At First Things, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has an intriguing essay, “What Economics Is For.” In the piece, Rubio sets forth his vision of truly dignified work and its importance for the United States. By dignified work, Rubio means basically manufacturing work that pays a wage sufficient to support a family in a comfortable (if frugal) way. Rubio makes the argument that the government ought to support the creation of dignified work in the United States. Rubio sets investment in dignified work against flashy financial maneuvering that produces short-term gains through mere market trickery and pure speculation. According to Rubio, American industry has abandoned meaningful manufacturing work in favor of short-term gains, which has led to damaging economic and social effects. To address this problem, Rubio proposes taxing share buybacks, encouraging physical investment, and other things that would, he argues, foster the creation of dignified work. All of this is pretty extraordinary from a Republican senator, given that the Republican Party in recent years has not been hugely enthusiastic for state intervention in the economy except by means of tax cuts.
Rubio’s position, however, is doubly extraordinary because it is framed in terms of Catholic social teaching. Now, it might be reasonable to question Rubio’s sincerity. Prominent Catholic author Brandon McGinley has already suggested that cynicism about Rubio’s commitment to Catholic social teaching is justified. It would be easy to fit Rubio’s essay into a broader discussion about sincerity and commitment in Catholic politics that goes back a long time already. However, even then, the essay prompts important questions that ought to be answered. For example, what does any politician, not just Marco Rubio, have to do to overcome cynicism about his commitment to the Church’s teaching? Moreover, if one holds Adrian Vermeule’s strategy of integration from within as a viable course for Catholics, does it ever really matter if a given politician is sincere about his articulation of Catholic policy proposals? Isn’t the point that he articulates them? We do not propose specific answers to these questions. However, it is important to start asking the questions.
Rubio begins by citing Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum and continues within the framework provided by the popes building upon Leo’s teaching. He cites John Paul’s critique of unrestrained capitalism from Centesimus annus 43. Considering that the technique of applying red pens and gold pens to economic encyclicals may be said to have begun in earnest with Centesimus annus, one is greatly amused to see Rubio cite a passage that is by no means among the really popular passages of John Paul’s misunderstood encyclical. The upshot of all of this is that Rubio sees the Church’s teaching as a way to break out of the narrow economic categories of “capitalism” and “socialism” toward labor that acknowledges the inherent dignity of workers. Rubio, in fact, critiques the historical conflict between capitalism and socialism in those terms: “Separated from the daily lives of most Americans, where the most important decisions are how to raise children and make ends meet, elite-level politics asks people which abstract economic system they affirm.”
This intervention comes at a time when it is clear that President Donald Trump and at least some of his Democratic rivals would prefer the 2020 election to be framed in terms of capitalism versus democratic socialism. (To be fair, some Democrats have pretty decisively rejected the idea of democratic socialism, too.) It also comes at a time when populism and nationalism are once more on the march in the United States and much of Europe. Rubio’s critique of elite-level politics seems aimed squarely at this debate. An agony between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders about “democratic socialism” and “the American way of life” only serves to elide real concerns about families and wages in an economy that seems indisputably to be governed primarily by the financial sector. It is extraordinary, however, that Rubio sees the Church’s economic teaching as a way to break out of what Rubio calls “an unserious and distracting debate over abstract labels.”
This is especially true when one remembers that there are elements of the American tradition that Rubio could have drawn on to make his case. For example, in 1791, while serving as secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton issued his report on manufactures, which detailed an industrial policy for the United States outlining bases and proposals for state intervention in favor of manufacturing concerns, even as against agricultural operations. Later, in 1861, at the conclusion of his first annual message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the relationship between capital and labor and, indirectly, the importance of work that allowed laborers to improve their condition in life. We can then get into Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, but since modern conservatism is in large part a reaction to Roosevelt and Johnson, it may well be better to avoid those examples. In any event, one could imagine Rubio making his case in a manner that conservatives would love with a few choice quotes from Alexander Hamilton (maybe even juicing it with some of Hamilton’s Federalist contributions) and Abraham Lincoln.
And that piece would be interesting enough. There is an effort underway, spearheaded by Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin at American Affairs, to create a sort of “party of the state” geared toward a coherent industrial policy for the United States. Donald Trump’s willingness to employ state power to further his policy objectives—setting to one side for the moment whatever you make of his policy objectives—makes the project of a party of the state and a real industrial policy particularly timely. This comes, also, at a moment when faith in markets to magically reach ideal solutions is at low ebb. Even if Rubio had written this piece in terms of Hamilton and Lincoln and whoever, his essay would be a welcome contribution to this moment. The idea that the government should exercise its power to promote a vision of industry that benefits Americans materially and spiritually is an important idea and it is good for people in power to talk about it.
