One of the things I admire and respect about the Providence community is that it is one of the few places where nationalists and conservatives are in respectful conversation with each other. I have taken a rather strident stance against nationalism, but in doing so I’ve been compelled to think hard about the meaning of nationhood because of the arguments I’ve heard here.
During our recent Providence editors’ retreat, I had an “a-ha!” moment in conversation with some friends and colleagues who have gravitated closer to the nationalist side. There are two different conversations going on simultaneously from the right. One is an argument directed outward, toward the progressive left and “globalists.” The other is an argument directed inward, within the right, between nationalists and conservatives.
Nationalists see the outward argument about the evils of progressivism and “globalism” as paramount. Some may not actually believe in nationalism very much. They just think it is the most effective way to counter progressivism. Conservatives (like me) think it is just as important, if not more so, to keep a close watch on our own house. We’re worried by the historical baggage of nationalism, see how nationalism and conservatism diverge, and don’t think nationalism is necessary or even effective as a counter to progressivism.
I’d like to respond to some of these features of nationalist thought. As I do, I want to emphasize that I agree with its anti-progressivism. Shared antipathy for the left’s agenda is the one thing holding the right together, and on that issue there is no daylight between conservatives and nationalists. That said, here are some challenges I want to pose to nationalists and the nationalist-curious.
1. The nationalist critique of conservatism is based on false history. Nationalists tell a story about recent history and the supposed failures of conservatism that is lazy, disingenuous, and false. Quite often, the case for nationalism is presented as a case against the supposed failings of the conservative approach to the right-wing agenda. It goes something like this:
Conservatives have been little more than caretakers of the administrative state, slowing its growth perhaps, but acquiescing in every meaningful battle for the past century. Their agenda has failed, their leaders are toothless, and their tactics are milquetoast. Time for a change.
This narrative is wrong on all counts. Conservative policy failures were due to the fact that Democrats won more elections than Republicans over the past century. Since 1912, Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House at the same time for 38 years, during which time they passed the New Freedom, New Deal, and Great Society agendas of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson, respectively.
You can’t fix those programs overnight—and Republicans have never had the chance. Since 1912, they held trifecta power for only 20 years, 12 of which occurred before the New Deal, and four of which don’t really count because of the paralysis in the Senate during George W. Bush’s administration. That means Republicans really had only four years of uncontested power over the past century to do any meaningful legislation: 1955–57 and 2016–18. (The brief Eisenhower-era Republican trifecta created NASA, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and admitted Alaska as a state. Not a bad record for two years.)
The nationalists might claim that the Republicans’ poor showing in elections proves the weakness of conservative ideology. In fact, in 2016 the Republican Party was, institutionally, in its strongest position in the modern era. It controlled more state houses and governor’s mansions and was poised for a new era of trifecta governance in 2016. Conservativism was vibrant, powerful, and a viable path to power in 2016.
The Republican Party is unlikely to see another opportunity like that in a generation—not because of conservatism, but because of nationalism. In 2016, the voters had no patience with the slow machinery of democracy. They got rash, threw out conservatism, turned to nationalism, and elected Trump, squandering a historic opportunity. Thanks to the nationalists’ impatience and Trump’s alienation of all but the most die-hard of his base, the prospects for conservative governance are almost nonexistent.
I understand the impatience and frustration with progressive policy victories. But the solution is not to throw out the ideology of limited government, much less indulge in a mean-spirited politics of resentment. It is to run better campaigns and win more elections.
2. Nationalists tend to lack self-awareness about, or simply to ignore, the real and clear dangers that accompany nationalism. I’ve written extensively on this before so I don’t need to belabor the point. Nationalist political theory is muddled, incoherent, and purposefully vague on key points to gloss over its exclusionary tendencies. And those tendencies are real: nationalism has a troubling historical record of devolving into sectarianism, xenophobia, racism, and worse.
Speakers at the recent National Conservatism Conference were commendably clear in their denunciation of white supremacy, but some of the same speakers (like Yoram Hazony) have no trouble writing about the need to reinstitute a “public religion” that favors Christianity and Judaism or to privilege “Anglo-Saxon Christian norms” in law and policy. I find this alarming. Official state preference for any sect, group, ethnicity, religion, or ideology is illiberal and almost inevitably bound to devolve into meaner forms of official persecution. Worse, the tools designed to prefer one group will be turned around to favor a different group when power changes hands.
I have seen very little real effort by nationalists to grapple with these problems. No political movement or theory can be taken seriously unless and until it recognizes its own weaknesses and historical baggage and incorporates strong safeguards against them.
4. There is a middle ground between progressive globalism and nationalism. I am sympathetic to Josh Mitchell’s call for a “moderate” form of the project. He rightly disclaims any religious attachment to the nation, yet insists that the nation as a unit is meaningful and should be preserved, calling for a “return to the nation, but not a return to ‘nationalism.’”
I think staking out this middle ground is vitally necessary—and in doing so, we should recognize that the middle ground is not nationalism. Rather, nationalism is one end of the spectrum against which we must be on guard (the other end being progressivism).
At the end of the day, we might be just arguing about labels, over which new buzzword will characterize our movement. For my part, I think of the middle ground this way: domestically, it is the philosophy of Augustinian liberalism, which is the mean between nationalism and progressivism; internationally, it is conservative internationalism, the mean between “globalism” (better called liberal internationalism) and realist nationalism.