The American right is in one of its periodic fits of introspection and internecine dispute. The midterm elections, which were widely anticipated to deliver victories for the “new right,” ended up being rather disappointing for the GOP as a whole. Instead of sweeping into power, Republicans not only failed to recapture but in fact lost control of the Senate, and they only narrowly secured control of the House. Moreover, political candidates aligned with nascent conservative factions plausibly bore much of the blame.
The relationship between the Republican Party and the conservative movement has never been direct. Even so, throughout the history of modern conservatism, different factions have gained dominance by securing champions in the political arena. The presence of such champions helps to mainstream a given group’s ideas, create new institutions dedicated to those ideas, and elevate actors within existing institutions who favor new currents over those who are seen as clinging to the status quo. The success of such champions, furthermore, can pave the way for the political triumph of like-minded compatriots.
The failure of such would-be champions, on the other hand, produces precisely the sort of infighting the right is seeing now. Given that the midterms failed to provide a decisive victory for any conservative faction, they all continue to advance their own priorities and interests while harshly criticizing the others. They agree, rightly, that there is much in modern American life that requires serious correction, but they differ in the prescriptions they propose.
One of the contenders for control of the movement is national conservatism, whose adherents claim to be the most fiercely agitated about modern American life and the best equipped to address what agitates them. But despite its leaders’ proclamations to the contrary, national conservatism is uniquely ill-equipped to accomplish what it sets out to do, because of its uncertain relationship to the American political tradition and its comfort with the sources of many of America’s current ills.
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The Principles of National Conservatism
National conservatism can be broadly defined, as it has many adherents who hold a variety of positions on key policy questions. Last year, however, many of them signed a Statement of Principles written on behalf of national conservatism’s flagship institution, the Edmund Burke Foundation, which was meant to convey consensus on certain beliefs.
National conservatives attempt to distinguish themselves by their focus on the interests of the nation, as such; by their special attention to issues that directly concern the nation’s relation to other polities (especially immigration, trade, and foreign policy); and by their greater willingness to employ power at the national level to effect policy desiderata. The Statement—some of whose signers hail from other nations—puts it this way:
We see the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring 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.
In the specifically American context, it endorses “accepting and living in accordance with the Constitution of 1787, the amendments to it, duly enacted statutory law, and the great common law inheritance.” This is all welcome, to a considerable extent, but it also sounds rather familiar. Concerns about our nation’s borders, our nation’s economy, and our nation’s presence abroad are common themes for conservatives, even in the restrictionist, protectionist, and less interventionist forms national conservatives favor.
Of course, as much as conservatives love to describe what they believe, they take equal—or perhaps even greater—joy in describing what they do not. One account, written by David Brog of the Edmund Burke Foundation, forcefully rejects alleged myths about national conservatism. Two are worth discussing here. Do national conservatives oppose the free market? No; they admire it, Brog wrote, but they “see the free market as the best means to an end and not an end in itself.” This makes them “willing to depart from orthodox laissez faire when the national interest requires it.” Are they foreign-policy isolationists? No; they reject the stale, discredited consensus of interventionism, but “see strengthening allies like Japan, South Korea, India, Israel, and Ukraine as the best way to protect our interests abroad.”
Yet these “myths” contain more truth than Brog admits. At the third National Conservatism conference in 2022, also a project of the Edmund Burke Foundation, statements praising free markets were nearly always followed by caveats large enough to call into question the first part of the statement. “Ronald Reagan’s agenda was successful because it fit the specific needs of his time. We don’t need to—and we shouldn’t—throw out all our old ideas,” Rachel Bovard said at the conference. “But we do need to reprioritize them now—when our most basic government and economic institutions are ideologically weaponized against the public.” Similarly, the conference provided evidence both for and against isolationist tendencies. Some national conservatives, such as conference chairman Christopher DeMuth, support Ukraine in its struggle against Russia as an exemplar of national sovereignty, but many others question the U.S. interest there.