Of course, one could justly be suspicious here. Certainly a politician looking to harness some of the energy unleashed by Donald Trump would want to say basically what Rubio is saying. Rubio’s 2016 campaign for the presidency was, despite its flaws, not the act of an unambitious man, and it would be reasonable to assume that Rubio has ambitions for 2024. Furthermore, First Things has tried to move toward the Trump consensus, and has pretty successfully done so. Whether such a view is altogether fair or not, First Things is seen as a major source for the intellectual justification for Trumpism. In other words, Rubio is saying the right things in the right venue in purely political terms. The nods to Leo XIII and John Paul II, while not strictly speaking necessary, sweeten the pitch for First Things readers. While those who have kept track of George Weigel (and the late Fr. Neuhaus’s) “work” on Centesimus annus, might appreciate Rubio’s reference, one could argue that it is maybe a little unlikely that the average First Things reader, by now thoroughly indoctrinated in the myth of John Paul the Capitalist Crusader, would pick up on it. They might assume that Rubio was simply throwing Weigel a bone. The upshot of all of this is that one might conclude that both Rubio and First Things are looking to get in on the “Trumpism after Trump” racket.
But if one assumes Rubio’s insincerity—and few people ever really lose betting on the insincerity of American politicians— and discounts his intervention as a result, one does have to start talking about what authentically Catholic politics in the United States looks like. An American politician presents Catholic social teaching as a way to break out of a stale capitalist-socialist dichotomy and presents some policy proposals. He is discounted because he seems insincere. What do politicians have to do to appear sincere articulating these views? To put it in a less potentially inflammatory way: how should an American politician with these views convince skeptical Catholics he or she is sincere? Now maybe Rubio has unique problems here, as his faith background has been a little complicated. But stop thinking about Rubio for a minute: think about any other politician you like. If he or she came out talking about Catholic social teaching in this manner, what would he or she have to do to convince you that he or she is sincere?
This is an important question. If you follow the Catholic discourse on Twitter, the accusation of “Dadism” is always controversial. One can find all sorts of explanations of what it means, but we think it generally expresses a belief that this or that person is a sellout. The specific mechanism is the idea—implicit or explicit, real or imagined—that fathers have good reasons to adopt positions broadly seen as sellout positions because they have families to think about. There is some hidden gnosis that heads of families have access to that explains why this or that liberal position is the ideal position. Maybe this is real, maybe it isn’t. But it is hardly unusual for radically Catholic commentators to accuse various people of selling out. The feud between Brent Bozell’s Triumph and William F. Buckley’s National Review was at least partially motivated by accusations boiling down to National Review had sold out. Implicit in the accusation of selling out is the accusation that one was not really sincere when one held the views one had before one sold out. If you really believed it, you wouldn’t have sold out.
Additionally, one of the major cracks that has emerged in the fusionist façade is the very real sense that fusionism has not delivered results commensurate with its costs. Catholics have been reliable partners in the coalition that has lost the war over any number of social issues. And there has been a mounting sense that politicians are all too happy to go on losing the war, provided that they can keep raising money on it, campaigning on it, and returning to office to do not too much about it. Likewise Catholic conservative intellectuals will always find work and will never go hungry, provided they support the fusionist consensus. In this, we are reminded of Michael Anton’s infamous essay, The Flight 93 Election. “How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally,” Anton asked at one point. “If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid.”
The opening for illiberal Catholic politics has come at least in part by pulling the curtain back from this arrangement and noting that the liberal fusionists are, in Anton’s pungent phrase, the Washington Generals of American Catholic politics. All of this is to say that sincerity matters in Catholic political discourse in 2019. However, one then has to answer the question posed above: when will we be convinced of a given politician’s sincerity? Certainly, we understand that this is a big question. Americans have had for a long time the experience of spectacularly insincere politicians, even on social issues of the utmost importance. This is true for no one more than for Catholics.
In the alternative, one could ask whether sincerity ought to matter as much as it does. If one adopts a variant of Vermeule’s integration from within strategy, it really does not matter all that much if this or that politician is ultimately sincere in advancing policy proposals motivated by Catholic social teaching. For one thing, while Rubio’s essay is framed explicitly in terms of Catholic social teaching, in order to make his policy proposals attractive to other politicians, it may be necessary to package them differently. For another thing, the point, at least as we see it, of any such strategy is to go about the work of integralism regardless of the formal posture of the state. The sincerity of any given politician in articulating authentically Catholic policy proposals matters, then, much less. The point is that he articulates the policy proposals.
Catholic politics, whatever you want to call them, are gaining prominence as people begin to look to a post-liberal future. At least for now, sincerity is a part of the debate about Catholic politics. If that is the case, then Catholics committed to the Church’s political thought need to start thinking about sincerity. Maybe Marco Rubio is sincere, maybe he isn’t; we were not there when this essay was written and edited. But if his sincerity is a concern, then there really should be a way of resolving that concern. Right now, it is unclear to us how that concern would be resolved in Rubio’s case and it is still less clear how any politician would be able to prove that he or she is sincere when he or she advances authentically Catholic policy proposals.