July 24, 2019

Notes on National Conservatism: A Rethink or Rehash?



Last week’s National Conservatism conference was billed by its organizer, Yoram Hazony, as a “big tent” event for conservatives to coalesce around a new vision of American nationalism. But after two days of vigorous discussion, the only thing that clearly united attendees was their general contempt for the left.

If anything, the conference underscored the irreconcilable divisions in the modern conservative movement. Depending on who was speaking, “national conservatism” entailed either transcending U.S. imperialism (Tucker Carlson) or reasserting our national interests abroad (John Bolton); rejecting libertarian economics (J.D. Vance) or embracing Calvin Coolidge-style laissez-faire (Amity Shlaes); pluralism with respect to traditionalist communities (Rusty Reno) or assimilation to the national culture (Amy Wax).

It’s said that the conservative coalition is a three-legged stool supported by war hawks, business elites, and the Christian right. If so, the National Conservatism conference represented each leg taking turns proclaiming itself the true spokesman of American nationalism while attempting to sweep a different leg away. Little was said about what would support the stool should any leg be removed. Entreaties to national solidarity hold no weight on their own.

Yet this may be a case where diversity is our strength. At the very least, the conference provided a useful venue for frank and open ideological reassessment of many conservative sacred cows. From my vantage point, a few patterns emerged that point to a viable vision of national conservatism in the areas of economics, federalism, and culture (and foreign policy, which is not my wheelhouse). The only question is whether it can gain traction.

Rethinking economics

Libertarian and supply-side economics was perhaps the most consistent object of scorn throughout the conference, and for good reason. As J.D. Vance noted, deindustrialization with all its consequences, be they the opioid crisis or the disintegration of working class families, is simply not responsive to the usual toolkit of tax cuts and deregulation. While light on policy specifics, Vance is correct in thinking the government can do more to actively support public health, family stability, and regions impacted by globalization.

Tucker Carlson made a similar point in his keynote speech, riffing on an audience question about his affinity for Elizabeth Warren’s book, The Two-Income Trap. If the Republican Party wants to reach nontraditional voters, Carlson argued, it should make the raising of one’s own child the center of its economic agenda.

I have repeatedly made this same point in my work on universal child allowances. The Conservative Party of Canada, for example, introduced a child allowance in 2006 to head off the Liberal Party’s national day care plan, and to cement its coalition with socially conservative immigrants. With the right messaging, American conservatives could use a child allowance to strengthen families, while broadening their support among minority households.

Then there was the debate between Oren Cass and Richard Reinsch on the subject of industrial policy. Cass defended the value of advanced manufacturing to workers without a college education against Reinsch’s rather clichéd apologia for consumer capitalism, and won the audience vote by a 2 to 1 margin. Through the Struggling Regions Initiative, the Niskanen Center is also a strong proponent of policies designed to move American industries and workers up the global value chain.

Whether it’s child allowances or industrial policy, however, we’ve defended these positions not despite our liberal perspective, but because of it. Child allowances embody the liberal principles of neutrality with respect to household needs and pluralism with respect to traditional family structures. And industrial policy is based on the recognition that markets are not products of nature, but are structured by laws and regulations in ways that can be more or less inclusive to the broad diversity of human capabilities. Populist backlash against globalization isn’t totally mistaken. But rather than blame free trade itself, we blame dramatic underinvestment in the systems needed to move disrupted workers into new, higher-productivity lines of work. Letting go of libertarian ideology does not require letting go of liberalism. On the contrary.

Rethinking federalism

This brings me to Patrick Deneen’s speech on “Sustainable Conservatism.” American political ideologies, he noted, have historically divided along the conflicting visions of Hamilton and Jefferson — a strong national government versus robust local communities. The Hamiltonian left, represented by progressives like Wilson and Roosevelt, usurped the powers of state and local governments in the name of technocratic expertise and a homogenous national culture. Yet as Vance’s critique of libertarian economics shows, the Jeffersonian right’s conflation of “small government” with strong communities has accelerated community erosion in its own right. Deneen thus calls on conservatives to employ the power of the national government to protect and preserve local flourishing where it can.

Bromides about republican virtues and personal responsibility are simply no replacement for effective social safety nets and integrated labor markets. Recognizing this, national conservatives would be wise to put their own spin on Herbert Croly’s notion of “Hamiltonian means to Jeffersonian ends,” and rethink conservatism’s sanguine view of federalism.

What would this new federalism look like? Chris Pope of the Manhattan Institute offers a series of ideas in his excellent essay on “Degenerate Federalism.” On fiscal policy, Niskanen Center senior fellow Joshua McCabe has made the case for larger transfers from rich states to poor states lacking the fiscal capacity to serve their local communities. And on regulatory reform, conservatives could recognize the extent to which today’s most regressive regulations are often local in origin. From land-use regulation to occupational licensing, a dose of state preemption and federal coordination can be a liberalizing and equalizing force simultaneously, and in a way that advances conservative goals like family formation.

Peter Thiel put his own spin on conservative Hamiltonianism at the conference’s opening dinner. Despite appearances of rapid technological innovation, he argued, we’re actually living through a period of deep, unacknowledged stagnation. Wages are flat, scientific discovery has slowed, and our institutional capacity to build new bridges, much less another Apollo program, has all but collapsed.

