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National Conservatism’s Time Has Come

Can the nation-state be a force for good? A summit this week highlights both the challenges and hopes of such a calling.
washington monument

Demonstrators protesting at a Colorado Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Colorado—ICE, a rare federal agency progressives would like to abolish—took down the American flag and raised the Mexican flag in its place. Will any of the two dozen or so Democratic presidential candidates condemn them?

It would have been a simple question not just for Bill Clinton, who would have surely recognized a “Sister Souljah” moment in the making, but also Barack Obama. “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment,” Obama, then a Democratic senator from Illinois, wrote in his 2006 autobiography The Audacity of Hope

Contrast this with the message current Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke had for a group of immigrants and refugees while campaigning in Nashville. “This country was founded on white supremacy,” he said. “And every single structure that we have in this country still reflects the legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression.” O’Rourke may be an also-ran, but the top-tier Democrats are trying very hard to keep up with the never-ending march leftward—as when Julian Castro, an even lower-polling candidate, got essentially the whole field to endorse an immigration policy that wasn’t quite open borders but a step in that direction.

Even (perhaps especially) sympathetic critics question the usefulness of a movement around the most modest definition of nationalism. If nationalism is really just patriotism fused with a defense of national sovereignty, who is really against that? College professors and clickbait internet polemicists, maybe, but surely no one with a popular following or real stature.

It didn’t take a popular movement for Nike to decide that the Betsy Ross flag, prominently displayed during Obama’s second inaugural, was suddenly unacceptable. A former NFL quarterback who was previously his sport’s most prominent but least effective national anthem protester. Attacks on America’s national symbols are becoming increasingly commonplace while appeals to the unifying principles of the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights fall flat.

Embedded in the immigration debate is the question of whether affluent countries like the United States have any right to enforce their borders at all, especially if such enforcement will have a disparate impact on poor migrants of color. Deportation raids are unpleasant and should not be a country’s primary enforcement mechanism. But some are taking up Mexican flags and, reportedly, Molotov cocktails to protest the removal of people who have received lawful deportation orders.

Without denying the global humanitarian role a country as rich and powerful as ours can play, who does the United States government exist to serve primarily? What of our obligations to our own communities of color, including the descendants of slaves, whose suffering remains a stain on our national soul? Are we not more than an idea or a marketplace, a collection of squabbling factions or identity politics subgroups and unrelated consumers?

These are but a few of the questions we can expect the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. to wrestle with. The speakers come from a variety of perspectives, as one might expect of an event that features both John Bolton and Tucker Carlson as keynote speakers. Organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation—itself chaired by Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism—this discussion could not come at a better time.

The very concept of the nation-state as a force for good is under assault. Such are the circumstances under which nationalism as a distinct political movement often comes into being. American nationalism is especially complicated. Demographics matter, but are not everything. Ideas and values matter even more, but the universally accessible cannot completely replace experience and the particular. It is not, and cannot be, white nationalism. Neither is it an embryonic United Nations.

As much as capitalism versus socialism or the size of government, the Right and Left may be separated as much by the question of America’s political inheritance. Both recognize that much of our patrimony is unearned and perhaps undeserved. The Right’s focus will be on preserving the parts that are good, the Left’s on atoning for those that are evil. There will be much debate about whether the two can be separated, and even which is which.

Such a debate is particularly painful in a country whose sins are real and where certain historical grievances are legitimate. Yet those sins and grievances do not discredit the American project as a whole, and this country has much to offer its citizens of all backgrounds. The task of those who would make this case is to rebut globalism without descending into the “otherizing” caricature our opponents—and some soi-disant allies—would draw of us, to make nationalism a unifying force rather than just another source of division.

In other words, a nation, if you can keep it.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.



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