This essay is part of our collection on nationalism. See the full collection here.

“Nationalism” is a bit like “feminism.” Both terms are widely used, yet no one seems to agree on exactly what they mean.

The organizer of last week’s conference on “National Conservatism,” Yoram Hazony, sees two basic options for political theory: nationalism and imperialism. As he defines it in The Virtue of Nationalism, nationalism

is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.

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Nationalism, in this basic sense, united the otherwise disparate group of conservatives brought together by Hazony for last week’s conference.

Interestingly, although this definition primarily concerns the relationship among nations, foreign policy was one of the most confused aspects of the conference, which brought together hawks and isolationists. While they all agreed that foreign policy should be guided by a concern for national interest, the specifics of what that means remain unclear, and the most rousing speeches concerned domestic, not foreign, policy.

The excitement at the conference was palpable. Speakers and attendees alike seemed to feel that they were among the founding fathers of a new conservative consensus that would set the course for the Republican party for decades to come. Speaker after speaker heartily rejected pure libertarianism and radical individualism and rousingly called for the restoration of authentic human flourishing and the well-being of the family as the explicit, unifying aims of public policy.

The conference’s “big tent” approach and respectful, lively discourse are laudable. Yet the breadth of this new coalition means that there is meaningful disagreement among members about some very important questions. This is particularly evident with respect to immigration and the classical liberal foundations of American government. And, as other press coverage has noted, the conference’s leaders largely refused to address the connection between the intellectual work they have set for themselves—which they clearly see as enabled by the upheaval in the GOP brought about by the election of Donald Trump—and the words and actions of Trump himself.

Anti-Anti-Nationalism: Against White Supremacy and Illiberalism

The conference began with David Brog sounding a note of welcome. Brog, who is the President of the newly formed Edmund Burke Foundation and executive director of the Maccabees Task Force, expressed his unity with those who have not felt at home in movement conservativism in a long time—those who have sensed that it has too often elevated the pursuit of freedom at all costs and abandoned a commitment to virtue.

To his credit, Brog, like many of the speakers who followed him, confronted fears about nationalism head on. “Number one,” he declared, “we are nationalists, not white nationalists,” inviting anyone who fit that description to show themselves out immediately. “Number two,” he continued, “we may not be liberals, but we are not illiberals.” Everyone at the conference, Brog emphasized, “revere[s] our democratic institutions, our bill of rights, and the liberties we enjoy as citizens of this republic.” As for the conference’s mission, Brog laid it out clearly:

Tonight, together, we launch an effort to recover and reclaim our national conservative tradition. We seek to supplement, not supplant traditional movement conservatism. We’re determined to use the energy of nationalism to bind us together and never to divide us. We’re determined to build on the victories of 2016.

Brog’s denunciations of racism and illiberalism are welcome, of course. Still, for those who harbor qualms about much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and many of his policies, this kind of triumphalist talk—even paired with talk about freedom and virtue—remains unsettling. How does the election of a man who embodies the opposite of most of the virtues social conservatives hold most dear help us to restore the pursuit of virtue to the public sphere? How does a focus on “America first” help us to better understand the common good?

Why Nationalism Needs Traditional Social Conservatism

On Monday morning, Mary Eberstadt directly addressed the relationship between social conservatism and national conservatism. While noting that it’s important to articulate a strong “anti-anti-nationalism,” Eberstadt argued that nationalists need to go further. Specifically, she argued, the conservative movement must recover a fuller sense of “the national interest.”

Although this term is primarily used in international affairs, Eberstadt argued that we need to recover it as a guiding principle for domestic affairs as well. In shaping public policy, we ought to ask what is actually conducive to the human flourishing of our country’s citizens.

Libertarianism, Eberstadt declared bluntly, is simply incapable of answering this question. It lacks the moral foundation necessary to understand the good of the human person, and it fails to develop the habit of mind that looks to the wisdom that preceded Adam Smith and Austrian economics. Because libertarianism exalts autonomy and self-determination above all else, it is willing to accept immense human suffering—such as that caused by the opioid crisis, our culture’s deep sexual disorder, the breakdown of the American family, and the scourge of racism—as so much collateral damage. To libertarianism, these things are surely regrettable, but they are ultimately an acceptable price to pay for individual freedom.

Eberstadt powerfully and convincingly laid out the case for why this new national conservatism needs traditional social conservatism. But does social conservatism really need to adopt the mantle of nationalism?

This new national conservatism needs traditional social conservatism. But does social conservatism really need to adopt the mantle of nationalism?

Speakers such as Tucker Carlson, JD Vance, and Oren Cass seem to think so. In his characteristically bombastic manner, Tucker Carlson argued that supporting American families should be the central plank of the GOP platform. Like many other speakers, he lamented the outsized cultural and moral influence of big business and big data. JD Vance agreed, arguing that politics should be able to distinguish between the work of neuroscientists engineering new ways to addict our children to their apps and neuroscientists working to cure Alzheimer’s Disease. According to Vance, conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to use political power to support what is conducive to human flourishing and constrain what harms it. Like Eberstadt, both Carlson and Vance critiqued libertarianism for its inability to restrain the corrosive effects of consumer culture.

In his debate with Richard Reinsch of the Liberty Fund, Oren Cass argued that the United States should adopt an industrial policy aimed at bringing manufacturing jobs back to our country. In his view, bringing back decently paying jobs for men without higher education should be a high priority for the federal government. This view was clearly shared by the majority of the conference’s attendees, even though Reinsch cited a flood of statistics to back up his free-market argument against adopting an industrial policy. In a floor vote, Cass’s position won in a vote of 99 to 51.

