The American conservative movement long has been a raucous conversation among groups with different purposes, objects, and frameworks in which they approach politics and culture. Now, the strain known as national conservatism means to join that conversation.
On one level, this national conservatism group makes a needed contribution when it stresses that the nation is the precondition to the gifts of constitutionalism, rule of law, citizenship, and economic prosperity. The American nation offers to us historical memory, land, borders, and law that has settled and governed the country.
In this, the nation offers to us something that transcends individual will and immediate self-interest, requiring our devotion and loyalty. The national conservatives remind us of these truths and why we need to uphold the American nation.
And nowhere has the national conservative voice been clearer and more needed than in the fight against critical race theory and identity politics. Its work is surely commended. But you must take the smooth and the rough together.
What I think national conservatism also means to do is open formerly closed questions, and do so in a manner that uses the federal government to break out of the prison of autonomistic individualism, fading family structures, and declining manufacturing work by instituting or reviving private sector labor unions, wage subsidies, industrial policy and manufacturing work, even single-income families. And the list could be extended.
My sense is that most of these policies, if implemented, would fail or achieve suboptimal outcomes for the reasons conservatives have articulated for decades, centuries even.
In his book “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945,” George Nash reflects on five groups that compose postwar conservatism: libertarians, traditionalists, anticommunists, neoconservatives, and religious conservatives. These groups emerged in response to emergencies and threats to American constitutionalism. Their leading members regard certain qualities as essential to a defense of the American political order.
What does seem to unite the first three groups is the belief that President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is the beginning of a profound departure from American constitutionalism on dimensions of federalism, separation of powers, executive power and the bureaucratic state, economic liberty, and the belief that the state in many ways replaces civil society and business in guiding the direction of the country toward the end of economic equality.
Of course, the anticommunists were gravely concerned that America as led by progressives was not capable of meeting the Soviet communist threat, and they wrote to summon it for that purpose. For the neoconservatives, much of their focus was on the dismal policy results from the Great Society that triggered their turn from center-left politics to their own unique form of conservatism.
For the religious conservatives, their opposition to Roe v. Wade, secularism, and the unsettlement of the family caused by sexual liberation produced an aggressive activist style. Their fear was that loss of personal responsibility because of progressive court decisions would slowly undo the family and community and turn America into a cultural wasteland—and much of this has come to pass.
Mainly, though, the key for American conservatism has been to contest, with intellectual and political labor, this progressive Constitution—a project that for most conservatives continues to this day. Does this foundational project of postwar conservatism hold true for the national conservatives? It’s an open question, I think.
National Conservatives’ Mission
What questions do the national conservatives seek to answer?
Are the national conservatives truly a new, sixth subgroup of conservatives bringing a fresh and needed approach to undoing the progressive Constitution? Or do they seek to coopt progressive constitutional norms and revise and revive progressive policies in their pursuit of an “America First” economy?
Perhaps nothing defines national conservatism better right now than the desire to use the federal government to reshore manufacturing jobs to the United States. Is this so-called industrial policy realistic, given domestic and international economic constraints?
Manufacturing jobs are a small part of the labor force, currently 8%. Increasing this type of employment in any significant way would require what, exactly? What are the costs to consumers of such a policy?
What would happen to the average manufacturing wage if massive numbers of manufacturing jobs were returned to America? Doesn’t it decrease? That is, unless the federal government inflates that wage by imposing costs on the entire economy to support manufacturing.
Most importantly, what does it presuppose about knowledge and federal bureaucrats? Who will make these decisions, and with what information?
On foreign policy, the national conservative approach equates with realism and perhaps trends toward isolationism. Why, though, are the options binary between isolationism or liberal internationalism or second-wave neoconservatism?
The better approach, I think, has been outlined and argued well by the late Angelo Codevilla, an authority on international relations: to focus on the concrete interests and needs of our country and to protect our constitutional republican regime in our foreign policy, which might require any number of statecraft methods.
One thing this requires is to understand how different regimes, in their ideological makeup, aim to undermine America. So that is something more than realism proper, at least as it’s defined by international relations academics.
A focus on regime style and statecraft of other countries in reference to our own is the first step we take, which includes eschewing any grand moral style in our foreign policy. But I don’t think retreating behind our walls is a policy option.
We will and must be engaged with leading a large group of nation-states, anti-authoritarian for the most part, which actively contest the absolutist power regimes led by China.
