The Only Path Forward is National Conservatism
Adapted from an address to the National Conservatism Conference 2021.
Edmund Burke famously wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
It was poignant when Burke wrote it, and an attempt to reconfigure that sentiment for our current malaise yields something approximating the following: “The age of ‘neutrality’ is gone. That of wokesters, oligarchs, and an arrogant ruling class has succeeded; and the ‘glory’ of the postwar neoliberal order is extinguished forever.” A distinct but related formulation—one I have used before—would be this: President Reagan said that “the most terrifying words” are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” but the new “most terrifying words” are “I’m from the ruling class, and I’m here to subjugate you.”
Let’s step back and walk through the intellectual and political history that brought us to this point.
Any relevance of claims to either universal truth or empirical generalization notwithstanding, a political movement inherently arises in a specific time and place in order to address a set of concrete challenges. The so-called “modern conservative movement” is no different, arising as it did in the early Cold War era to address the circumstantial challenges of a menacing Soviet Union abroad and an overly taxed polity at home. Oppressive communism’s ascendance on the world stage, coupled with oppressive Eisenhower-era marginal tax rates that reached as high as 91 percent, militated in favor of a nascent political movement that viewed “liberty” and “freedom” as preeminent organizing principles, at minimum—and potentially even preeminent substantive ends of governance.
It is thus unsurprising that Frank Meyer, the progenitor of the so-called “fusionism” still venerated today by Conservatism, Inc., was a libertarian thinker. Meyer may have been personally culturally conservative, but to quote the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen from this past June, Meyer’s actual political agenda boiled down to, “Freedom’s domain is politics; virtue’s domain is private life, unencumbered and unaided by support from public life.” The result, Olsen rightly says, is that “Virtue, shorn of any legitimate political claim upon freedom, becomes freedom’s handmaid.”
There is little room, under this paradigm, for a younger (and less libertarian) George Will’s notion of “statecraft as soulcraft.” Fusionism, as a roadmap for governance, stifles well-intentioned statesmen from pursuing the actual art of politics. It is inherently effete, limp, and, as Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad might say, unmasculine. And it is effete, limp, and unmasculine because it removes from the political arena, and consigns to the “private” sphere, the very value judgments and critical questions that most affect our humanity and our civilization.
The defensive posture of liberalized fusionism, which ensures never having to face pushback from one’s political opponents on the most contested issues, makes for a cowardly way to approach politics. It is also predicated, in its entirety, on the fundamentally and empirically false distinction between the “private” and the “public” domains. Conservatives intuit that this dichotomy is, as Yoram Hazony would say, liberal to its core.
The postwar, neoliberal-inspired “conservative movement” also, in crucial ways, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Give credit where credit is due: So-called “three-legged stool” conservatism helped defeat the Soviet Union, slash taxes, and sustain at least reasonably, if not quite consistently, high GDP growth. But in virtually every other way, it is difficult to see what claims to victory Conservatism, Inc. might plausibly make.
In perhaps no area is this more easily seen than my own area of greatest expertise, the Constitution and the courts. Forty-eight years after Roe v. Wade and 39 years after the founding of the Federalist Society, Roe remains on the books. The modern “conservative legal movement” has peculiarly fetishized the secondary (or tertiary) concern of administrative state demolition, perhaps conveniently forgetting that a greater guiding principle for an earlier generation of Federalist Society luminaries was the overturning of destructive Warren Court-era criminal procedure precedent that liberals and civil libertarians both love. When he was Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese is said to have once quipped that if he could overturn one case, it would be Miranda v. Arizona, the “Miranda rights” case. Good luck with that today.
In the year 2021, it is clear that the lingering effects of the postwar, neoliberal-inspired “conservative movement” are worse than feckless. Indeed, we can now soberly look back at what sailed under a movement conservative flag for the past half-century and conclude that much of the project has been affirmatively counterproductive in retrospect, redounding against Americans’ human flourishing and our common good.
President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Chairman Mao ushered in an era of bipartisan lionization of “free trade” with Communist China. Ostensibly, we can chalk this up to the foreign policy establishment’s hubris and naïveté that liberalized economic relations with China might ultimately lead to political liberalization for the repressed Chinese people. Suffice it to say that hasn’t worked out. On the contrary, the results have been positively disastrous: the offshoring of millions of jobs, the shuttering of thousands of factories across the heartland, the hollowing out of America’s industrial base, countless lives ruined by fentanyl, the emboldening of our foremost geopolitical adversary, and the grotesque reality where that adversary can hoard and keep from us necessary “personal protective equipment” during a pandemic that adversary inflicted upon the world.
In fact, the problem is much broader and more structural. Decades of unfettered movement of goods, capital, and labor have torn asunder the very fabric and sinews of all our most important institutions: the nation-state, the church and synagogue, and the family. We have an extremely attenuated sense of commonality and peoplehood, and the interdependent bonds of citizenship without which no polity can long endure have drastically frayed. Even that favorite trope of pro-federalism, Brandeisian “laboratories of democracy”-quoting conservatives, to “vote with your vote,” which I nonetheless support and have personally done, largely rings hollow. For better or for worse, we currently live under a national regime that has its fingers in an infinite number of state-level inner workings. Value questions and the culture war fight thus unavoidably transpire, in no small part, on the national stage. To sacrifice the levers of power of the national government is to unilaterally disarm in the culture war.
