Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

About That ‘National Conservatism’ Statement

The troubling implications of the new NatCon manifesto.
June 22, 2022
About That ‘National Conservatism’ Statement
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages)

Remember “national conservatism,” the Yoram Hazony-helmed project that launched during the Trump years with the purpose of attacking more traditional conservatism—the conservatism of small government, individual freedom, and American leadership abroad—and of providing a respectable intellectual foundation for Trumpism? Well, after two big conferences, it’s back, this time with a manifesto.

The list of signatories features such MAGA hacks as Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, Julie Kelly of American Greatness, and the Manhattan Institute’s Chris Rufo. It also includes people from whom, once upon a time, one might have expected better: the New Criterion’s Roger Kimball, the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, and retired Vanderbilt University political science and law professor Carol Swain. (Notably absent is Compact magazine founder and past NatCon conference speaker Sohrab Ahmari, who has evidently broken from Hazony’s NatCons over the latter’s support for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion. Also conspicuously missing are Ahmari’s integralist brothers-in-arms Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule.)

The manifesto, or “statement of principles,” issued last week by Hazony’s Edmund Burke Institute and co-drafted by the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher and First Things editor Rusty Reno, among others, contains some admittedly uncontroversial provisions. How many people in the American mainstream would oppose a system of “independent self-governing nations” and “defensive alliances whose purpose is to deter imperialist aggression,” or “a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers”? Who doesn’t “believe in the rule of law”? Even some of the statement’s more explicitly nationalist assertions may elicit agreement from many people not given to knee-jerk anti-globalism—for instance, that transnational political organizations may promote “public alienation and distrust” if they remove too much decision-making power from national and local bodies, or that global markets may sometimes boost authoritarian regimes.

The devil, however, is in the details, and this particular devil makes his first appearance in the manifesto’s second item: “Rejection of Imperialism and Globalism.” After a boilerplate affirmation of “free cooperation and competition among nation-states” and a general criticism of the transfer of governmental authority to “supranational bodies,” the statement gets more specific:

Accordingly, we reject imperialism in its various contemporary forms: We condemn the imperialism of China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers. But we also oppose the liberal imperialism of the last generation, which sought to gain power, influence, and wealth by dominating other nations and trying to remake them in its own image.

“Liberal imperialism” presumably refers to the war in Iraq. But surely one can be strongly critical of that war without buying into a hackneyed narrative portraying it as a wealth and power grab. (As for trying to remake other nations in a liberal Western image, the 2005 Iraqi constitution opens with “In the name of God, the Most merciful, the Most compassionate” and recognizes Islam as the official state religion; this isn’t exactly East Coast liberalism on the Euphrates.) What’s more, the adjacent references to transnational and supranational bodies make it clear that the liberal “imperium” the NatCon manifesto deplores includes far more than democracy-exporting wars. In such a context, this passage translates to: Sure, we condemn Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine and China’s subjugation of Hong Kong and threats against Taiwan, but the European Union is also bad.

I remember when conservatives used to decry this kind of rhetoric as “moral equivalency” between despotism and democracy. But obviously those conservatives would have been too liberal and not national enough to be NatCons.

It’s when we move on to American domestic affairs that red flags start to pop up all over the place. The statement abounds in vague, broad language that could mean nothing beyond righteous-sounding generalities—but that could also, in the right hands, provide justification for some pretty troubling authoritarianism. What does this bit from the “National Government” item mean, for example?

We recommend the federalist principle, which prescribes a delegation of power to the respective states or subdivisions of the nation so as to allow greater variation, experimentation, and freedom. However, in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.

We can safely bet that when the authors and signatories of this document refer to places where “law and justice have been manifestly corrupted,” they are thinking about what they see in blue states and Democrat-controlled municipalities. But what really raised my eyebrow is the call for the national government to intervene (“energetically,” no less!) to stop not only lawlessness—itself a vague word that could encompass anything from vagrancy to riots—but “immorality” and “dissolution.”

Let’s set aside the obvious question of where the authority for this proposed federal intervention would come from—it certainly exceeds anything spelled out in the Constitution’s Guarantee Clause—and just ask what it would mean in practice. Federal marshals shutting down Drag Queen Story Hour? A national ban on school lessons that deal with sexual orientation and gender identity, or on “immoral” books in school libraries? The National Guard swooping down on cities that permit too many homeless encampments or let too many criminal defendants out on bail? Would Satanic churches be considered dissolute or immoral enough to warrant federal intervention? How about public festivals that celebrate non-normative sexual behavior such as BDSM, or nontraditional sexual or gender identities? For that matter, in the NatCons’ ideal society— presumably one with no constitutional protections for same-sex marriage—would federal morality cops be empowered to take action when a state is too permissive about divorce, homosexuality, or single parenthood?

These are not idle questions, considering that the manifesto treats traditional sexual morality as centrally important to the future of civilization. See this excerpt from item number 8, “Family and Children”:

The traditional family, built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman . . . is the foundation of all other achievements of our civilization. The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations.

Religion is similarly important. From the item on “God and Public Religion”:

No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition. For millennia, the Bible has been our surest guide, nourishing a fitting orientation toward God, to the political traditions of the nation, to public morals, to the defense of the weak, and to the recognition of things rightly regarded as sacred. . . . Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.

