and renewed investment in agri-food processing is sobering.

In certain ways, governments have benefited from changes brought on by the pandemic. The business-as-usual approach was replaced by a need to get things done. In agri-food, for instance, long-standing barriers to both interprovincial meat trade and access to the international workforce critical to Canada’s domestic food supply were overcome by necessity.

No single level of government is responsible for turning these challenges into opportunities, and no single level of government can act independently. Therefore, FPT governments need to continue with a collaborative, solution-oriented mindset to deliver a genuinely national agri-food policy that can drive the public and private investments necessary for the agri-food system to thrive.

Canada experienced 150 years of challenging agri-food policy development. The APF was a step in the right direction. Now almost 20 years later the time has come to take another step forward and make the APF a true, and truly ambitious, policy framework.

On November 15, CAPI will host a webinar to take the pulse of the FPT relationship, agriculture’s most underappreciated relationship. Find more here.