Embracing the Constitution, Rejecting the Declaration
Interestingly, there was a large Hungarian presence at the conference. This gave the proceedings a rather cosmopolitan flavor. Indeed, national conservatives sometimes drain conservatism of much of its national—that is, distinctly American—meaning. Nowhere in the Statement of Principles, for example, is the Declaration of Independence mentioned, or even implied. As one assessment of the Statement of Principles observed, “The national conservative effort to effectively write the Declaration out of American nationhood is manifest.”
Perhaps this can be attributed to the influence of Yoram Hazony. Hazony has been at the center of many recent attempts to define and advance national conservatism. Hazony is co-drafter of the Statement of Principles, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, and the author of both The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) and last year’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery. In the latter book, Hazony explicitly pits the Declaration against the American political tradition. In his view, the Declaration promoted
the Lockean doctrine of universal rights as “self-evident” before the light of reason; whereas the Constitution of 1787, drafted at a convention dominated by the conservative party, ended a decade of shocking disorder by restoring the familiar forms of the national English constitution.
Thereafter, everything bad in American politics has descended from the Declaration, and everything good in American politics has descended from the Constitution.
Hazony’s book frames this understanding of history, and the Anglo-American conservatism that emerges from it, as a rediscovery. But, as one review pointed out, it is better understood as a theory, and a flawed one at that. Start with the Declaration itself. It was not one-off twaddle by Thomas Jefferson. Although he was a primary force behind the document, he co-wrote it with John Adams, the kind of figure Hazony otherwise incorporates into his vision of what conservatism is supposed to be. Near the end of his life, Jefferson said the Declaration “was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
It’s true that the Constitution represented a move toward stronger national authority than the earlier Articles of Confederation. But was it really a restoration of British government? As one Hazony reviewer has pointed out, the Constitution’s primary advocates said otherwise. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton, another figure of whom Hazony approves, argues that the ratification of the Constitution presents an opportunity for Americans to decide “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Why does Hamilton believe Americans are capable of designing a new government? Because, as he wrote in Federalist No. 9, “the science of politics . . . like most other sciences, has received great improvements,” including new ways to limit government power. And in Federalist No. 84, Hamilton explicitly distinguished the Constitution from its British precedents. In the British context, bills of rights are “stipulations between kings and their subjects” and therefore “have no application to constitutions professedly founded upon the power of the people, and executed by their immediate representatives and servants.” In our system, by contrast, “the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.”
In other words, historical evidence supports the idea that, though America owed a great deal to what came before, it was nonetheless consciously distinct. During the ratification debates, it was the Constitution’s opponents, the anti-Federalists, who believed that the document was attempting to restore British monarchical forms. As another reviewer of Hazony’s book pointed out, “Hazony argues that the anti-Federalists were right in their analysis but wrong in their value judgment.”
Most historical assessments judge the American Founding as something new. Hazony does not. “It is easy to overestimate how much of a change was involved in this establishment of republican government in America,” he writes. But in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood argues that “the Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics; it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power and brought about an entirely new kind of popular politics and a new kind of democratic officeholder.” To be sure, the American Revolution was not the French Revolution. In important ways, it was held in check. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the power of its change.
Abraham Lincoln, likewise, confounds Hazony’s analysis. Hazony writes that, “although Lincoln comfortably mixed Jeffersonian rhetoric with his imposing biblical imagery, his policies as president were in a tradition the Federalists would have easily recognized.” But Lincoln did more than comfortably mix these things. Jeffersonian rhetoric was central to his time as a public figure. Of the Declaration, Lincoln wrote that he gave “all honor to Jefferson” for introducing “into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” He also said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
Contra Hazony, Lincoln believed that the Declaration and the Constitution were inextricably linked. The Declaration, with its principle of “liberty to all,” was the “apple of gold,” around which the Constitution, “the picture of silver,” was framed. To take an example from Lincoln’s time: It took the moral force of the Declaration, together with the Constitution, to end slavery. We should consider ourselves fortunate, not weirdly embarrassed, as Hazony seems to be, about the Declaration’s centrality in American political life.
