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A National Conservative Awakening

July 19th, 2019 | 19 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

I made my way to the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Washington D.C. for the National Conservatism Conference Sunday evening with some trepidation, unsure what to expect, and feeling wildly out of place among what seemed like a crowd of thinktank wonks, DC insiders, and journalists. I went because I lived nearby, appreciated old-school conservatism, and because if Yoram Hazony puts on a conference and says you should go to it, you should probably go. I figured there would be some intellectual stimulation, some annoying jeremiads, and a few interesting conversations in the coffee hours.

What I was not prepared for was the emotional intensity of the 52 hours that lay ahead: the rhetorical fervor and fierce conviction of so many of the lectures; the standing ovations and uncontrollable waves of applause; the buzz of excitement in the hallways, the sense of camaraderie among strangers; the palpable joy and hope that began to steal across the faces of many of the 400 attendees as the conference wore on; the ringing crescendo of Sen. Josh Hawley’s closing keynote. Although I like to think of myself as a hardened cynic, my wife has me pegged as a hopeless romantic, so perhaps the conference simply offered just the right brew of logos, ethos, and pathos to summon forth my inner Don Quixote.

But something real, and something genuinely exciting, I am convinced, was afoot this week at this geeky but well-dressed gathering, where college students, rabbis, venture capitalists, and leading conservative intellectuals mingled freely and sought to map a blueprint for national renewal.

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By late Monday morning, I had a disorienting realization, which I share with some sheepishness: for the first time in my adult life, I was hopeful about the future of our nation. That will inevitably sound corny or trite, but understand: although I have poured myself into the project of retrieving resources for bold and faithful Christian citizenship for the past ten years, although I have outwardly pooh-poohed counsels of despair and helmed an organization committed to renewing Christian public witness, rather than retreating behind ecclesiastical strongholds, when I’ve been honest with myself, I’ve always said with Boromir, “It is long since we had any hope.”

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I suspected that we were entering the twilight years of the American republic, that my children would grow up into a world much darker, more solitary, nastier, and more brutish than I had, and my task was simply to (to quote another favorite Tolkienism) “fight the long defeat” with as much boldness and faithfulness as possible—and build, if possible, networks of knowledge and friendship that could survive the dark days ahead.

This pessimism was only in part due to the aggressive crusade against nature and reason that has infected progressivism in the West, and the weakness, corruption, and amnesia in the church. It was also because it seemed clear to me that America lacked—and perhaps had long lacked—a genuine conservative movement in any historically meaningful sense.

What we had instead was an unstable coalition of belligerent American exceptionalism, reactionary nostalgia, and laissez-faire individualism that promised more markets as the cure for all our ills. And the last of these—the worst and least conservative—tended to be the dominant element in this toxic brew. American conservatism lacked both the conservative temperament (a cautious, historically-informed, yet flexible empiricism) and any real vision of what it was interested in conserving.

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Trumpism may have shattered the unstable synthesis of fusion conservatism, but I had little hope it offered a path forward. It seemed little more than an inarticulate gesture of angry protest, a giant middle finger aimed at the status quo, and its spokesman was too base and blustering of a figure to rekindle any conservatism that could convincingly speak the language of morality.

But at the National Conservatism Conference this week, I realized for the first time that whatever the virtues and vices of Trumpism, the election of Trump in 2016 had had the effect of a violent earthquake—reducing the previous political categories and expectations to rubble and leaving the field incredibly open to build and think something new. Of course, in such a landscape, gangs are prone to roam and loot, extremism is apt to breed, and our worst impulses can be given free rein. There is no guarantee that anything genuinely constructive can come out of such rubble. But this week at least gave me hope in the possibility.

Although a bewildering diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, and agendas was represented at the conference, it was possible to isolate at least seven unifying commitments, at least among the core presenters: three things to be repudiated, and four to be embraced.

Repudiating White Nationalism

The first and most encouraging repudiation was of white nationalism, which many critics have been eager to lump together with Hazony’s movement. But Hazony and many other presenters were emphatic: any hint of racism must be excluded from national conservatism. David Brog, the president of the new Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the conference, was unequivocal in his opening speech: “If anyone here thinks that national identity depends on race or the color of someone’s skin, there is the door—please walk out through it!”

