The NatCons Are Here To Stay
With all the complexity that entails.
Beyond what national conservatism opposes, and what it supports, lie several difficult problems that must be worked out. Start with politics. In the 1980s, conservatives heaped scorn on Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, for daring to suggest America needed an “industrial policy.” Then, it was simply a code phrase for centralized economic planning, if not outright socialism. Now, some leading national conservatives propose “industrial policy” to shore up basic manufacturing. Could the late vice president have been a Republican today? Even more astounding is that some of the natcon thinkers are suddenly warm to labor unions, even seeing a possible policy precedent in…Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. These are truly strange times.
The problem of trade is equally vexing. It is correct that “free” trade agreements like NAFTA were far from true free trade, as Adam Smith or David Ricardo would surely recognize, and that liberalized trade has contributed to hollowing out America’s industrial heartland. But it is far from clear that tariffs or any other form of protectionism can work; indeed, there is good evidence that President Trump’s halting steps in this direction were counterproductive. Needless to say, there are a lot of policy details to be worked through. But the fact is that the natcons are much more friendly to the use of government power than at any time in the history of modern conservatism.
The intellectual debates behind these practical policy problems are even more challenging. Behind the orientation toward the middle class lies a series of noisy debates. The well-grounded natcon rejection of identity politics ran into rough water recently with the announcement that the popular podcaster Dave Rubin, a gay conservative convert from the left who has spoken at natcon events, was adopting a newborn child with his partner. This did not sit well with Declan Leary, who wrote at the American Conservative:
This is evil, plain and simple… The same people who make a living being outraged that Lia Thomas, who is a man, is allowed to swim in the women’s races for his college cannot turn around and tell us that there’s nothing wrong with two dudes having babies together. Is there a difference between men and women, or is there not?
Yet a number of leading natcons (or at least natcon fellow travelers) are gay, such as Peter Thiel (like Rubin, he’s in a same-sex marriage) and Douglas Murray. Moreover, Thiel self-identifies as a libertarian, in contradiction to the principal contention above, though a close look at his rich synthesis of René Girard and Leo Strauss suggests the label doesn’t really fit. Still, his rousing keynote address at the first natcon conference in 2019, which attacked China and the tech industry, was conspicuously silent on the issue of immigration, a key concern of most of the attendees. The natcon movement could fracture over the question of how it should resist the sexual identity politics central to the cultural left.
Ascending the metaphysical ladder, there is a related question of the place of religion in American life, and doubts about the Enlightenment. The older conservative movement before and during the Reagan-Thatcher era saw itself as a branch of the Enlightenment liberal tradition (despite some lingering misgivings), stretching back to the thinker who has been called the philosopher par excellence of America, John Locke. Yet leading natcon thinkers, especially Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony, directly challenge this well-settled account of America. According to this view, the principle of individual autonomy at the heart of the liberal tradition is the source of our problems. Hazony, who is Jewish, argues in his recent book The Virtue of Nationalism that America needs to reject its Lockean understanding and become a self-consciously Christian nation.
Pair Hayward’s piece with this interesting musing on William F. Buckley’s status with the younger voices on the right from Neal B. Freeman:
TAS: The New Right seems to think that Buckley’s “standing athwart” approach was insufficient in his day and would be even more so in our day.
NBF: Buckley would agree with the latter part. His day and our day could not be more different. From the early ’50s to the late ’60s — Buckley’s prime — Democrat party-style liberalism advanced virtually unchallenged. Somebody had to draw a line in the sand. There was no call for philosophical nuance. Today, we seem to have room, at least in the fundraising space, for an infinite number of prefixed conservatisms — neos, nationals, paleos, revivalists, integralists, and the rest.
TAS: You sound skeptical about the prefixed conservatisms.
NBF: I am. They haven’t done their homework. Buckley read the Constitution and understood how James Madison had rigged the American political game. Buckley knew that, by Madisonian design, coalitions win and factions lose. He understood that, to join his coalition, every faction — every prefixed conservative — must believe that he had more to gain as part of a winning coalition than he stood to lose by sacrificing a measure of independence. Buckley’s conservatism was almost always procedural, rarely doctrinal.
TAS: And Buckley made the factionalists believe?
NBF: He was the most persuasive man I ever met. But it didn’t hurt that he was selling the best political product ever brought to market – ordered liberty.
TAS: Would a conservative revival today require his kind of extraordinary leadership?
NBF: It would be a happy accident of history, but no, not necessarily. Look at the miraculous victory of the pro-life movement this year. The pro-lifers had focus and persistence and, over many years, became a model of coalitional congeniality. But there were never any larger-than-life leadership figures. Steady baton-passing from one cohort to the next got the job done.
TAS: If, under the Madisonian system, the prefixed conservatives are destined to lose, why do they continue to peel off into new factions?
NBF: Because of the difference between coalitional success and individual success. The prefixed conservatives have begun to see more benefit in maintaining their independence — cultivating their own particularities — than in subsuming their agenda to coalition priorities. A tax exemption, a decent donor list, an inattentive board — even a tiny splinter faction can provide a few executives with a long, stress-free ride.