National conservatism, a synthesis of nationalism, populism, and cultural conservatism, is a rising ideological movement. Although it began as an assemblage of modestly visible public intellectuals, its adherents now include higher-profile figures—among them several Senators and Christopher DeMuth, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime pillar of the conservative establishment.
In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, DeMuth explains the shift from Reaganism to his new creed. Paraphrasing one of Irving Kristol’s most famous aphorisms, DeMuth says that national conservatives are conservatives who have been “mugged by reality.” The American Left, for its part, was once “liberal and reformist” but has now been taken over by woke progressives and globalists. In these circumstances, DeMuth argues, conservatives can no longer be incrementalist reformers warning against the dangers of unintended consequences, as decades of contributors to Kristol’s The Public Interest were: “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.” There’s no choice: it’s time to take off the gloves.
It is not reality that has mugged DeMuth, however, but hyperbole. The opening paragraph of his essay is a genteel summary of former President Donald Trump’s over-the-top “American carnage” Inaugural Address. I have no sympathy for woke progressivism, but DeMuth’s description of its alleged effects on the country is America reflected in a fun-house mirror.
Nor is it the case that the reasonable center-left with which the center-right could do business has disappeared. Yes, there are progressives who want to turn the world upside down. But they are not the majority of Democrats. We can argue about the wisdom of enacting the Build Back Better bill in current circumstances. But paid family leave, universal pre-K, and a child allowance less generous than Mitt Romney has proposed are hardly the stuff of socialist revolution. We are arguing about the measures needed to lean against the deficiencies of the market. (Unlike libertarian conservatives, many national conservatives have engaged in this conversation.)
Even on hot-button cultural issues, there is more potential for agreement than partisans acknowledge. Take the controversy du jour, teaching critical race theory (CRT) in public schools. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2021 American Values Survey found that 84 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, believe that we “should teach American history that includes both our best achievements and our worst mistakes as a country.” The 1619 Project is not a suitable basis for this curriculum, and neither is the 1776 Project. Critical race theory, a complex doctrine created in elite law schools, certainly isn’t, and few think that it is. There will always be outliers in a country the size of the United States, but evidence that CRT is widely taught in our public schools is hard to find.
Yes, there are those on the left who want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and defund the police. But their demands were excluded from the 2020 Democratic Party platform, and most Democratic candidates who espoused them lost in primary elections. Meanwhile, center-left liberals negotiated in good faith with Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) on a compromise package of police reforms; the negotiations did not yield an agreement but substantially narrowed differences between the parties. True, searching for compromise in this way is a dirty word for minorities of both political parties; yet imputing the views of fringe members to a party’s mainstream is an unproductive game, which both sides can play but which neither side can or should win.
Much the same applies to the national conservatives’ second indictment of today’s Left, its purported anti-nationalism. “Modern progressives,” writes DeMuth, “imagine themselves as champions of humanity at large and [see] the nation as a primitive artifact that constrains human aspiration and inhibits global solutions.”
In fairness, this is not (quite) a straw man. Writing in the New York Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of the think tank New America, argues that we must “break free of 20th-century thinking” to deal with the problems of the 21st. This means shifting away from state-centered approaches and toward “globalism.” We need to “put people first,” she insists—to “see the world first as a planet of eight billion people rather than as an artificially constructed system of 195 countries.” “Great-power games … must give way to planetary politics, in which human beings matter more than nationalities.”
I doubt that many senior members of the Biden administration (or many Democrats on the House and Senate foreign relations committees) share these views. I certainly don’t, and neither do most center-left scholars. DeMuth’s sleight-of-hand is to impute such views to the center-left as a whole and pretend that the only alternative to globalist progressivism is national conservatism.
But there is an alternative, of course—liberal internationalism. This approach, which dominates the center-left, accepts the legitimacy of the state as the basic form of political organization in the modern era. It is only in states that self-government is possible and that the particularities of national history and culture can be expressed. And leaders of states are responsible, first and foremost, for the well-being of their own citizens. From a liberal internationalist perspective, there is nothing wrong, at least in principle, with U.S. Presidents who put “America First,” as all of them have done.
