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Can Conservatism Coalesce Into A New Fusion That Channels The Nationalist Zeitgeist?


In his book, political analyst David Goodhart categorized the current dominant socio-polical conflict as between the “somewhere” and the “anywhere.” The “somewhere” belong to and identify with a place, and have loyalty to the land beneath their feet, the land that provides them shelter and opportunities. The “anywhere” have no such loyalty.

In the history of social science and related literature of the last few years, Goodhart is perhaps the closest to identify and explain the current populist moment. Loyalty to the land, regardless of race, caste, creed, sex, and ethnicity, is important, and perhaps the single most important variable of current politics.

In light of that, Sen. Josh Hawley’s keynote on the third and final day of the National Conservative conference was a thundering affirmation to the idea of a shared loyalty. The republican tradition, Hawley said, has historically been to view government as individuals tied together, loyal to a specific place and way of life.

The current cultural difference, according to him, isn’t between right and left, but between those who are borderless internationalists and those who want a return to the nation’s republican roots. “The reigning political consensus shows little interest in our shared way of life,” Hawley said, adding, “Worse than that, it denigrates the common affections and common loves that make our way of life possible. It undermines the kind of labor and economy on which our way of life depends. For all intents and purposes, it abandons the idea of the republic altogether.”

That project has failed. Hawley echoed British Prime Minister Theresa May when he said the current national project has a “cosmopolitan consensus.” “On economics, this consensus favors globalization—closer and closer economic union, more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms. The boundaries between America and the rest of the world should fade and eventually vanish.”

But that’s not all. The more sinister aspect of this was that elites by definition abhor borders and patriotism. Internationalism, whether liberal, Marxist, or Islamist, shares this common disdain of borders and nations. “Our elites distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forbearers,” Hawley charged.

This internationalism ties even the left and right: “The Left champions multiculturalism and degrades our common identity. The Right celebrates hyper-globalization and promises that the market will make everything right in the end, eventually.”

That, he said, needs to end. “Let’s start with this. America is not going to become the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is not going to become America. We are a unique nation with a unique history and a unique purpose in the world.”

As I have written before, the conference was a return to a pre-World War I-era, Teddy Rooseveltian conservatism, an attempt to overthrow the libertarian edifice that influenced the Reagan-Thatcher consensus, one that was perfect for its time but, given our changed politico-economic realities, may need to be reformed, or even overthrown.

Hawley even mentioned Roosevelt in his speech: “Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that ‘the Roman Republic fell’ when ‘the sturdy Roman plebeian, who lived by his own labor, [and] who voted without reward according to his own convictions’ ceased to exist. Our present-day leaders seem determined to repeat the experiment.”

Hawley was also the only one who provided at least some foreshadow of what this new national awakening should be like in terms of policy. Not going as far as a Trumpian “infrastructure week,” Hawley proposed some policies, a novelty at this conference, which was mostly polemical.

What would a new nationalist economy look like? It would still be free market, but more balanced. “That means encouraging capital investment in the great American middle, in our workers, not just in financial assets. That means investing in research and innovation in the heartland of this country, not just in San Francisco and New York. That means challenging the economic concentration that stifles small producers and family enterprises,” Hawley said. How that is intended to be put to place was left unsaid.

As I leave DC and head back to London, three observations struck me. One, and it might sound a cliché, but this is not our fathers’ conservatism. Conservatism, if not anything else, is based on prudence. And prudence dictates course correction.

Whatever the merits of the previous era have been, an elite class cannot rule a population that wants something radically different. It is a recipe for chaos, revolution, and anarchy. The market is good as long as it is free. The market is, however, not free; it increasingly seems like living in an oligarchy.

In that scenario, even if government cannot or should not do anything to interfere in the market, they should at least take measures to facilitate further competition, through ending slanted playing fields that preference large and well-connected corporations, tax breaks, building infrastructure, and investment projects. The hands-off approach seems to be over.

Second, a central theme of the conference was the lament about a lack of national unity. Regardless of race or class, the unity of a nation is what makes it a nation, and unchecked individualism is by definition not unifying and has frayed the social contract of this country.

One’s right shouldn’t infringe on another’s personal space, and the common public space needs civic propriety and solidarity. The same reason one’s free speech shouldn’t mean shouting the other down, and one shouldn’t play loud music in a public area just because he is “free to do so,” is the same reason one should try to save a neighbour if his house is on fire, and go to war for the land one inhabits.

It is because, in Rich Lowry’s words, no one lives in abstraction, but in a society. Unless the unity is re-forged, there’s trouble ahead. If that means confronting the agents of chaos, largely in media and academia, who sow division, then someone ought to take up that responsibility.

Third, nationalism is as powerful as the agents who can sell it to the public. Unless there’s a bench being formed that formulates policy and acts as a brain trust, the new national conservatism will be a short-lived moment. It’s good to harrumph, but it’s difficult to work and fix things.

To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”