Cause for Hope—and Caution

There’s a lot to like about the fledgling national conservative movement.

On the centrality of the family and the need to fashion public policy in a way that encourages human flourishing, for example, the movement’s positions seem to align squarely with social conservative ideals. Yet, when it comes to the well-being of those who are not American citizens, things are not so clear.

Nationalism does not necessarily betray commitments to human dignity and universal natural law, but it does tend to weaken them. In its attempt to correct the excesses of globalism, cosmopolitanism, and individualism, which have hollowed out the intermediary institutions of civil society, nationalism can easily go too far. This is most evident when it comes to questions of immigration. It’s possible that concerns over what Amy Wax calls “cultural distance” may be justified, but we must not allow our commitment to maintaining our distinctive national culture blind us to the dignity of those who do not share it.

Nationalism does not necessarily betray commitments to human dignity and universal natural law, but it does tend to weaken them.

I was thankful for the moderating presence of Luma Simms, who is an Iraqi immigrant herself. With a humanistic touch, she explored the desire for rootedness—a universal human desire—and how it shapes the lives of immigrants. We will soon be publishing an essay here at Public Discourse based on her remarks at the conference.

Similarly, I heartily applaud the rejection of radical individualism and the defective moral system based on a vision of the human person as totally autonomous and self-determining. I was glad to hear Hazony’s description of human beings as fundamentally “sticky,” which seems like another way of saying that we are inherently relational. In his book, Hazony offers a description of the birth of nations that relies on ties of mutual loyalty, first within the family, then the tribe, clan, and nation-state. In many ways, this strikes me as a more accurate founding myth than that of social contract theory.

Yet rejecting radical individualism doesn’t necessarily require repudiating the American constitutional order as irredeemably perverted by a classical liberal framework that contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Especially in an era in which sexual progressivism has the upper hand, it should be easy for people of faith, in particular, to see the merits of the safeguards that the founders put in place to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. We must continue to fight for the right to exercise religion, to structure our lives in accord with our beliefs, and to raise our children as we see fit. This is true, even though it means fighting for the same rights for people with whom we deeply disagree.

Hazony cautions against the imperialism that creeps in when we structure political communities around abstract ideals rather than particular attachments and mutual loyalty. But if we eschew universal claims, what can bind together such a diverse country? If the purpose of national conservatism is to conserve America’s distinctive cultural inheritance, how does the movement understand the American tradition? How does it contend with the universal declarations of unalienable rights contained in our country’s founding documents? Or the universal moral claims of the Christian tradition, which has undoubtedly shaped our national character?

If we eschew universal claims, what can bind together such a diverse country?

Nationalism, Localism, and Liberalism

Other philosophical, historical, and practical questions remain. In the past, nationalism has been championed by progressives who disdained parochial and sectional interests. Does such a strong emphasis on the nation undermine traditional conservative loyalty to a thick web of local institutions?

Both Patrick Deneen and Yuval Levin argued that it need not do so—that, instead, nationalism can act as a corrective to our current condition, bringing our focus homeward and replacing abstract commitment to the good of all humanity with more meaningful and compelling loyalty to particular communities. Levin turned to Edmund Burke for guidance in negotiating the related tensions between localism and nationalism and between nationalism and liberalism. For Burke, Levin explains, “national attachment is the culmination, or the sum, of local attachments,” not a replacement for them.

And Burke can help us in another way—by pointing to the distinctly liberal nature of the American national character in particular. It is essential to realize, as Burke helps us see, that our country is not an idea but a society, with a character, a culture, and a history, full of people who are our real-life fellow citizens and to whom we owe our loyalty. And yet there is something ironically universalist in the claim that every nation’s character must be equally particularist.

Our particular national character, as Burke could see even before American independence, is uniquely oriented by certain principled commitments.

For Americans in particular, the appeal of the national can be both philosophical and visceral—because we share a common home in which we have lived a common life together that has always been committed to a set of ideals—religious and philosophical, communal and liberal, including a belief in natural rights, rooted in natural equality, and pointing to a politics of justice. Our national commitments add up to a people born and bred to seek freedom and virtue together.

The strong emphasis on Edmund Burke—who was chosen as the namesake for the new foundation sponsoring the conference—is a promising sign that this new movement’s leaders are aware of its potential downfalls and hope to draw on Burkean insights to combat them. They would be wise to draw deeply on the insights of the natural law tradition as well.

Hazony is obviously a true believer in the nationalist project. But, for many of the movement’s other members, adopting this label mainly seems to be a rhetorical shift. By characterizing the GOP of the last decade or two as essentially libertarian, and then rejecting libertarianism, they seek to take good but not particularly new policy proposals and make them attractive to Trump supporters. On most issues, it’s unclear exactly how the national conservative policy platform differs from, say, the 2008 vision of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party or prescriptions of the “reformicons.” In other words, this “new consensus” seems to be based on a political calculation that, by harnessing the momentum of Trumpian nationalism, the GOP might be able to finally get things done.

If national conservatism is able to come to a workable internal consensus along the Burkean lines described above, and if its leaders are able to translate that vision into meaningful political victories and changes in public policy without falling into any of the pitfalls to which nationalism is prone, this could be a very good thing for the conservative movement—and the nation. But if the political calculation to align itself with Trump corrodes its moral center, the national conservative movement could also go very, very wrong.

Time will tell.