This speech was given at the National Conservatism Conference on Nov. 2, 2021.
Conservatism is not a set of legislative goals like lowering taxes, school choice, or even border security. It’s a set of principles or goods – what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things,” like family, opportunity, order, faith, and freedom.
Conservatives enter the political arena with our eyes wide open, fully aware that these goods are often in tension with one another. That’s why different times and circumstances call for different prioritization of these goods.
Conservatism, properly understood, then, is always young, always evolving, its unchanging principles always supple enough to be reapplied to each new era and challenge. But people with eyes wide open must be able to see new challenges when they arise.
The Reagan Coalition is Dead
National conservatism has arisen in part out of that foresight, in contrast to an institutional conservative movement that is clinging to old assumptions about left versus right politics that have spawned solutions that once worked but are now woefully inadequate to address our present peril. I’m talking about the Reagan coalition – loosely described as the political coalition between social conservatives, defense hawks, and economic libertarians.
National conservatives understand what many of DC’s conservative institutions do not. And that is that the Reagan coalition is dead. In Reagan’s time, the great threats to America and the West were the expansionism of Soviet communism and the strangulation of the entrepreneurial economy by top-down federal policies. But today, both the Soviet Union and the 70 percent income tax rate are history.
The fatal hubris of much of DC’s conservative intellectuals is to treat that coalition and the policies it spawned as if they are still vital and alive; to take what was temporal and treat it as though it were eternal. If we are to move forward as a movement, we must confidently move on from the specific priorities Reagan advanced and toward a more sophisticated understanding of the new threats which have arisen.
One threat in particular, the elite’s cult of “wokeness,” today represents a greater danger to the permanent things, to the American way of life, than any of the problems still-Reaganite Washington Republicans prioritize.
In a moment when almost-trillion-dollar corporations wield the power to silence dissent, when colleges and universities subordinate fact and truth to politics, when school boards, and apparently the libertarians at Reason magazine, cover up sexual assaults in girls’ bathrooms to hide the predator’s gender identity, when generals, while losing yet another war, conspire with political activists to subvert civilian control of the U.S. military, and when public health officials lie to the country about secretly financing illegal bio-weapon experiments that turn into a global pandemic — when all of this is sitting on our doorstep, the capital gains tax rate doesn’t matter all that much.
Being Woke Is Easier Than Being Virtuous
The power and the ambition of this country’s woke elite class really is an existential threat to the future of our nation. They hate us. They hate America. They hate the values of the Constitution, and the power it vests in “We the people,” whom they view with sneering contempt.
This is what the Republican establishment and leading conservative institutions fail to understand about this moment and this fight. They pretend conservatives and progressives still want the same things, and just disagree about how to achieve them.
But woke elites – increasingly, the mainstream left of this country – do not want what we want. What they want is to destroy us. Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal, they have been for years by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution the right has made a choice to abandon. They have done this without hesitation, and without having to pass a single law.
But it’s important to unpack what elite wokeness really represents. Its proponents smugly present themselves as representing an emerging “coalition of the ascendant.” But in reality, it’s just an old boys club, another frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege. It’s Skull and Bones for gender studies majors.
For all its gooey rhetoric and high-minded rationalizations, at the bottom, woke-ism exists solely to insulate entitled mediocrities from accountability for the relentless disasters that have befallen the country under their incompetent leadership.
But the innate insincerity of wokeness is what makes its inquisitors so dangerous. There is no principle they are actually advancing, just their own material interests, and their sense of superiority over uppity commoners who dare question their anointed status.
It is a totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape-victims’ fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in Western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express.
Failure to appreciate the power and amorality of the woke elite should be seen as a disqualifying flaw in anyone seeking to lead our communities, our institutions, or our country. Giving woke elites any benefit of the doubt or waiting on the free market or Republican judges to save us is indistinguishable from surrender.
National Conservatism is a Big Tent
That is why, however popular Reagan-ism was in the 1980s, conservatives must move on from his priorities. They were right for his time. They are wrong for ours. And “priorities” is the correct word here. In the 1980s, America needed more economic dynamism and global assertiveness. Today, we need other things more. National conservatives don’t have to repudiate or transcend traditional conservative principles. We simply have to reorder them.
This approach is not a repudiation of conservatism – reprioritizing principles to meet changing times is what conservatism is.
The first step is dropping forever the false narrative that America is split down the ideological middle and that Republicans should focus on turning out our base to win 50/50 elections. National conservatives can aim much higher.
Just consider the groups that woke elites have already alienated or outright canceled: black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans who know woke-ism is fundamentally racist. Jewish Americans who know it is antisemitic. Mothers who know it is misogynistic. Parents who know it hates kids. Churchgoers who know it hates God. First-generation Americans, and blue-collar workers who know it is fundamentally elitist and exploitative.
This is not anyone’s silent majority. They are loud, ticked off, and sick of being treated like second-class citizens by performance artists who pretend riots are peaceful, men can get pregnant, and that “Saturday Night Live” is funny. But just because America’s proud, broad, diverse, middle class has been betrayed by woke elites doesn’t mean they have any reason to trust Republicans either.