Losing Sight of American Tradition
What accounts for Hazony’s embarrassment? It seems like an attempt to create a new political tradition that he thinks better serves his current ends. But that would be at least as much a form of abstract rationalism as anything the Declaration attempted—one totally alienated from the unique American context. In its more benign forms, such thought would elide the distinctions between the American and British political traditions. We have already seen how they are distinct, though to confuse them is perhaps somewhat understandable.
But to confuse the American tradition and the Hungarian, as some national conservatives do? That’s a bit more of a stretch. Whatever popularity Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban might have with his people, why should even a good American nationalist be so invested in a European nation the size of Indiana with the population of Michigan? Any honest attempt to compare our national situations or traditions would find little overlap. Yet many conservatives praise Hungary anyway. Such praise often elides the two nations’ distinctions, and it fails to note that Orban’s government has played nice with Russia’s and has invited Chinese investment.
Still, it would be problematic for a supposedly American nationalism to be so focused on another nation even absent these other factors. This is what can result from untethering nationalism from America’s actual political tradition. That’s why that tradition is what should motivate American conservatism. At its best, America’s tradition is both concrete and accessible, powerful enough that a refugee from Cold War–era communist Hungary could say to his family that they were fleeing to America because “we were born American but in the wrong place.” National conservatism, at its worst, inverts this, redefining the American political tradition so that it somehow finds better expression elsewhere. Conservatives thinking about how best to confront our very real problems should root themselves in a proper understanding of America, and of its political history and traditions.
National conservatism often has trouble with this. The most obvious evidence comes in deviations from the American traditions of limited government ordained by the Constitution.
Return to the statement of principles. It contains a section on economics that, again, contains much one can agree with. “We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition.” It continues: “We reject the socialist principle, which supposes that the economic activity of the nation can be conducted in accordance with a rational plan dictated by the state.” So far, there is little deviation from the recognizable tradition of American conservatism.
But here comes the caveat: “But the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation.” The statement then goes on to lament that globalized markets empower America’s enemies, weaken America economically, and enable “transnational corporations” to flood the country with goods that weaken national virtue. Thus, the statement asserts:
a prudent national economic policy should promote free enterprise, but it must also mitigate threats to the national interest, aggressively pursue economic independence from hostile powers, nurture industries crucial for national defense, and restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare.
It adds helpfully that “crony capitalism, the selective promotion of corporate profit-making by organs of state power, should be energetically exposed and opposed.”
It is true, though not very controversial, to assert that “the free market cannot be absolute.” But while globalization has presented many challenges to America, the picture the statement paints of America’s economic situation is both hyperbolic and selective. Both trade and automation have played a role in reducing manufacturing employment, yet manufacturing remains a significant driver of our economy. And while both Adam Smith and Milton Friedman would agree that national security is an acceptable free-market exception, we already have many policies in place to that end. Moreover, many people work hard to take advantage of that exception. If you want to know why sugar is so much more expensive in the United States than elsewhere, thank the Florida sugar lobby’s success in making its product a national-security priority.
It is prudent not to be completely closed off to government policy in this area, to be sure. China presents a real threat to the United States. Actions like banning TikTok, a Chinese spyware app featuring short videos (which are pointless at best and soul-destroying at worst), and reshoring certain critical industrial capacities are worth considering. Still, we should be very careful how we do such things.
There are also contradictions in this part of the statement of principles. As one assessment of the statement has argued, the attempt to “restore and upgrade manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare” sounds a lot like industrial policy, in which the government picks winners and losers in the economy. If we’re going to see more of that (and let’s be clear, there is already a great deal of it), based on past examples, we’re going to see more of the same “crony capitalism” the statement ostensibly condemns. And if we’re going to see an expanded role for the government economically, it’s very hard to envision how we’ll achieve a “drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state.” Yet this is a policy priority the statement explicitly invokes.