They may not have been entirely successful in this attempted exclusion; I am told that a couple of presenters in a breakout session on immigration (which I did not attend) veered dangerously close to racially-charged categories, but the overall tone was unambiguous. Indeed, one of the best lectures—in the session on identity politics—was delivered by former civil rights activist Bob Woodson.

Moreover, in the plenary session lecture on immigration, “Nationalism as an Antidote to Racism,” Paulina Neuding offered a persuasive account of how we can defend prudent restrictions on immigration in service of the authentic good of immigration. In brief, she argued that for immigration to achieve its desired purpose, both for the immigrant and for the host country, it must remain genuinely im-migration, rather than merely migration.

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That is to say, host countries must protect and maintain the national identities, values, and institutions that made them desirable havens for would-be immigrants to seek in the first place. If they repudiate their own nationalities and welcome an overwhelming number of migrants, as many European countries have done, they simply create the conditions for tribalism, as new cultural and religious identity groups crowd into a state that lacks a unified culture of its own. Neuding offered a very compelling sketch of how this process had played out in Sweden in recent decades, leading to a sharp rise in sectional violence throughout Sweden’s formerly almost crime-free cities.

Repudiating Libertarianism

The second repudiation, which seemed to echo through almost every session, was a repudiation of libertarianism. The laissez-faire economics which so-called conservatives have long embraced in their zeal to defend individual liberty, it was charged, has become a social and cultural solvent eroding communities, families, mores, and morals every bit as effectively as progressive projects like the Sexual Revolution or identity politics.

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Individual liberty was absolutely a good worth protecting, but not the only good, or the only liberty, that demanded political protection. Indeed, it was recognized, libertarian policies have failed to protect even this one freedom, instead paving the way for the growth of corporate behemoths that trample communities and enslave individuals to highly profitable addictions.

The devastating national opioid epidemic was a dark theme that surfaced over and over during the conference, particularly in fiery lectures by Mary Eberstadt and J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy), providing a paradigm example of why we must commit ourselves to a political philosophy that privileges human beings over markets. “For too long we conservatives have outsourced our brains to libertarians; we’re just starting to wake up and think again,” remarked one leading conservative public intellectual to me during a coffee break.

This awakening meant a new willingness to cash in a-priorist economic dogmas in favor of a hard look at empirical realities, the experience of other nations, and even the economic insights of “the other side” on things like free trade, industrial development, and regulation. Markets, the participants seemed finally ready to recognize, are politically framed and structured, not mere forces of nature, and it is up to us to formulate policies that structure them well, for genuinely conservative ends.

Perhaps the most comprehensive rethink along these lines was proposed by Julius Krein in a tour de force of raw intellectual horsepower, “A Strategy for National Development.” “Markets are not some jealous god we have to make sacrifices to,” he proclaimed, “and it’s time we acknowledge that.”

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But the most memorable session of the conference was probably the Monday night public debate between Oren Cass (author of The Once and Future Worker) and Richard Reinsch on the resolution “America Should Adopt an Industrial Policy.” Although excellent arguments were put forward on both sides, Cass’s affirmative ultimately carried the day, 99 to 51—this was not your father’s conservatism. The crucial moment in the debate came in during the section for speeches from the floor, when J.D. Vance came up to the microphone and said:

“Near where I live in Silicon Valley, there are neuroscientists paid by Facebook who are hard at work developing horrible apps to addict your children’s brains. Just down the road, there are neuroscientists paid by the National Institutes of Health who are working just as hard on finding cures for dementia. The first group earns about twice as much as the second group. In my mind, this debate is over the question, ‘Are we OK with that? And if we’re not, is this a political problem that demands a political solution?”

*mic drop*

Repudiating Identity Politics

The third repudiation was a rejection of identity politics, and all of its works, and all of its pomp—an absolute refusal to bow to demands of political correctness that have been exposed as wildly incoherent, self-contradictory, and insatiable. This, of course, is nothing new for American conservatism, but what impressed me about this conference was the clarity, confidence, and sobriety with which this rejection was articulated.