Burke’s conception of a people as a concrete “partnership of generations dead, living, and yet unborn” is difficult to reconcile with the fact that American immigration law remains governed by Ted Kennedy’s beloved 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which has flooded multinational corporations with cheap labor at the expense of the concrete unity of citizenship John Jay sagaciously saw as necessary back in The Federalist No. 2. We are an atomized, balkanized, and in many ways, profoundly despondent people. We need greater social consolidation, more meaning to our lives, and, ultimately, more God.
At the same time, the woke left, having completed its “march through the institutions,” is now a loud, blue-checked tail wagging the dog that is a decadent and sordid ruling class. The wokesters, the elites, and the intersectional multiculturalists are relentless in their assault on the very underpinnings of American citizenship and the American way of life. Crucially, their long institutional march has been partially abetted by neoliberal myopia. Republicans’ decades-long fixation on corporate deregulation as an end to be pursued unto itself has helped collapse the “public”/“private” distinction and abet the rise of a new sociocorporate tyranny. Woke capitalists rule the roost on Wall Street, using engorged economic clout to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating their enemy: us. In Silicon Valley, monopolist robber barons who despise us, but control the terms of our 21st-century public square nonetheless, unduly benefit from neoliberal-inspired antitrust theorizing and caselaw advancing an overly narrow view of antitrust law’s so-called “consumer welfare standard.”
Again, between our sacrifice of the art of politics itself and our obsession with neoliberal orthodoxy, we have sowed the seeds of our own destruction. We have supplied the wokesters the very rope with which to hang ourselves. Conservatism, Inc. has tried its best to fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s prophecy in his 1838 Lyceum Address: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Neoliberal platitudes are not going to save our late-stage republic now. Values-neutral proceduralism, such as exaltations of laissez-faire absolutism and legal positivism in constitutional law, will not save America now. Corporate tax cuts and other Wall Street Journal editorial board prescriptions simply are not going to cut it. We need a more muscular, assertive, and masculine vision of conservatism. We need a vision of conservatism that prioritizes not zombie free-market idolatry, but a vigorous political agenda dedicated, to quote a popular 2019 essay, to “fight[ing] the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils.” The only way for the American right to accomplish this, once regaining power, is to prudentially wield that power in the service of pursuing our ideal of the substantive good, and to reward friends of our just regime and punish enemies of our just regime within the confines of the rule of law.
The ends that we seek, and to which the prudential exercise of that political power in the service of good political order must be directed, can roughly be described as the substantive justice and common good that constitute the telos of the American regime. Those ends must necessarily entail the institutional solidification of the political sovereigns equipped to achieve them, the bolstering of the bedrock social unit, the family, and the defeat of cultural wokeism and restoration of cultural sanity by partial means of the return of overt public religiosity—that is, the return of God to the public square. The American Founding period’s approach to God in the public square might be roughly thought of as an “ecumenical integralism” of sorts, and national conservatism should embrace that.
The means by which we seek those ends must also be more pliable than the procedural rigidities long envisioned by the leading bastions of Conservatism, Inc. As Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams put it in an April Substack post, “The stakes are high and the time to fight is now—wielding whatever levers of power are available.” Ryan continued: “The Right needs to think less dogmatically and more creatively about defending its friends and constituents and exchanging tit for tat.”
In the realm of tangible public policy, consider the example of Big Tech. The national conservative argument here is simple. Digital life saps our humanity and undermines the common good—and the Big Tech robber barons are avowed enemies of our traditional values, to boot. Therefore, rein them in and punish them using all available means within the rule of law. Consider as one other example J.D. Vance’s recent call to punish the destructive Ford Foundation and similar thinly veiled leftist political advocacy groups by ensuring they are not treated as charities under the U.S. tax code. That is logical, common sense, and makes for good public policy. And in the arena of jurisprudence and the judiciary, I have proposed my own more methodologically and substantively conservative strand of constitutional interpretation that I have called, “common good originalism.” Common good originalism overtly and unapologetically places its interpretive thumb on the scale of the telos—the overarching substantive orientation—of the American regime.
American national conservatism prioritizes the national interest and sovereign independence of the American nation-state on the world stage, and the common good of the American polity on the home front. In the case of the latter, as a matter of both domestic politics and constitutional jurisprudence, the common good must prevail when it conflicts with either radical conceptions of individual autonomy inconsistent with traditional American customs and substantive human flourishing on the one hand, such as the transgender phenomenon, or poisonous multiculturalism threatening to further divide an already-divided people on the other hand, such as critical race theory. Absolutist constitutional claims, such as the notion that the First Amendment purportedly “protects” critical race theory indoctrination in the classroom, must be flatly rejected.
The silver lining of the ultimate failures of the postwar, neoliberal-inspired “conservative movement” is that those failures have laid bare for all to see the misbegotten notion that the public square, and by extension institutions such as the free market and the constitutional order, can ever be “values-neutral.” They cannot be. The wokesters, oligarchs, and our arrogant ruling class intuit this and act upon it with every fiber of their beings. Surely, it is not too much to ask that a conservatism worthy of the name do the same. Such a renewed and self-aware conservatism must get comfortable wielding power to reconsolidate a fractured citizenry, bolster the nuclear family, place real guardrails on the excesses of purist laissez-faire, and punish the wokesters and multiculturalists for their pernicious agenda tearing the country apart. Ultimately, every important political issue in the year 2021 is a “cultural” issue. “Fusionism” and libertarianism are impotent, in light of this reality. Only national conservatism will suffice.
Josh Hammer is opinion editor of Newsweek, a syndicated columnist, and a research fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation. He can be found on Twitter: @josh_hammer.