There are disagreements about what putting America first means. After World War II ended, some American leaders continued to advocate the policy of retreat from the world that the United States pursued after World War I. We are fortunate that our post-1945 Presidents did not follow this advice; they understood that the prosperity and security of the American people could not be decoupled from the fate of other countries and peoples.
This is one reason why America First does not mean America only. There is another reason: For liberal internationalists, our moral responsibilities do not end at our national borders. It is more than collective self-interest that makes us care about victims of persecution and pandemics. We owe something to our fellow human beings, not only our fellow citizens. This universal obligation does not require us to ship vaccines overseas before the basic medical needs of Americans have been met, but it does mean that George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program to fight AIDS in Africa was the right thing to do.
Ships of state do not sail on amoral seas. Although they enjoy substantial freedom of action to pursue the national interest, some principles limit their actions; and we diminish ourselves when we ignore those limits. The extreme brand of nationalism that national conservatives endorse is not the remedy for globalism but rather its mirror-image.
If Christopher DeMuth is the respectable adult face of national conservatism, a trio of scrappy intellectuals—Yoram Hazony, Patrick Deneen, and Rod Dreher—are its main intellectual architects. In speeches delivered at the second National Conservatism Conference this past November, they clarified the movement’s intellectual pillars and urgent concerns.
As populists, these national conservatives are critical of elites, economic as well as cultural. They claim to speak on behalf of a working class that international corporations and upscale professionals have neglected for two generations. This is a real issue, and I do not question their sincerity.
But as I listened to their speeches, I noticed that the audience usually reacted with silence to their condemnation of economic elites. By contrast, castigating cultural elites evoked thunderous applause. As another national conservative, Sohrab Ahmari, has noted, President Trump’s principal legislative achievement, despite his pro-working-class rhetoric, was a large tax cut for corporations. Some thinkers associated with national conservation have been crafting a working-class economic agenda. But as of now, the movement’s energy is mainly in the cultural sphere.
This is the context in which Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has become the model of national conservative leadership. In contrast to American conservatives, says Dreher, who do little but complain, Orbán is willing to do whatever it takes to defend his country’s national sovereignty and cultural integrity.
This is one way of looking at what Orbán represents, but it obscures a more fundamental truth: Orbán has pioneered what he candidly labels “illiberal democracy.” And let’s be clear: by “illiberal” he means “unlimited.” In liberal societies, there are principled limits to state power, even if the regime is democratic. In illiberal societies, government recognizes no such limits. In illiberal democracies, majorities can do what they want, restrained not by enduring principles but only by the shifting dictates of prudence or whim. Today, allowing minorities to live in ways different from those of the majority may be a way of enhancing support for the government; tomorrow, maybe not. If an illiberal democracy advances its agenda by dominating the press and the courts, or by stripping unpopular minorities of their rights, so be it.
In another speech at the National Conservatism Conference, Balázs Orbán, a key adviser to President Orbán (no relation), puts it this way: While “Anglo-Saxon” ideology contains general principles, “Central European” political thought takes its bearings from the particularities of national history and culture, which help define the national interest. Anglo-Saxon governance defends individual rights and liberties; Central European governance defends the national collectivity. Anglo-Saxon societies see modernity as a natural outgrowth of their culture, while Central European countries experience modernity as a challenge to their traditions. For Central Europeans, individual rights and freedoms must give way to what Balázs Orbán terms the “pragmatic” policies needed to preserve each nation’s cultural particularities. This is the approach that national conservatives recommend for the United States, whatever the consequences for liberty.
Hazony thinks that the United States needs a heathy dose of illiberalism, so understood, and no one can say that he lacks the courage of his convictions. Although he is an Orthodox Jew, he does not believe that Jews have cultural rights in countries where the majority has a different creed. “Where there is a large Christian majority,” he insists, “the public life of the country has to be Christian;” and “where there’s a majority of a certain culture, they get the public culture.” In the United States, Hazony reasons, this means Christian prayers in public schools and Christian symbols in public spaces. Jews and other minorities have no right to demand that Christians create a level playing field by evacuating the public square.