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OK, not always sobriety—Tucker Carlson’s keynote was anything but sober. But the point is that there was almost nothing shrill or defensive about this gathering’s response to the ever-expanding demands of cultural progressivism. Rather, it had the air of a group that had at last seen through incoherence and hypocrisy confronting it, and that refused to be cowed, shamed, or goaded into anger or intolerance. Our war, it was solemnly announced, was not with “the Left” in some vague ubiquitous sense, nor with the American people, nor with those who were different from us. It was with those who sought to make the construction and recognition of personal identities into the defining fact of our politics.

The richest diagnosis of identity politics was offered in a lecture by Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University, “Identity Politics and the Stain of Inheritance,” that was almost sermonic in its solemnity. Conservatism, argued Mitchell, is based above all on the inescapability and goodness of inheritance; the nation is grounded in natio, birth. We come into the world gifted and burdened by the inheritance of family, faith, community, culture, and nation. This inheritance is always both gift and burden, since it is always stained with the guilt of the past, with original sin and the manifold and gross sins which our families, faiths, communities, cultures, and nations have added thereto. Without a means of atonement for the transgressions we inherit and perpetuate, argued Mitchell, the burden and stain of inheritance quickly becomes unbearable. America’s Protestant faith, for all its foibles, long sustained a plausible mechanism for such atonement—the priceless blood of Christ.

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When mainline Protestantism began to collapse in the 1960s, it left a vacuum, a lingering Protestant religiosity and guilt that no longer knew where to find atonement. The only solution was the effort to erase inheritance through the construction of new identities, and the merciless scapegoating of the perceived guardians of the guilty inheritance, preeminently straight white males. But, argued Mitchell, since the new expiation rites of identity politics know only human sacrifices, wrath can never truly be quenched or guilt expunged. “Today we are searching for worldly solutions to man’s uncleanliness,” he declared, and only by acknowledging a redemption beyond humanity can we re-learn that the transgressions of the past are no argument against hope for the future.

If National Conservatism was to be anchored in a repudiation of racism, libertarianism, and identity politics, what then was its positive agenda—what are its common objects of love? Four, I think, can be singled out: religious heritage, national heritage, nature and natural limits, and our fellow citizens.

Affirming Our Religious Heritage

The first may not seem like anything particularly new. After all, it is the “Religious Right,” and long has been, right? To be sure, but the religiosity of the American Right has for some time now generated much more heat than light, and demonstrated little continuity with or interest in the religious wellsprings of historic conservatism. It has been almost all slogan and little substance. Perhaps only time will tell if the same proves true of this national conservative awakening, and certainly many of the conference’s speakers and attendees lacked either sincere religious faith or significant knowledge of the Jewish or Christian traditions.

But the framing of the conference was deeply religious by design. It opened with a stirring invocation by Scott Redd, President of RTS-DC (Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, insisted on finding a Protestant minister for the invocation, Protestantism being the soil in which national conservatism had historically grown), and it closed with a memorable impromptu sermon on Genesis 11 and 12 by Yoram Hazony, who read the text aloud in Hebrew before translating and expounding. The national traditions of the West were Christian in their substance, and the principles of national conservative politics were grounded in the Bible, and so any meaningful conservative movement in the West needs to retrieve at the very least the intellectual legacy and moral imaginary of Abrahamic faith—and many present would have gone further than that.

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National heritage too has been a standard rallying-cry of conservatism, but national conservatism represents an attempt to reconstruct conservative political philosophy more fully around this concept, rather than leaving it as an awkward misfit in a creed of economic growth and individual responsibility. Determined to recover a richer anthropology than conservatives have had to offer for several decades, the participants sought to remind us that human beings do not think, feel, or function chiefly as individuals, but as parts of an extended self that encompasses family, friends, church, community, forefathers, and even fellow citizens.

Any conservatism worth its name must be one that seeks to conserve the conditions necessary for the goods of these communities to flourish. A political philosophy that seeks to maximize incomes and choices for individuals will rarely achieve even individual flourishing, because the multiplication of money at the expense of meaning and belonging is experienced as loss rather than gain. This meaning and belonging is anchored at the local level, but can and should extend to a national scale through the extension of bonds of civic friendship, the participation in rituals of national culture, and the renewed appreciation for the great men and women who have shaped our nation. We need not hide from our nation’s failures and sins, but we should not deny its triumphs and virtues either.

