Published November 15, 2021
According to Sen. Josh Hawley, American men are in trouble. Beginning with a speech at the recent National Conservatism conference, Hawley has highlighted the crisis of American masculinity, arguing that our society disdains manhood, and that consequently many men are “withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games.” Hawley is right, and the growing national conservative movement he addressed should craft an agenda in line with his diagnosis.
The bad news, and the good news, for national conservatism is that it is attracting grifters and opportunists. Successful movements attract bandwagoners, and the loose affiliation of political tribes that has assembled under the national conservative banner has drawn some in. Hawley is a natural fit, and picking up whatever versions of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio we are on is a sign of a movement that is perceived to be going places.
But where, exactly? A persistent, somewhat justified, criticism of the national conservative project is that it is not much of a project—it is a disparate collection of critics with little to no plausible policy agenda, and adding some opportunists won’t help craft a coherent plan. As Nate Hochman put it, the movement “requires substantive, detailed policy thinking, moving beyond the more abstract, philosophical critiques heard at National Conservatism II to the more mundane — though equally important — project of developing a concrete legislative agenda.”
This criticism can be overblown—there are national conservatives crafting policy proposals—but the movement does need to develop more practical solutions to remedy, or at least ameliorate, the problems it identifies, especially those Hawley has been emphasizing. When men struggle to find good jobs and to form and maintain families, they often turn to alternatives that sap their fitness for work or family life. When boys lose the examples and instruction of good men, they may never develop those capacities at all. Thus, here are a few suggestions toward rebuilding a healthy American masculinity.
First, actual age verification should be required to access online porn. Even establishment leftists like Liz Bruenig realize there is a problem with minors being overwhelmed by increasingly violent and bizarre porn. Online obscenity is defining what young men and women think sex should be like, which is warping their ability to form healthy, real-world relationships.
Yet nothing is being done about it. At best, porn sites operate on the honor system, which does nothing to stop underage users—even adolescent boys are smart enough to lie about their age.
The “adult entertainment” industry should be held to the same standards as those selling other adult products, and be required to put real age verification in place for all users. The porn industry might complain about the cost, but checking IDs is only what they should have been doing all along. There will, of course, be workarounds and evasions, just as there are with other restricted substances such as alcohol and tobacco. But insisting that those viewing online porn show ID would reduce the flow to children.
This law would not directly address the adult consumption of porn. Nonetheless, it might still reduce use among adult men, some of whom would be reluctant to disclose personal information. Also, in tackling the problem of porn it makes sense to begin with the low-hanging fruit of protecting minors.
There are plenty of tools available by which the government could compel compliance from both domestic and foreign porn sites (the threat of losing access to the American financial system is particularly potent). The government may already have the authority to implement this policy via agency action. If not, it would be difficult for Congress to vote against such legislation.
Second, online retailers should be required to name the country of manufacture for each item they sell. This would not be an onerous requirement—only a few words on the item’s page—but it would provide potential buyers with important information. Many retailers, from Amazon to the iconic trad clothing brand J. Press, tend to proudly display when an item is made in the USA, but say nothing, or provide only a curt and nonspecific “imported” description, for many goods made elsewhere.
In the age of online shopping, physical labels are insufficient to inform consumers of where the items they are considering buying were manufactured. The government has the authority to require this disclosure from online retailers for all goods that are imported or shipped across state lines.
At least some shoppers prefer to buy American and avoid Chinese goods when possible, and online retailers should be required to disclose that information upfront. How much of a difference this will make overall is unclear, but as a simple, low-cost, and likely popular policy, it is worth trying in an effort to boost American manufacturing via consumer choice.
A third policy national conservatives should develop and champion would be something like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but targeted at slavery, instead of bribery. American companies should be punished for using foreign slave labor.
This would seem to be an obvious moral imperative, but efforts to reign in the use of slave labor by American companies have been repeatedly stymied. There are a lot of people, from Wall Street to Hollywood to academia, who are making a lot of money by looking the other way on China’s crimes.
In addition, the Chinese Communist Party is skilled at finding others ways to play Americans for suckers. For instance, John Kerry, who as Biden’s “climate czar” is trying to cut a deal with communist China, is reportedly lobbying against legislation that would restrict imports made with slave labor. Kerry will happily ignore slavery and genocide in exchange for a worthless promise to cut Chinese emissions.
Whatever their reasons, much of the American ruling class is in bed with the gangster regime running China, and taking them on directly will be difficult. Thus, this final proposal is more ambitious than the others, despite the moral urgency of opposing slavery. But the moral clarity it provides may help in taking on the ruling class and its interests.
What unites these proposals, and what is needed in the broader development of national conservatism, is the defense of the American dream, rightly understood. The promise of the American dream is not of a few people getting fabulously wealthy (although we should not begrudge such wealth, if honestly earned) but that ordinary people will be able to live well in this life and have hope for the next. It’s that they can earn an honest living sufficient to support a family, and that they will be able, and encouraged, to flourish in family and community, known and loved by others and worshipping God in freedom.
This American dream is being assailed by those who would fill children’s minds with obscenity. It is betrayed by those who view American laborers as dispensable and would trade them in for overseas slaves. In particular, these are attacks on American men, beginning even in their boyhood. To counter this and other threats, national conservatism must prepare to govern, developing proposals and plans on everything from trade to family policy.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.