The fundamental issues in Senator Josh Hawley’s ending keynote address were, first, according to him, the leadership class is ignoring the idea of the “republic,” which has resulted in factions and factionalism. Second, the consumer economy is unsustainable, and cheap goods are made by cheap tax-funded outsourcing, which has hollowed out the manufacturing base. Third, there’s a “cosmopolitan consensus” that hates the national tradition and cultures. Hawley wants to start a crusade, for lack of better words, to change that. “America is not going to become the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is not going to become America.”
This was the spirit of the recent National Conservatism Conference in Washington, DC—the first and by far the biggest conference, with over 500 attendees, discussing the return of nationalism, the rise of populism, the Trump moment, and the overall changed geopolitical scenario since 2016. One shouldn’t begin without saying that a conference of this scale, size, scope, and funding is usually impossible outside the United States. While in many other countries conservatism is under siege by forces in institutions across the West, in the US, the future of conservatism remains robust. I was invited to attend the event. There are a lot of daily reports discussing and dissecting various speeches; there is no point in adding to that list, and this essay will not attempt to do the same. Instead, the attempt is to point out the three competing instincts and interests that will shape the conservative movement in the West in the future.
Since 2016, the post-Cold War order that was established under President George H.W. Bush, and consolidated under President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy of “Democratic Peace Theory,” has collapsed. Of course, there are other causalities behind the collapse of the post-Cold War order, but as Patrick Porter and Graham Allison’s research suggested, one of the primary factors behind the rise of this reaction against the established order was foreign policy. This conference was an attempt to synthesize the differing themes floating around, not just to provide a brains trust but also to conduct a postmortem of the bygone order. Conservatives, for good or for bad, value prudence, and prudence dictates understanding reality.
In light of that, here are three key observations.
If You Want to Be a Gatekeeper, Be a Gatekeeper
American conservatism post-1945 has always been an attempt to synthesize greater good. The original fusionism was not a strategy but a political necessity. America, for good or for bad, lacks a feudal heritage, and to project any European-style conservatism based on either “throne and altar” (systemic and hierarchical) or “blood and soil” (racial) would not just be difficult to attempt but would mean potential conflict. Part of the reason the American founders established the adversarial system of checks and balances and the Electoral College was because they studied the collapse of Rome and understood the value of compromise and realism, a foresight that both the modern left and right lack. Likewise, this new National Conservatism, (and there is a need for a more prudent version of nationalism), would need an effort to formulate a new fusionism.
The good thing about the conference was that it started on that note. Both David Brog and Yoram Hazony highlighted the need for conservatives to move beyond the libertarian-internationalist edifice, which focusses on economics, and the racial undercurrent, which focuses on genetics. They advocated an idea that is nominally rooted in “national independence, national tradition, and national cohesion,” in Hazony’s own words.
Jolly good. But the undercurrent was also something that needs to be tackled if National Conservatism wishes to start a new movement. For example, while I am personally completely sympathetic to Amy Wax’s broader argument on assimilation, “unchecked and uncontrolled” mass migration, abolition of borders, and Anglican values, her carelessly worded or deliberately provocative comments and potshots caused needless controversy, which tarred an otherwise decent brainstorming session. The question that no one asked Wax was whether she would prefer as her neighbor an American of European descent who wears an Antifa mask, smokes weed, riots, and vandalizes in his spare time, or an American of Indian or Korean descent who is socially conservative, comes from a two-parent family, and works or studies 12 hours a day with an aim to succeed. If she answers the latter one while railing about innate cultural differences, then that is a tad hypocritical.
There is an argument to be made against borderless utopia. Global governance would lead to global civil war, in the words of Kenneth Waltz. Nation-states, borders, and the Westphalian system were not just someone’s fantasy but the only proven workable units in the international anarchy. Likewise, incessant mass migration, especially from the lower-skilled, changes the economy and drives down wages, which leads to dissatisfaction and social anarchy. These are facts, and conservatives should formulate policies based on facts. Migration based on merit, qualification, and assimilation is therefore preferable. But that argument should be made on the basis of economics, not race.
Polemic Isn’t Policy
A postmortem was needed in the National Conservatism Conference, and it was delivered over the course of three days. But while there were stellar speeches by Mary Eberstadt and J.D. Vance, for example, that focused on the factors which led to this morass, sexual revolution, fatherless homes, market dominance over society, and unchecked individualism, not many alternative policies were suggested. Vance pointed out that commerce should be channeled toward the fulfillment of a greater good, and the greater good is the preservation of social norms and continuation of the lifecycle of a nation. Eberstadt was even more pointed about the terrible legacy of the sexual revolution and the chronic deviant slippery slope one can foresee. Both were correct in the diagnosis of what went on overdrive in the last two decades.
That said, the only ones who actually provided an iota of policy were Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, and Senator Hawley. Lowry mentioned the absolute imperative of the United States to have a common English language and resist all temptation to make the United States more divided, hyphenated, and bilingual. A country as diverse as the US cannot survive without a common story and a common tongue. Hawley mentioned that there needs to be much more investment in the neglected heartland, and the people who live there shouldn’t just be expected to be a mobile tribe, but instead should be able to have opportunities to work and live where they are rooted.
But more other than that, not much was discussed. This echoes the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French earlier this year. Even while one shares an aversion toward social libertarianism, no one is so far clear on how to stop it. There is no question that in recent years the slippery slope argument looked increasingly more prescient. But is harnessing government power the only option? That is a decision conservatives need to ponder and discuss further. Likewise, is it conservatives’ goal to provide government jobs to declining communities or government-funded drug-rehabilitation programs? What are the policy platforms for a Teddy Roosevelt-style National Awakening? The devil is in the details, and regardless of the shared desire for an eventual outcome, the means and mode of achieving that outcome are perhaps equally important.
A New Fusionism Can Be Arranged, But Not Through a Purge
Finally, to return to the original topic, a new fusionism is indeed possible, but it depends on the topics on which one can compromise. The question after the conference is, therefore, what now. Let us consider the factors driving this movement in the West. Per data, the Western populace desires far less foreign intervention based on values, but they are also not pacifists when it comes to war. Those are contradictory instincts, but they are important and understandable. The majority of Western people are very supportive of normal, controlled migration based on merit, but are extremely opposed to mass migration and veritable social engineering. And finally, the majority of the people are in reality quite proud of their own country, culture, and historical legacy, and rightfully so. Elite disdain, especially in media and academia to anything that’s canonical Western civilization, is therefore instrumental in fueling a populist reaction.
Any new fusionism will need to harness these three instincts and channel a common platform. Making enemies among their own side or initiating a purge based on cathartic instincts is, in a certain Soviet way, counter-productive. The legacy of the National Conservatism Conference is that it started a dialogue after years of status quo. Whether it has the material to chart a new way forward, or act revolutionary and lead to a coalescing and opposing force, is something that remains to be seen.