Our national future will continue to be marked by America’s being a leader in international politics, according to the vast and strategic interests we have.
Did conservatives in the post-Cold War period lose their commitment to defend the nation-state well and properly? And the most crucial issues here are trade and war.
I agree generally with national conservatives that we must cultivate national loyalty, which, I think, is a better term than nationalism. This nation—its borders, law, history, memories, and battles—is what drives our loyalty to country. This loyalty requires borders, but this goes beyond actual legal borders and includes feelings of sentiment and loyalty that are not to a family, tribe, religious doctrine, or person.
Rather, these sentiments are for a country “defined by a territory, and by the history, culture, and law that have made that territory ours,” according to the late English philosopher Roger Scruton.
It is land and the “narrative of its possession” that enables the peoples of Western nations, despite their many differences, to exist side by side with one another in peace and prosperity, with deep respect for each other’s rights.
For goodwill and cooperation, we look instead to attachment to the territory and its laws and institutions. These shared possessions form our identity as citizens of a nation-state.
Did the right’s focus on free markets, low taxes, and free trade obscure or diminish the centrality of family, the working class, the community, and nation?
I’ve touched on what I think is the core of the national conservative position, which is to put the economy in the service of a socially conservative framework, and to use the federal government to achieve that.
I don’t think this works, because it doesn’t fundamentally reckon with what has pulled family apart in America—which is the split in the former Gordian knot of marriage, children, and sexuality. Those things now float freely and with predictable results, courtesy of sexual liberation.
Marriage, children, and sexuality must be reintegrated in our culture as one if we are going to have a positive birth rate, stable marriages, and better homes. Of course, what governments—federal, state, and local—can do here is limited.
Why the free market would be the enemy of family and community never really has been justified, save for the exceptional disruptions caused by technological advance. I’ll note what American political scientist Charles Murray repeatedly has said: Our strongest families are in the educated upper middle class, many of them politically progressive but with sturdy family lives.
What we need is something old-fashioned from this cohort, which is the cultural exhortation to responsibility and virtue. These denizens of our educated and upper middle class would need to stop speaking progressive while living conservatively.
The Common Good
Finally, the problem of male unemployment can’t really be attributed anymore to “China Shock,” which is the view that vast numbers of manufacturing jobs were moved to China, providing an explanation for much that has befallen low-educated, working-age men. That phenomenon has been over for close to a decade.
Moreover, even during the span of China Shock from roughly 1999 to 2011, 6 million net jobs actually were created. But the prescription offered by many of our economic populists also misses the moment we are now in.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we already saw more unfilled jobs than job-seekers. This condition only has increased as our economy regains post-COVID-19 footing, with two jobs available for every unemployed person. Many job openings are in construction, trucking, and manufacturing, where we are told real opportunity rests. Large numbers of men continue to choose idleness, with 1 in 8 prime-age men unemployed.
The real problem here is not a rigged, “neoliberal” economy, but a welfare transfer-payments system that finances laziness with negative consequences in the lives of the unemployed, creating an overall drag on the economy.
What is the common good? This perennial question of politics assumes primary rank among national conservatism’s thinkers with the assertion that a libertarian-tinged conservatism or fusionism didn’t think the common good was possible without a collectivist program behind it.
I’ll note that any discussion of common good in America must acknowledge certain developments. Our current regime, courtesy of progressive jurisprudence, has turned autonomistic liberty into one of the primary ends or purposes of our Constitution. How else to understand court decisions on marriage, speech, sexuality, and abortion?
We also have an administrative state that increasingly follows its will, issuing rules, letters, and guidance documents in violation of even its own formal rule-making procedures. This administrative state has been created by Congress, the one body that is supposed to be the foundation of our republic, which is supposed to make law according “to the deliberate sense of the community” following debate among representatives who are accountable to structured communities across the country.
Government by judiciary and government by administrative command remove us from the centerpiece of who we are supposed to be as a republic.
The question of the common good should begin where the late political philosopher Willmoore Kendall left off, and that is by developing “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.”
Kendall’s majoritarianism was qualified by and in tune with Madisonian constitutionalism, which recovers constitutional thinking against the dominance of the executive and judicial branches through progressive ideology. Kendall’s conservative populism stressed that the American people always have had their tribune, and that is a proper understanding of our virtuous Constitution and how it shapes political outcomes.
Editor’s note: This article is based on remarks delivered by Richard M. Reinsch II at the recent spring meeting of the Philadelphia Society.
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