In this view, the administrative state is an enemy not because the federal government is inherently bad, but because a thicket of procedural and judicial veto points has hobbled our ability to think big and act decisively. As one conference attendee put it to me, the Manhattan Project was a success because of its efficient, hierarchical organization, under the competent direction of General Leslie Groves. To execute the same engineering feat today would be nearly impossible under the weight of modern grantmaking and procurement protocols.

In other words, national conservatives should want the federal government to work well — or at least better — and reject strategies based on administrative sabotage. Among other things, that would mean properly funding the IRS, increasing congressional staff budgets, and combating kludgeocracy rather than government “size,” per se. After decades of anti-government muckraking, achieving this basic shift in emphasis will be national conservativism’s biggest challenge.

Rethinking culture

Culture is where the National Conservative conference was its most befuddling. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) described conservatives as in a battle against upper-class cultural progressives and the forces of woke capital, echoing Tucker Carlson’s critique of big corporations that spread social justice propaganda.

At the same time, however, speakers like Daniel Pipes and Scott McConnell warned about a clash of civilizations between “the West and the rest.” Waves of Arab and North African immigrants in Europe have failed to assimilate, they argued, threatening to undermine core secular values like gender equality. Whether the cultural crisis facing Western civilization is too much pressure to assimilate or too little apparently depends on who you ask.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax is firmly in the “too little” camp. Her remarks on the conference’s main immigration panel sparked a media uproar after she called for U.S. immigration policy to prioritize whites over nonwhites. Wax claimed her position is not racist but rather based on “cultural distance,” for which whiteness is merely a proxy. Nonwhite immigration, as she put it, is more likely to be from the culturally distant “third world,” which will crowd out America’s superior culture and “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not Wax is a racist. I think her statement, “Our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites,” speaks for itself. Wax also argues that her critics use accusations of racism to stifle open debate, so on a hunch that she was being deliberately inflammatory, I don’t wish to provide her any additional vindication.

The contradiction between these two views on assimilation — too much or too little — ultimately stems from the mistake of importing ethnic nationalism to a country like America. The United States is not a common people or ethnic group. Americans can’t draw on a thick ethnic heritage the same way a Jew in Israel or Shinto in Japan can, claims about our “Judeo-Christian heritage” notwithstanding.

Instead, America is a lot more like Canada, its multiethnic neighbor to the north. And Canadians understand the challenge of balancing national unity with cultural diversity better than anyone. Canada has an active (though waning) Quebec sovereignty movement, which in its heyday narrowly lost a referendum to secede not once but twice. Canada has among the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world, with over 22 percent of its population being either a landed immigrant or permanent resident. In its most populous city, Toronto, half the residents are foreign-born and two-thirds are nonwhite, without any single dominant minority ethnic group or nationality.

Canada works pretty darn well despite all this heterogeneity, and not just because immigrants are selected based on skill. Rather, their trick has been to prioritize integration into civil society rather than assimilation to a monolithic cultural identity. The historical need to accommodate dueling French and English traditions was in a sense extended to Hindus and Sikhs and everyone in between. In turn, immigrants to Canada feel comfortable participating in broader society, which reduces social distrust, alienation, and exclusion.

Ironically, to the extent that America has a dominant culture, it’s modern progressivism. Look no further than public opinion polling on issues like gay marriage or transgender rights. The progressive social justice tradition arises out of Protestant-universalist morality, which is to many Americans what water is to fish. For conservative Catholics and others who run counter to this mainstream — and mainline — set of cultural commitments, liberal pluralism and authentic multiculturalism should be a source of refuge. Wax and McConnell, in contrast, sound more like French rationalists who see the Enlightenment as something to be imposed on uncivilized savages.

Rethinking or rehashing?

The National Conservatism conference was rife with these and other internal contradictions. But in the end, the conversations felt genuinely refreshing, if only because participants were liberated to critique the mistakes of movement conservatism and rethink issues of economics, federalism, and culture from the ground up.

It remains to be seen how real this rethink is. J.D. Vance may question libertarian economics, but Republican antipathy to “big government” and new spending programs is deep-seated. Oren Cass may be right on the merits of industrial policy, but the Trump administration seems more concerned about protecting steelworkers than spurring next-generation manufacturing. Patrick Deneen may make good points about the limits of Jeffersonianism, but Claremont types are intent on deconstructing the federal government root-and-branch. And traditionalist Christians may long for a less imposing progressive culture, but restrictionists prevent them from finding natural bedfellows within the immigrant community.

The glimmer of a viable national conservatism could nonetheless be seen through the fog of dog whistles and attacks on “globalist” elites. It’s a conservatism that eschews small-government ideology in favor of robust family benefits and policies that uplift the working class. It’s a conservatism that seeks to build up American state capacity in order to solve dire social problems and push the technological frontier. It’s a conservatism that rejects the culture war tit-for-tat in favor of genuine pluralism for traditional and secular lifestyles alike. In short, it’s a conservatism that looks, in many ways, more authentically liberal than what came before it.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and realignment along the above vision is unlikely to occur until the legs of the traditional conservative stool give out once and for all. Thus, rather than spur a rethink of movement conservative shibboleths, I fear the National Conservatism conference mostly served to rehash small-government chauvinism as something fresh and new. If I’m right, Hazony and company haven’t so much transcended Zombie Reagan as fitted him with a MAGA hat and called it a day.