The emphasis on a return to nature and natural limits was particularly exciting and refreshing, given my own interest in the retrieval of Protestant natural law. In the Monday morning session, Chris Demuth declared that the core issue in American society and politics today was the rejection of natural constraint, the “revolt against reality.”

From this standpoint, national conservatism can critique both the out-of-control anti-natural sexual politics of the Left, the unmoored individualism of the Right’s homo economicus, and the imperialistic globalist consensus of many of our political elites. It is no coincidence that free-traders, LGBTQ activists, and pro-immigration crusaders all react viscerally against the idea of boundaries as sources of evil. We must return to the idea that boundaries and limits are good, that discrimination (in the sense of distinguishing between things really different from one another) is good, and that the good of persons, places, and communities is achieved by helping them learn to flourish in their unique modes within their distinctive limits.

Finally, the National Conservatism Conference called for a positive agenda anchored in a love for our fellow citizens. As David Brog said in the opening session, “a renewed patriotism would be a great start but it is not enough; we need to love our fellow citizens.” This was perhaps the most exciting and refreshing aspect of the whole event. Something as plain and old-fashioned as love of neighbor has been notoriously absent from our national political discourse for some time.

In an era of violent political polarization, partisans on both Left and Right seem convinced that the achievement of their policies is much more important than love of one another. Certainly, not all the speakers at the conference sounded this theme as much as others; a few came across as more combative, mocking, and arrogant, as many on the Right do today. And of course I have mentioned already the implacable hostility to identity politics.

But the striking thing was how singular this reprobation was; one listened in vain for global denunciations of anything hinting of “Leftism,” or raucous efforts to “own the libs.” There seemed to be a real sense that if progressives could set aside their weaponized identity politics and stop demonizing Christians and conservatives, the speakers at the conference were ready and willing to do business with them and to problem-solve together, particularly on the economic issues that used to be the main line of division between the parties.

Moreover, there was a clear effort to insist that our war was with the elites who claim to represent oppressed minority groups in our country, not with the oppressed minority groups themselves. A clear message of the conference was: “If you want to change the direction of this country, get out of the bubble of DC and NYC and the universities, find people who are hurting, befriend them, and then get to work on their behalf.”

Now, what is this “getting to work on their behalf” supposed to look like? That might sound inspirational, but it is also much too vague to constitute a political program. And indeed, many onlookers and some participants groused about the wide diversity of viewpoints represented among the speakers. But to my mind, this was a feature, rather than a bug, of the conference.

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As I mentioned in several conversations between sessions, it felt to me a lot like how Thomas Kuhn describes a “paradigm shift” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A key point to Kuhn’s analysis is that a new scientific theory is not a new set of answers to all of the questions; far from it. Rather, it is a new problem-solving framework, born out of the conviction that the old framework had accumulated too many problems that were simply unsolvable within its terms, too many anomalies that it couldn’t begin to account for. Just so this week.

Participants in the conference seemed to share a sense that the old libertarian-tinged conservative framework had broken down under the weight of too many anomalies and contradictions, and that it was time to adopt a new theory. The concrete results of this new experimental framework remained to be seen, and for now, there was a wide freedom of different emphases and approaches that could be accommodated within its loose coalition.

Most participants at the conference seemed shockingly OK with this. They knew they didn’t all agree about a bunch of things, but that was alright; they knew there was a lot of work yet to be done in mapping out policies, but they were ready to get started on it. I spoke to a number of folks who still identified as much more libertarian-leaning, but they took the libertarian-bashing of some of the speakers in stride and humbly acknowledged the need to start asking new questions.

That said, there were several tensions which—if unresolved—could yet derail this nascent coalition. I will just highlight two here, so as not to further transgress the reader’s patience.