So this is our second step. Rather than hoping for all these potential new voters to turn to us in some future election, we need to turn to them now. If we really believe the country is facing an existential threat, as I do, then we have to be able to work, and communicate, and govern creatively to forge a national coalition to defy, defund, and defeat the cult of wokeness from Capitol Hill to Harvard Yard to Silicon Valley.
Finally, step three is to figure out what national conservatives would actually do with a mandate to lead. What should our priorities look like?
First of all, let me say this. Whatever our policy goals, they should, to a great extent, be laws, passed by Congress – not temporary tweaks by the administrative state, which can be undone. Not court rulings by unelected judges, however good they might be.
For all its shortcomings, the heart of our federal system is and will always be the Congress – the branch with the truest imprimatur of the people. It currently finds itself weak and feckless, and undoing that is a central part of strengthening both our movement and the country.
But the primary work of national conservatives must be to rescue the American people from the unearned, unaccountable power that anti-American woke elites wield over them. And putting the authority of running this country back into the hands of the sovereign individuals, families, and communities to whom it rightfully belongs.
Here’s Where We Start
The first thing we do? Let’s kill all the monopolies.
The Big Tech corporations, in particular, must be broken up. Period. Spare me platitudes about consumer choice or pearl-clutching about needing our own anti-American mega-corporations to compete with China’s. Silicon Valley has had decades to prove themselves corporate patriots, and they are obviously content to be the opposite.
Businesses like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple exert state-like monopoly power over America’s minds and markets, and they simply cannot be allowed to endure. The scale at which they exist is incompatible with a free society. In America, we integrate innovation into our values and traditions; we are not content to be re-formed in the image dictated to us by mega-corporations.
Second, we must extricate the United States from multilateral institutions and trade agreements that hand over our national sovereignty to anti-American, globalist apparatchiks. In the U.N., the WTO, the WHO, and others, America is just one of several voting members. America does not wait around to submit to the diktats of some globalist organization whose members hate us. We want out. Bilateral trade agreements are the future.
Prioritize the American Family
Domestically, national conservatives should focus on family and community formation as intensely as we ever focused on business and market formation.
Forty percent of American children today are born out of wedlock – 70 percent of black children. Everyone knows the intergenerational damage this does to families and neighborhoods, to moms and their kids, especially young black men. And let’s be very clear: woke elites do not care.
Federal social policy is written almost exclusively by rich, white, progressive, elites who attended the right schools, watch the right Netflix comedy specials, and park their hybrid cars next to their Black Lives Matter yard signs. But their true values are expressed in laws that intentionally punish young, low-income couples for having kids, getting married, getting jobs. That is, for doing things that would help them rise in America, and maybe challenge the elites’ privileged status one day.
Never forget: intergenerational poverty is good for the woke elite and their kids. Remember that the next time they dismiss welfare work requirements.
Those same policymakers – and their woke capital donors – also write America’s immigration laws, with the prime objective of delivering to corporate America cheap, powerless immigrant labor to indemnify themselves from having to pay decent wages to actual American citizens, be they black, white, brown, or rainbow-colored.
It is a sin, what America’s globalist elite has done to low-income Americans for the last three generations. National conservatism, if it means anything, must mean emancipating working Americans of every race from the high-tech overseers keeping them down.
In this toxic environment, national conservative priorities can be very simple: Every child in America, born and unborn, deserves to grow up with both parents, married, rooted in a safe, bonded neighborhood, where mom who can choose her own work-life balance, and dad can support his family with a job that Wall Street, K Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue can’t give away to China!
The Plan is Simple but Not Easy
With that as our vision, the agenda writes itself.
Seal the border. Deport illegal immigrants, and prosecute businesses who exploit them. Break up the Big Tech monopolies, and while we’re at it, the Big Banks too. Bring the critical supply chains home and upend the multilateral trade deals and institutions.
End both abortion and the law’s tolerance for deadbeat dads. End federal marriage penalties, parent penalties, and work disincentives.
Cut the Gordian Knot woke elites have tied around education policy: get the masks off the preschoolers, get Critical Race Theory out of our classrooms, and ask the campus socialists where they would like us to redistribute their universities’ endowments.
These fights won’t be easy. To truly engage them requires some relinquishing of Bill Buckley’s old adage that conservatives must “stand athwart history yelling stop.” As my friend David Marcus says, a movement dedicated simply to digging trenches is no longer adequate, nor is it acceptable.
This new threat, the global woke elite, have proven they will tyrannize every election, every policy, every institution, every family, every inch of our souls if we let them. To fight it effectively requires us to fix our bayonets and advance.
No longer can we cling to ideological trees while the entire forest burns. We have to use our wits and our self-government to actively cut down the forces of decay that seek to destroy every meaningful and beautiful tradition our countrymen have died to defend.
Our courage is what is now required. And our duty to the ancient bonds that exist between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn demands that we now give our full measure of it.