This ain’t your father’s conservatism (though it may be your great-great-grandfather’s)
The gathering was dazzling even by the standards of the Washington political establishment. There was Josh Hawley, the precocious senator from Missouri, delivering the closing keynote. John Bolton, at that time still the National Security Advisor for Donald Trump, sat on stage alongside Tucker Carlson, the reigning king of conservative media. Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist, spoke, as did Patrick Deneen, the influential Notre Dame political theorist. That stage at the Washington D.C. Ritz Carlton would host other elite intellectuals, activists, policy wonks, journalists, political operatives, and think tank presidents as well—all the brightest lights of the conservative political firmament.
It was July 2019, and these luminaries were gathered for the first annual National Conservatism Conference. Organized by the newly formed Edmund Burke Foundation, the meeting was the brainchild of the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony. Hazony is the author of The Virtue of Nationalism, which has become something of the founding text of this movement that aims to create an intellectual foundation and political organization for the nationalist aspirations that Donald Trump harnessed in 2016. The goal of National Conservatives is nothing less than the redefinition of American (and indeed global) conservatism.
Three years later, and a few months before the third iteration of the conference, which began this week, Hazony and other leaders in the movement issued a “Statement of Principles” that attempts to clarify their fundamental commitments. NatCons reject the “fusionist” coalition of moral traditionalists, free market libertarians, and foreign policy hawks that defined American conservatism from the founding of The National Review in 1955 to the election of Trump in 2016. That coalition proved to be wildly successful, but not equally so. Libertarians enjoyed the lower tax rates, deregulation, and smaller government initiated by Ronald Reagan. Foreign policy hawks likewise rejoiced in Reagan’s combative attitude toward the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse. But the moral traditionalists had little to show for their fealty. Indeed, as the world continued to liberalize, as the moral norms to which they were committed grew ever more contested, as the convulsions of 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 destabilized the world, these traditionalists grew ever more radicalized, excluded, and bitter.
National Conservatism represents the revenge of the moral traditionalists. From their perspective, the world is going to hell, and the free-market libertarians and foreign policy hawks who were part of the old conservative order are a part of the problem. Along with social progressives, they are in fact contributing to a globalized imperial liberal order that benefits a wealthy, educated, cosmopolitan elite but erodes the intellectual, spiritual, and material conditions of communal life. The solution, they believe, lies in the rejuvenation of our commitment to the nation. It is the nation that preserves and transmits the traditions, ideals, and cultural values that are the foundation of human flourishing. This is true in the United States and throughout Europe. Western Civilization as a whole is under threat, and the only way to preserve it is to rejuvenate citizens’ commitments to their particular national traditions, especially the Judeo-Christian values that underwrite the whole of the Western tradition.
The ten principles that constitute the Statement are on the whole remarkably anodyne, even suspiciously so, relative to the more apocalyptic and Manichean rhetoric that typically characterizes the movement. NatCons are committed to national independence and governance, and to the rule of law. They reject imperialism, globalism, and racism. They are committed to free markets, but in a measured way, and they encourage public investment in scientific research and education. Surprisingly, these are principles that could be affirmed by the AOC wing of the Democratic Party, at least in the abstract.
Turning to areas that tend to be more controversial, the Statement also expresses a commitment to the traditional heterosexual family and a more restrictive immigration policy, but even here the language is notably tamer than it is in other venues. So, for example, it states that “the traditional family is the source of society’s virtues and deserves greater support from public policy,” but doesn’t mock modern professional women as being “childless media scold[s], or barren bureaucratic apparatchik[s]” who are “more medicated, meddlesome, and quarrelsome than women need to be,” as Scott Yenor did at NatCon II. (Yenor went on to assert that “every effort must be made not to recruit women into engineering, but rather to recruit and demand more of men who become engineers. Ditto for med school, and the law, and every trade.”) Regarding immigration, the Statement declares that “Western nations have benefited from both liberal and restrictive immigration policies at various times. We call for much more restrictive policies until these countries summon the wit to establish more balanced, productive, and assimilationist policies.” While contentious, this view of immigration is a far cry from the claim offered by Amy Wax at NatCon that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”
Still, this kinder, gentler Statement of Principles does raise questions about its own content. This is especially true of the section dedicated to “God and Public Religion.” “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition,” the statement claims. What makes a religious tradition “authentic,” one wonders? The answer comes quickly: “The Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and non-believers alike.” So in the American context Christian religious traditions have a special priority. But what does it mean to say that the Bible is the “rightful inheritance of believer and non-believers alike”? That sounds more like a threat than a gift, and offers seemingly little concern for the rights of non-Christian minorities who are protected from public religion only “in their private lives and in their homes.”
At its core, National Conservatism is a reaction against modernity itself, an attempt to restore a patriarchal and ethnocentric premodern world where male political leaders have the authority to coercively assert moral traditions over their populace. It rejects totally the liberal moral conviction that individual persons have an intrinsic dignity, the terms of which are spelled out in the rights and liberties we (at least for now) take for granted. To be sure, this modern world—constituted by liberal political values, democratic political institutions, the advances of science and technology, industrialism and capitalist economic arrangements—teeters and groans under the weight of the many existential problems of its own creation. Poverty, inequality, exploitation, political corruption and conflict, anomie and alienation, a rapidly warming planet, and global pandemics to name a few. One doesn’t have to be a National Conservative to think that families are important, that the purpose of sexual relationships go beyond fleeting pleasure, that the benefits and burdens of global capitalism have been distributed unfairly, that national sovereignty is an important value, that radical individualism is harmful, that the widespread flow of refugees fleeing places of great hostility and poverty is a serious problem that deserves concerted attention. The question is whether we are going to try to address the existential problems of modernity within the framework of liberal political morality or whether we will abandon it for an older picture of the social order. Can modernity course-correct? Can we preserve social institutions that permit dignified difference, or must we return to a premodern social order of coercive homogeneity?
Edward Song is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.