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What Is National Conservatism?
The movement could be the future of the American right.
The third National Conservatism Conference is currently convening in Miami. It began on Sunday with a keynote address by Peter Thiel, a billionaire who has nurtured the careers of Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. Thiel describes himself as a “somewhat heterodox” Christian who, though believing Christianity to be true, doesn’t “feel a compelling need to convince other people of that.” The conference will end with an address by Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose mission is precisely to convince other people of “that.” Crammed between them are nearly 100 speakers on 23 panels on topics ranging from the threat of transgenderism to the relation between Catholicism and nationalism.
Three U.S. senators have made time to speak at the conference—Florida’s Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, along with Missouri’s Josh Hawley. Governor Ron DeSantis, the odds-on favorite for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination if Donald Trump stands down, will also deliver a keynote address.
Clearly, national conservatism is the hot new property on the conservative block, so it’s worth trying to understand it better.
On the surface, it represents an effort to bring some ideological coherence to the impulses Donald Trump represents—nationalism, isolationism, social conservatism, and hostility to immigration. Dig a bit deeper, and you encounter a pervasive sense of alarm. Christopher DeMuth, the urbane former president of the American Enterprise Institute who has unexpectedly become a leading advocate for the national conservative movement, puts it this way in a lengthy article, “Why America Needs National Conservatism”:
When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change ... But today’s woke progressivism isn’t reformist. It seeks not to build on the past but to promote instability, to turn the world upside-down ... When the leftward party in a two-party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive ... National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.
This sense of being besieged by revolutionary forces is especially strong in the cultural sphere. National conservatives believe that if “woke progressivism” prevails, western civilization ends. All sense of limits—divine, natural, and moral—will disappear, to be replaced by a new absolute and unfettered autonomy that endlessly disrupts traditional patterns of gender and social relations.
National conservatives allege that the conservatives of recent decades have underestimated the gravity of this development. They have paid too much attention to freedom and not enough to virtue. They have fetishized limited government when the times require a stronger government that defends national traditions against cultural revolution, national economic interests against globalization, and national sovereignty against transnational institutions and universal norms.
While national conservatives reject what they call the “socialist principle”—that the state can plan and dictate economic activity—the line between socialism so understood and their own preferred policies is hazy. National conservative governments, they insist, must curb the excesses of the free market by using economic policy to serve the national interest. In specific circumstances this may require protectionism, limits on the activities of transnational corporations, and industrial policies to bolster manufacturing and national defense. It will also require extensive support for public research, but not through universities, which they call “partisan and globalist in orientation and vehemently opposed to nationalist and conservative ideas.”
National conservatives also want to bolster traditional institutions such as the nuclear family with pro-natalist policies, including economic support for childrearing and aggressive public support for traditional beliefs. National conservatives cheered when Governor DeSantis eliminated longstanding tax breaks for Disney World after the Disney Corporation criticized his legislation restricting classroom instruction on sexual or gender identity. Most importantly, national conservatives urge the government to restore a “proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice.”
Unsurprisingly, national conservatives inveigh against libertarianism and do their best to minimize its influence among conservatives. Surprisingly, they do not stop there. Two of their most important intellectuals, political theorists Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, have mounted a frontal attack on the entire individualist, rights-based liberal political tradition that they trace back to John Locke.
This move doesn’t create practical problems for national conservatives in countries such as Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s brand of illiberalism is consistent with his country’s traditions even if it shocks the sensibilities of the European Union. But it does create a problem for them in the United States where, historians inspired by Louis Hartz have argued, political liberalism is our tradition. As Abraham Lincoln declared in the Gettysburg Address, we are a nation dedicated to a proposition: we are all created equal, not in talent and character, but in our possession of certain fundamental rights that government did not create and cannot abridge.
National conservatives confront this challenge by creating a counter-narrative of the American political tradition. In a recent debate with Matt Continetti, the author of a comprehensive history of American conservatism, DeMuth made a bluntly anti-Lincolnian move: America, he insisted, is “not a creedal nation.” The Declaration of Independence was not a statement of American principles but rather a “bill of particulars” against King George III; the Constitution represents not an effort to put the principles of the Declaration into institutional form, but the merging of the traditions of British conservativism with the practices of Anglo-American common law.
General principles challenge the practices that lie at the heart of every tradition. This was Lincoln’s point: if you believe in the Declaration, you can’t justify slavery. In a similar vein, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that segregation and the denial of voting rights were incompatible with the Declaration’s commitment to moral and civic equality. But rather than celebrating principles as a source of critique, national conservatives fear them as a source of coerced homogeneity. To ward off this threat, they advocate federalism within culturally diverse nations, and they denounce the norms of the European Union as an example of a “liberal imperialism” imposed on national traditions.
National conservatives even reject the U.S. Constitution’s opposition to religious establishments. “No nation can long endure,” they insist, without the “humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.” The Bible is the premier source of western civilization and should be accepted as such by non-believers as well as the faithful. “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.”
When I attended Connecticut public schools in the 1950s, I was required to recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning. I do not recall being told that I could leave the room during the prayer, or even remain silent and think about something else. While I cannot say that this practice scarred me for life, making a young Jewish boy recite a prayer written by Jesus was not—and is not—consistent with any conception of religious liberty that a reasonable person can endorse.
According to national conservativism’s official principles, “Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.” But what about children in public schools? Is it necessary for Jews and other minorities to leave public spaces to avoid coercion by the majority? For that matter, can no principled objections be raised against the public marginalization of Muslims in Narendra Modi’s India—or of Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan? In practice, the line between institutionalizing the power of religious majorities and oppressing religious minorities is too easily crossed.
National conservatives do not distinguish between the liberal political tradition and the excesses of today’s liberal culture. They see the focus on individual rights—and on the conceptions of equality and liberty that flow from them—as corroding traditional beliefs and practices. They are convinced that they must sacrifice the liberal baby to get rid of the progressive bathwater, and they are all too eager to do so.
Embracing unfettered majoritarianism in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue. It is hard to overstate the danger to pluralism and liberty that lies at the end of this road.
William A. Galston is Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.