On July 14, the National Conservatism Conference started in Washington DC as the first public attempt to say what conservatism is after the Donald Trump election. It’s fitting that it’s organized by a new outfit, the Edmund Burke Foundation, created in January 2019 and chaired by Yoram Hazony, the scholar who became famous in 2018 for his book “The Virtue Of Nationalism,” and advised by Rusty Reno, editor of First Things and Chris DeMuth, the prominent conservative scholar of public policy (all three of whom are speakers at the conference).
A large number of other journalists, intellectuals, and scholars will give speeches—some famous, some not (here’s the list). The first striking thing is the absence of politicians speaking about the future of conservatism. Apparently, we are looking for ideas elsewhere, despite the GOP’s historic electoral victories in 2016. The exceptions are Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), recently famous for proposing a bill to use the federal government to enforce free speech requirements on social media corporations, and National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Redefining and Popularizing Conservatism
The conference is nevertheless emphatically political, aimed not merely at redefining conservatism, but at making the case that it is a preferable alternative to the liberalism prevailing in elite institutions in America. The speakers are aiming to popularize new ideas to inspire politicians and political organizations.
In short, they want a new GOP fit for the political world shaking up after the 2016 election. There is something admirable and even noble about this attempt, but we should also see what the new ideas are and where they tend.
To start with, let us talk about Peter Thiel’s keynote address, which circulated widely. Thiel rarely makes political statements, but he shocked everyone by supporting Trump in 2016 and giving a passionate speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC). Now, he’s doubling down on some of his most surprising, unconventional ideas, which finally have their chance to become part of a party platform.
Thiel took aim at the most prestigious liberal institutions in our times: Silicon Valley and academia. He claimed they are only good for elite liberals and have become bad for America as a whole and directly inimical to the conservative half of America.
He asked that the FBI and CIA investigate Google’s business with the Chinese state (including assembling its totalitarian surveillance state) as a national security question. He also talked about how Republicans should use the federal government to force universities to swallow the vast, uncancellable college debt accumulated over the last generation as a question of justice—funneling money from teenagers and families to vastly wealthy universities.
Thiel formulated an openly partisan attack on a form of sclerotic liberalism that can neither deliver technological and institutional advances to justify privileges nor change to allow for the kind of economic growth that will allow Americans, especially the young, to make a future for themselves. His proposals require using public authority to defend the public good—this is why the natural purpose of such thinking about conservatism is the platform of the Republican Party. The most important aspect of his speech is that it is not primarily critical of liberalism, but instead proposes political actions that can lead to electoral victory and successes in government both.
Thiel’s New Ideas for the GOP
Thiel is supplying new ideas to advance traditional Republican purposes: Individual freedom, economic growth, technological progress, and national security. But he’s also asking for the overthrow of the prestigious institutions of post-war America.
Thiel’s ideas about academia would lead to the destruction of most higher education institutions. He wants them investigated by the FBI on the basis that what they have done to enthrall students to debt is criminal. He’s attacking the liberal piety that higher education is the portal to the future (and therefore should be under liberal control).
Higher education has created a new caste that believes it rules America as a meritocracy, since universities are public institutions dedicated to tests, knowledge, and progress, so that the winners in the education tournament rule by right of their excellence. That caste is not, however, delivering scientific or technological progress. Nor have the products of that elite education achieved great successes for the American people in the economy, politics, war, or any other public pursuit.
Instead, academia is weaponizing ideology for a fake partisan fight whose only real purpose is to insulate the people who do well from the just anger of the majority of the people, who are in important ways denied the opportunity to make a good life for themselves.
Both its partisan character and its focus on regime change—on rethinking the institutions that organize rule in America—make Thiel’s speech a very interesting and very persuasive political vision that complements Tucker Carlson’s recent turn to anti-elite populism. Carlson is also speaking at the conference, so there is at least some chance of a converging vision for political economy. Is the American economy supposed to benefit everyone, or only a few?