Where to start unpacking this? For one, while the manifesto’s preamble expresses an interest in “discourse and collaboration with movements akin to our own in India, Japan, and other non-Western nations,” the religion item seems to imply that Abrahamic monotheism is not only the only “authentic religious tradition,” but the only enduring foundation for viable nationhood. As for the Bible: No one can reasonably disagree that it’s a vital part of our cultural heritage. (I am, for what it’s worth, an agnostic who finds militant atheism as obnoxious as militant religion.) But Hazony-esque national conservatism, with its strong anti-Enlightenment animus, fails to account for the fact that, before European political philosophy began to secularize, the political traditions of European societies guided primarily by Bible-based religion were largely dismal with regard to human liberty, human dignity, “the defense of the weak,” and other things we prize today.

The call for America to become a Christian confessional state, with spaces of toleration carved out for Jews and other religious minorities, is one of the manifesto’s two highly specific policy prescriptions. It gives rise to several important questions: How can this position work with the document’s profession of respect for the Constitution and its amendments—the First Amendment in particular? What does it mean that adults “should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes” (emphasis mine)? Is religious coercion at work or at school just peachy? Would a NatCon government require public employees to meet some kind of threshold level of religious belief—say, belief in a nondenominational deity—to be considered fit for employment? Would there be a qualifying test to ascertain just what kind of deity a candidate is willing to assent to believing in—a kind of civil service exam with a civic religion section? Inquiring minds want to know.

There is an item that urges more government leadership on “big” science and technology projects—perhaps a nod to Peter Thiel, one of the signatories—in order to keep the United States technologically competitive. But it also notes that “most universities are at this point partisan and globalist in orientation and vehemently opposed to nationalist and conservative ideas” and “do not deserve taxpayer support unless they rededicate themselves to the national interest.” The call for defunding is not limited to universities that are too far to the left, “woke,” or intolerant of intellectual diversity, either; being too “globalist” is enough to get the ax, and universities can expect taxpayer support only on the condition that they demonstrate conformity to “national interest” as formulated by the NatCons.

Another item worth briefly noting is the section on national conservatism and capitalism, which spices up its otherwise standard calls for protectionism with the flavor of culture war: “Trans-national corporations showing little loyalty to any nation damage public life by censoring political speech, flooding the country with dangerous and addictive substances and pornography, and promoting obsessive, destructive personal habits.”

But it’s the manifesto’s second specific policy prescription that deserves a particularly close look: It calls for a restrictive immigration policy and possibly an outright freeze. After a brief nod to immigration’s “immense contributions to the strength and prosperity of Western nations,” the NatCons get down to business:

Today’s penchant for uncontrolled and unassimilated immigration has become a source of weakness and instability, not strength and dynamism, threatening internal dissension and ultimately dissolution of the political community. We note that Western nations have benefited from both liberal and restrictive immigration policies at various times. We call for much more restrictive policies until these countries summon the wit to establish more balanced, productive, and assimilationist policies. Restrictive policies may sometimes include a moratorium on immigration.

Or as Donald Trump once put it: Shut it down until we can figure out what’s going on.

In fact, there is no evidence that immigration to the United States today actively promotes “weakness or instability.” (The dynamics of migration and assimilation are very different in Western Europe, where they also differ from country to country, but the manifesto has an American focus.) For that matter, research indicates that immigrants in the United States today are assimilating as much as ever. But never mind all that—to the NatCons, these points probably just amount to more evidence that American universities are churning out globalist propaganda, a crime for which they ought to be defunded. So far, at least, even the apparent Hispanic realignment toward the GOP isn’t making a dent in the national conservatives’ visceral hostility to immigration.

To be fair, the manifesto does end with a strong condemnation of racism that points to “the history of racialist ideology and oppression and its ongoing consequences”—a phrase perhaps intended to emphasize that the condemnation is directly primarily at more overt racism, traditionally understood, without placing progressive identity politics on the same level. This may signal that the national conservatives are serious about distancing themselves from some of the more odious figures in their project’s orbit. (One may wonder if that includes Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who said during her talk at the first National Conservatism conference in 2019 that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Wax is not among the NatCon statement’s signatories.)

If so, good for Hazony and the NatCons. But that doesn’t change the fact that their “statement of principles” is a document steeped in thinly veiled and sometimes distressingly overt authoritarian ideology. It advocates or justifies a total immigration shutdown, heavy-handed promotion of religion by the state, the strong-arming of public universities into serving “the national interest” without any clear conception of what that means, and federal crackdowns on ill-defined “lawlessness” and “immorality.”

Should this be a cause for worry? For now, the NatCon manifesto amounts to the posturing and flexing of a bunch of very-online pundits. But if we really are to regard this movement as the intellectual vanguard of the MAGA right, which could very well find itself close to the centers of power in the next few years, these numbered statements could amount to more than just a grim but unrealistic wishlist. They could become the seed of a plan.

None of this is to say that the NatCons will be able to translate the manifesto into a concrete political agenda. For instance, there is no way the current Supreme Court majority—no matter how conservative—would sanction a push to have “Christianity and its moral vision . . . honored by the state” in any serious way. Still, it’s bad enough for them to get an opportunity to try.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.