Is the future of conservatism "national"?
Arnold Kling has an excellent Substack post on the National Conservative Conference. I also recommend this piece by Nate Hochmann.
My takeaway from both is that national conservatives may have a point in claiming that “all of the energy, all of the excitement, all of the intellectual innovation is on our side”. Other conservative groups, think tanks or “environments” broadly speaking have been quite silent lately – including, if you consider them members of the same broader intellectual family, libertarians. A number of libertarian groups have basically had no position on the pandemic and lockdowns. In itself, that signals the complexity of the issue, but it also makes people understandably wonder about the viability and relevance of a certain set of ideas. If libertarians do not enter the debate on unprecedented limitations of personal liberty and unprecedented growth in public spending and public debts, what are they good for?
“National conservatives”, on the other hand, are extremely vocal on the issues of the day, beginning with left wing hegemony in education and race and crime. They are certainly growing in visibility. Yet one can still wonder, as Hochmann and Kling do, what they stand for. Arnold proposes to consider national conservatism as “20th century conservatism minus fiscal responsibility plus class warfare rhetoric”.
There are a couple of things that crossed my mind in this regard. The movement was christened by the publication of Yoram Hazony’s The Virtues of Nationalism. I found that to be not a persuasive book, to say the least. But I think it was a clever book, as it proposed to conservatives, who were kind of shocked after Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party, something that seemed to offer an ideological outlook. Lots of pieces are missing: why, for example, Hazony’s insistence on the biblical roots of modern nation states, or his notion that *true* (good?) nationalism is actually hard wired in the Anglo Saxon political culture, why, indeed, all this should lead to fiscal profligacy is not clear to me. That attitude toward a bigger spending conservatism was actually rooted in support for Trumpism. National conservatives fashion themselves as the intellectuals who take Trump seriously and endeavoured to weave a coherent approach out of his many idiosyncratic policies.
The disregard for Paul Ryan (who looks to me an economically sensible, fiscally conservative Republican) is due to what I would consider national conservatism’s true business: a version of identity politics. If “nationalism”, in the form of industrial policy, connotes some of the national conservatives’ proposals, the “intellectual energies” they are mobilizing are concerned mainly with culture, not with economic policy. A rejection of the current fashion of critical race theory is what is bonding together a movement which is not without strong and vocal intellectual personalities.
This may not be new. Economic policies are not typically useful in mobilizing people and one could argue that the battle over communism was indeed a “cultural war”. Yet the idea that Western countries should not look like communist ones was up to a certain extent bipartisan and based upon common political values, whereas now it is a challenge to find values the left and the right share – perhaps with the exception of their common allegiance to more economic interventionism.
Conference-goers — a politically disparate association of West Coast Straussians associated with the California-based Claremont Institute, post-liberals, right-wing populists, and any number of other ideological subgenres grouped together in what has come to be known as the “New Right” — come together in the belief that the conservative movement has failed to fully harness the relative cultural conservatism of the American electorate. There remains some ambiguity about what the national conservatives are for, but they know what they are against — what Israeli–American conference organizer Yoram Hazony described in his speech as “the idea of a public liberalism and a private conservatism.” For too long, national conservatives argue, the Right has seen the protection of liberty as the sole purpose of political life and has largely relegated discussion of virtue to the private sphere. But “there is no real wall separating the public from the private — that’s a myth,” Hazony says. “The public sphere reaches down into the private.” Politics, in other words, is not downstream from culture.
In many ways, this is a reaction to a politicization of the private sphere which started on the left. The new idea seems to be opposition not on the grounds that the private lives of people are private and so should remain, but rather with a symmetric government advocacy for another version of what peoples’ personal identity should look like. This could be an inevitable blowback to culture trends that consolidated in the last few years. Yet I tend to share Arnold’s conclusion: what we see is “a dangerous and misleading political left with a dangerous and misleading political right”.