The following is a transcript of remarks I delivered at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting on Sept. 1. Panelists were asked to review the “National Conservatism” and “Freedom Conservatism” statements of principles.
It’s true that both the National Conservative Statement of Principles — which I signed — and the Freedom Conservative Statement of Principles are useful distillations of the so-called New Right and the Old Right. I say that as someone with a foot in both camps, working for the organization founded by the Sharon Statement and a group founded by its author Stan Evans. FreeCons cite the statement as their inspiration. I’ve spoken at NatCon as well. Like Michael Brendan Dougherty, as a NatCon signer, I have quibbles with both statements but could basically sign both of them as well.
That sentiment is certainly not shared by everyone on the right, new and old, but it reveals an essential point: The primary disagreement between NatCons and FreeCons is their priorities. This is not to minimize that disagreement. It is significant. With certain old conservative institutions run by stalwart defenders of the old agenda, it will be unworkable. But with Republican voters and average Americans, it will not.
Take, for example, the tax bill Donald Trump signed in 2017. Here was a standard bearer of the New Right expending immense political capital behind fiscal conservatism. It became the legislative highlight of his entire presidency, and not merely because Democrats after 2018 declined to cooperate with his administration, but also because the president and people who staffed his administration genuinely wanted to do tax reform and pushed the reconciliation effort hard.
Today, virtually no person in the national conservative camp will argue that was the right move. Importantly, though, virtually no person in the national conservative camp would in theory argue against a more competitive corporate tax rate that helps onshore jobs, or tax relief for overburdened American families increasingly getting less for their money.
Again, this is not true of everyone in the national conservative camp, because it includes a handful of integralist thinkers and heterodox voices who offer provocative dissents. Generally, though, national conservatism believes in free markets, just with the prioritization of families and communities as their moral end. Freedom Conservatives don’t disagree with that, perhaps with the exception of some hardcore libertarians.
But this conflict over priorities amounts to a major gulf in policy and tone: When the market fails to provide a living wage for single moms, is the priority to go after government barriers that may burden businesses with costs that cut into wages? Is it to create new cash benefits for parents? Is it to do both?
What about tone? Should conservatives be extolling the virtues of the business whose CEO is pushing ESG and hiking his own salary beyond previously conceivable limits? Should they be supporting the union that might score a win for the single mom? (Even Ben Shapiro has made the conservative case for collective bargaining in the private sector, though critically it’s nobody’s pet issue.) Should they be focused on that mother’s inability to send her child to a public school that successfully educates kids, and does so without pushing politically charged policies on sex and race?
Politics aside, what is the most moral way to prioritize family and freedom and flourishing under a set of economic and cultural conditions that threaten all those ideals? Do the free markets we all support need more or less intervention? Do families and individuals need more or less freedom?
Here’s the NatCon statement on free markets, which some of us on the New Right might balk at in another context if it came from a FreeCon: “We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition. We reject the socialist principle, which supposes that the economic activity of the nation can be conducted in accordance with a rational plan dictated by the state.”
Here’s the FreeCon statement on the same: “Most individuals are happiest in loving families, and within stable and prosperous communities in which parents are free to engage in meaningful work, and to raise and educate their children according to their values. The free enterprise system is the foundation of prosperity. Americans can only prosper in an economy in which they can afford the basics of everyday life: food, shelter, health care, and energy. A corrosive combination of government intervention and private cronyism is making these basics unaffordable to many Americans.”
Let’s turn to foreign affairs. There are few genuine doves in either the FreeCon or NatCon camp. Note most of the NatCon opposition to war policy in Ukraine is explicitly predicated on the need to prioritize China. Many, if not most, NatCons are willing to support a more militaristic approach to Mexican cartels as well.
If we return to the issue of tax reform, most people on the New Right — myself included — would say Republicans who reeled at the cultural chaos of 2020 expended vast amounts of political capital on a lower priority (without even doing it very well), when they could have met the moment and tackled the corruption of higher education and K-12 or immigration reform, they could have dealt with cronyism in housing and health care, they could have seriously reigned in Big Tech.
Many ostensible disagreements are rooted more in rhetoric and priority disagreements than ideology. Here’s a broad but not at all exhaustive list of basic, fundamental points of agreement:
- Strong borders and the benefits of a sensible immigration system
- Peace through strength
- Minimizing political censorship
- Eliminating crony capitalism (explicit in both statements)
- Free markets
- Corruption and decline of the educational system
- Corruption and decline of media
- Corruption and growth of the administrative state
- Primacy of marriage and family
- Independent judiciary
- The excesses of environmental extremism
- Nationalism (with some quibbles over the definition and application)
- Sanctity of unborn life
- Importance of the Second Amendment
- National debt
There are some genuine divides among many members of both camps, including:
- Free trade
- Domestic spying
- Public religion
- Civil rights law (although this is unclear as the FreeCons haven’t fully reckoned with it in recent years)
This question of priorities is the biggest development to conservative political thought because it does change the calculus when decisions have to be made on policies like the tax code, labor, trade, education, and then rhetoric.
The Sharon Statement was a perfect articulation of conservative priorities for 1960. That really has not changed. If anything, contra the FreeCons, it should be used to unite these disparate factions, not as a wedge. The central threat is an ever-expanding federal bureaucracy that seeks, in cooperation with global institutions, to impose progressive ideological ends on individuals, families, schools, and employers by encroaching on personal and corporate freedoms.
These disagreements on rhetoric and priority are not to be minimized. They are significant. Still, it’s worth considering when internecine squabbles on the right boil over if the apparent divide — which often looks and feels very bitter — puts the two camps in different ballparks or different sections of the same one. The most important development in conservative thought — to continue torturing this metaphor — is that people on the right now realize where their tickets are.