Defining “Nationalism”

First and most significantly, what do we mean by this term “nationalism”? As I noted in my recent review of Hazony’s book, it is quite often understood as a hawkish assertion of national self-interest and national prerogatives on the world stage, whether against international institutions or against global rivals. Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish this kind of nationalism from imperial ambitions in some cases, as has been the case for the nationalism of so-called “neo-conservatives.” Hazony clearly disclaims this, insisting that to defend nationalism is to defend the good of the international order of independent national states, and the goodness of particular national traditions as worthy of sustaining and as conducive to the happiness and freedoms of citizens. Indeed, in the opening keynote, Peter Thiel argued that “American exceptionalism” is inimical to authentic nationalism.

A thoughtful nationalism recognizes that the US is one nation among many, with its own strengths and weaknesses, its own success stories and failures, and that securing its own national interest means learning from the successes and failures of other nations. American exceptionalism blinds us to these concrete realities by proclaiming the incomparability of America and its virtues.

All well and good, and most seemed to agree with this on some level, but there was still plenty of room for tension here between an essentially outward-looking and an essentially inward-looking nationalism. Is our nationalism primarily a matter of promoting the goods of the various communities and traditions that make up the fabric of our national life? Or is it a matter of asserting our national ego vigorously against our rivals, so as to ensure we maintain our pride of place among the nations of the world?

I was not present for Ambassador John Bolton’s keynote, but he naturally sounded a hawkish note, as did several other speakers and questions from the audience throughout the conference. The specter of China and its rise to global dominance hung over the whole conference, and you couldn’t help but get the feeling that for many present, this whole national conservative thing was less a principled stance than a desperate ploy to regain American superiority vis-à-vis China.

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Relatedly, Yuval Levin noted in his fine lecture that “nationalism” can be used as a particularizing force over against globalism (as Hazony clearly wants to use it), or as a universalizing force over against the particularity of the local or sectional (as, for instance, Teddy Roosevelt used it). Indeed, Patrick Deneen argued forcefully that historically speaking in America, nationalism functioned almost entirely in the latter key, and if conservatives today are to retrieve the term, they must beware that it does not betray us in this direction. He concluded, in very Althusian terms, that a national conservatism worthy of the name must be one that sees the nation as a “community of communities.”

Can we meaningfully advocate for a single kind of ‘nationalism’ that applies to all contexts?

Second, and much more briefly, it should be noted that this was not just a conference about American national conservatism. Several speakers (not least the organizer, Hazony) and many participants hailed from abroad, and although they cared deeply about American renewal, they were also eager to revive the national traditions of their own homelands. But, as one friend observed, American nationalism has always been a rather distinct phenomenon from European nationalism.

Indeed, I similarly noted in my review of Hazony that the American case does not fit too neatly into his empiricist account of how nations form and sustain themselves. Although liberals are wrong to insist that America is a nation defined by an idea or a creed, they’re not altogether wrong. America has always been a rather diverse collection of tribes, and if you deny the role of the Constitution and our republican tradition in uniting us, you run the risk of a “blood and soil” nationalism, which the conference organizers strove to avoid. Charles Kesler made a solid stab at squaring this circle in his talk, “Nationalism, Creed, and Culture,” but it remains a matter of potential tension and confusion.

Of course, much more could be said about potential pitfalls facing this project. For instance, what exactly is the role of religion in it and how does it understand the relation of church and state and the nature of religious liberty? Will the traditionalist Catholics stay on board with a project ideologically grounded on a Hebraicizing Protestantism or Protestantizing Judaism?

Or, just how far can the more libertarian-leaning constituents of the movement travel together with those who are are basically socially-conservative Robert Reiches? At the conference itself, the amicability was encouraging, but what about when the rubber meets the policy road?

And above all—can the movement indeed successfully guard itself against all hints of nativism and racism? Can it resist the oppression of identity politics while remaining firm in its commitment to fight on behalf of the genuinely oppressed? Can it avoid becoming another self-protective assertion of white elites (meeting at the Ritz in downtown DC!) that lacks all credibility with America’s genuinely diverse society? Can the movement avoid being dragged into the moral gutter of Trumpism while respecting the real concerns and problems that have driven the movement?

These are real questions and concerns, and I do not want to minimize them for a moment. Perhaps tomorrow, indeed, my inner cynic will have regained the upper hand and convinced me to just wait and see what comes of it all. But for now, indulge my fantasy, quixotic though it may be, and dare to hope with me.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.