On the one hand, this framework increases the scope for political patronage. Indeed, at last year’s National Conservatism conference, one speaker explicitly called for conservatives to “be a little less principled” so that we can “build an interconnected web” of “client interests” that are “committed to our political success.” And on the other, it increases the scope for action through the administrative state, an explicitly anti-constitutional part of our government bequeathed to us by the Progressive Era and grown by subsequent deviations from our constitutional order. Senator J. D. Vance (R., Ohio), who is one of the closest things in Congress to a national conservative, has said that “we should just seize the administrative state for our own purposes.”
That national conservatives would have an interest in aggrandizing this feature of modern politics is, unfortunately, consonant with their deprecation of federalism. On this subject, the national conservative statement of principles does gesture toward an appreciation. “We believe in a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers,” it reads. “We recommend a drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state and the policy-making judiciary that displace legislatures representing the full range of a nation’s interests and values.” However, it includes two statements that render these appreciations somewhat empty. “We recommend the federalist principle, which prescribes a delegation of power to the respective states or subdivisions of the nation so as to allow greater variation, experimentation, and freedom.” More ominously, it adds that “in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.”
This gets the relationship between the states and the national government quite wrong. The states don’t have significant powers for the sake of convenience or efficiency. The states are, rather, meant to be serious political entities in their own right. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reads that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The states are not mere administrative units. Any political movement that does not understand this will have trouble succeeding in America—or it will “succeed” in a way that will not be recognizably American.
Defending the Status Quo
Attempts to criticize national conservatism often invite accusations that critics are merely gatekeepers, defenders of the status quo. To the extent they have anything to say, the argument goes, all such critics can do is attack those who actually take our problems seriously.
To be clear: modern American life is dissatisfactory in all sorts of ways. Though it remains possible to live a good life in America today, and while there is much that can be achieved through our political system by ordinary means, there is also much that needs improvement, even salvaging. It is unclear, however, that national conservatives should be the ones to lead such an effort. The contradiction about cronyism and the error about federalism help explain why.
National conservatism, supposedly a challenge to the status quo, actually doubles down on it. One of the biggest failures of conservatism since the end of the Cold War is its evolution into a business headquartered in Washington, DC. Increasingly, conservatives cared more about status and power in the institutions in the DC-centered conservative movement than about their ideological commitments. Conservatism lost a focus not just on the culture but also on the political importance of the states. To the extent that conservatives achieved success in these fields, they were often afterthoughts, exceptions, or even accidents. DC was the aim. Of course, as long as DC is our national seat of government, there will always be some need for a conservative presence in it. What truly national ends this country has, let’s debate them, and then pursue them well, through a restored emphasis on the proper channels of deliberation and decision-making that the Constitution ordains. But everything else must be redistributed back to the people and to the states.
National conservatives often forget or even downplay the virtue of restoring congressional supremacy and reviving federalism as a genuine distribution of power. This defect arises, in part, from the weak relationship between national conservatism and the American political tradition. In these respects, it is not a disruption from the centralizing status quo, dependent on deviations from our constitutional order, but a continuation of it. Some of its proponents, so keen on invoking “the people,” appear to be nothing more than power-hungry status-seekers casting about for a group in whose name they can create a comfortable life in DC. It seems we have a new vanguard looking for its new proletariat. They seek not to diminish the Beltway’s grimy sinecures, but merely redistribute them.
If this is all national conservatism amounts to, then it deserves neither prominence within the right nor electoral success. Indeed, as recent midterm elections showed, national conservatism has not in fact achieved such success. For now, therefore, its Beltway entrenchment remains uncertain. As for prominence on the right, for better or worse, national conservatism is now a recognized, coherent faction. It has introduced—or, more typically, renewed—a focus on certain issues that are welcome parts of intra-conservative political discussions and debates. But as a new direction for the conservative movement, it leaves much to be desired. Any conservatism that fails “to defend what is best in America. At all costs. Against any enemy, foreign or domestic,” as National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. put it, will not be worthy of the name.