Although Hazony does not say so explicitly, he seems to think that America would be better off if it were more like Israel, where the religious and cultural majority enjoys a primacy that minorities must accept. This proposition overlooks the fundamental difference between the two countries. For reasons that everyone knows, Israel was established as the national home of the Jewish people, the only place in the world where Jews would not need to worry about hostile majorities. By contrast, the unity of the United States was neither ethnic nor religious but rather creedal. “Nature’s god” was not distinctively Christian, and this god’s truths were “self-evident,” knowable through reason, not revealed.
Some American conservatives believe you must be a Christian of Western European heritage to count as truly American; but this is not the majority’s view today, and it certainly wasn’t George Washington’s. In his famous letter to the Jews of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It is fair, I think, to ask America’s national conservatives whether they accept George Washington’s words.
National conservatives are united in their belief that they have “lost the culture.” Their question is what to do about this. Just a few years ago, Deneen and Dreher advocated retreating to private enclaves in which Christians and moral conservatives could practice their creed without interference, sealed off as much as possible from the influence of a corrupt, libertine, and hyper-individualist public culture. Dreher famously endorsed the “Benedict Option.” In a similar vein, Deneen recommended “intentional communities” that house “practices fostered in local settings.” He rightly characterized this strategy as taking advantage of the “openness of liberal society.”
But today, fight has replaced flight. Rather than retreating from the cultural fray, national conservatives follow Viktor Orbán’s example. Says Dreher, “We should embrace without apology an aggressive use of state power” to transform their beliefs into America’s public culture and build a national conservative “deep state.” For national conservatives, an unabashed illiberalism has replaced peaceful coexistence with liberalism. Defenders of liberal democracy should take notice.
Hazony and Deneen, In their best-known books, attack John Locke as the source of America’s ills. Locke, they contend, is responsible for the hyper-individualism and the breakdown of the distinction between liberty and license that now disfigure American society. Locke’s voluntarism dissolves natural duties in all human relations, including the family, Deneen says, and leads to the mistaken view that political legitimacy rests on consent. (As far as I can tell, national conservatives have not settled on an alternative to consent as the basis of legitimacy, but it could involve some form of religious establishment, about which Hazony speaks approvingly.)
This takes us to the heart of the matter. Locke’s thought is indeed the principal source of the Declaration of Independence, a liberal document that treats the rights of individuals as fundamental and places the consent of the people at the center of politics. Rejecting Locke means rejecting the Declaration and, with it, the Gettysburg Address and the appeal to equality that has motivated America’s great movements of social reform. In their place, Deneen proposes an invented history that makes no reference whatever to the Declaration and grounds the Constitution in “pre-modern” thought.
National conservatives are right to stress the importance of the common good—or, in constitutional language, the “general welfare”—and to criticize market enthusiasts who view these concepts as meaningless. But they are wrong to assume that the content of the common good is self-evident. In a diverse society, we argue about it; and our understanding of what the common good requires changes in response to changing circumstances and beliefs.
Liberalism arose in response to the emergence of deep religious divisions. After long and bloody wars of religion, thinkers concluded that governments could not impose creedal uniformity on religiously diverse societies. Religious liberty was the only alternative to unending strife, and it was a right, not a revocable gift from an all-powerful government.
National conservatives ignore this history. They believe that in modern circumstances, governments can use public power to overcome what they see as moral anarchy and to impose a uniform set of beliefs and practices on a diverse citizenry. They fantasize about winning the culture war by dominating and wielding state power. Whatever may have been the case in the 19th century, today’s Americans will not accept this, and we shouldn’t. We should hold fast to the Declaration of Independence as the polestar of our institutions and policies—and as the only basis for national unity that can be maintained without the oppressive use of state power.
Balázs Orbán is correct: the national conservative vision is indeed more Central European than American—and history tells us where it leads.
William A. Galston, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
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