The “National Conservatism Conference,” which I attended last week after having previously billed it as “2019’s most important intellectual gathering,” came to a close last Tuesday. Organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new group led by Yoram Hazony and David Brog, the Conference featured an ambitious agenda that sought to build off Hazony’s award-winning 2018 tome on nationalism and promulgate a forward-looking intellectual paradigm and substantive agenda for a rejuvenated, nationalist-inspired Right. The choice of the great British statesman Burke as the eponymous symbol of the Conference’s organizing Foundation was intentional: The conservatism advanced here was of a distinctly traditionalist hue that put much of the post-1950s right-of-center American political consensus squarely in its crosshair.
The Conference received no shortage of media attention — representing the full gamut of political viewpoint. And pushback from all the traditional targets of Hazony’s philosophical ire — be they leftists, libertarians, neoliberals, or neoconservatives — was certainly expected.
But by any measure, the Conference was markedly successful. And it is important to understand why.
The modern American conservative “three-legged stool” consensus of fiscal, social, and national security conservatism, forged out of the depths of Cold War necessity and expounded upon at the time by the likes of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., frayed during the 2016 Republican Party presidential primary. While it was always debatable whether Frank Meyer’s “Fusionist” paradigm of laissez-faire economics and traditionalist social mores was promulgated due more to intellectually compelling or to merely electorally convenient purposes, the undebatable reality is that the most authentically Fusionist candidate in 2016 — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — was ultimately defeated by the far more populist Donald J. Trump.
The extent to which Trump’s primary victory over Cruz represented a watershed substantive moment for American conservatism, as compared with the extent to which it merely represented a triumph of brute force of personality and a surfeit of free media, remains an ongoing source of debate. But a much-ballyhooed election postmortem put forth in 2017 by Lee Drutman and the Voter Study Group provides some clues.
Drutman’s study attempted to analyze the specific substantive and attitudinal issues that divide voters for the two parties, and he charted out all data accumulated from the Voter Study Group’s underlying Views of the Electorate Research Survey into a convenient scatterplot. The respondents’ data agglomerated in the scatterplot can be separated into four quadrants, in a basic two-axis analysis:
We can break the electorate into four types, based on their position in the four quadrants of Figure 2:
Liberal (44.6 percent): Lower left, liberal on both economic and identity issues
Populist (28.9 percent): Upper left, liberal on economic issues, conservative on identity issues
Conservative (22.7 percent): Upper right, conservative on both economic and identity issues
Libertarian (3.8 percent): Lower right, conservative on economics, liberal on identity issues
Drutman’s study thus attempts to demonstrate that a whopping 73.5% of voters hold “liberal” views on economic issues, whereas only 26.5% are “conservative” on those same issues. In Drutman’s model, Hillary Clinton won overwhelmingly among “liberal” voters, Donald Trump won decisively among both “populist” and “conservative” voters, and the tiny minority of “libertarian” voters were almost perfectly split as among Trump, Clinton, and “other.”
Drutman’s study ought to be an earth-shattering wake-up call for institutional movement conservatism — what some of the more populist/paleoconservative elements of the broader coalition have long derided as “Conservatism, Inc.” It ought to finally put to rest the notion, advanced in the not-so-distant past in the form of the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 election “autopsy,” that moderating on social/cultural issues provides the best political/electoral path forward for the GOP — which is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, America’s sole viable political organ representing something approximating conservatism.
Rather, it is libertarianism and classical liberalism — an innate hostility to government interventionism in any and all areas of life — that lack a core base of popular political support and electoral relevance. Though celebrated in many college dorm rooms and advocated by venerable right-of-center institutions such as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, it is increasingly clear that a morally ecumenical “live and let live” mentality that takes the form of a reflexively hands-off, value-neutral politics is unsuited to America’s present social crisis of despondency, fractured communities, drug overdose epidemics, and decreasing church attendance.
Enter the National Conservatism Conference. In his opening remarks, Hazony — who has spent decades subscribing to the late Irving Kristol’s quip that “the three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth” — declared national conservatism’s “independence” from libertarianism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, globalism, and neoconservatism. Yet Conference co-organizer Brog, in clarifying that the new national conservatism movement operates within the broader confines of the broader Anglo-American liberal tradition, solemnly renounced illiberalism in his opening remarks.
So what exactly is this ascendant “national conservatism?” Numerous conference speakers and attendees with whom I spoke seemed to be grappling with this very question. One prominent conference speaker confided to me that “the policy piece of this” broader puzzle “will take a lot of time to flesh out.” And regarding Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), the wunderkind conservative/populist senator who was the only elected official to speak at the Conference and who I have previously lauded as the most important freshman conservative since Ted Cruz, National Review Editor Rich Lowry writes that “filling out a plausible policy agenda to give expression to Hawley’s [anti-elitist] worldview is very much a work in progress.”
But as far as beginning to shift the intellectual paradigm as to what a forward-looking conservative agenda looks like, the Conference was an immensely important opening salvo. The Conference, held at the tony Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., featured a palpable sense of optimism resonating all throughout. Conservatives of a Burkean stripe tend to be natural pessimists, but the Conference seemed to buzz with cheeriness — both about the future of the conservative movement and, ultimately, about the American republic. The sense of attendees, many of whom were staunch supporters of President Trump, the thunderous nationalism that was 2016’s Brexit vote, and nationalist foreign leaders such as Viktor Orbán, was that the conservatism advanced at this Conference was the vanguard of a conservatism that can ultimately win.
National conservatism means a politics concretely focused on the mutually interdependent bonds of human loyalty upon which a society ultimately depends — as opposed to the atomization espoused by hyper-individualistic doctrinaire libertarianism. National conservatism means a politics focused on national solidarity and reinforcing the shared customs, traits, norms, and mores that establish America not merely as an idea but also as a tangible people — as opposed to the existential scourge of divisive multiculturalism. National conservatism means viewing America as a nation-state with an economy — as opposed to viewing America as but one border-less abstraction within a globalized economy. National conservatism means the articulation and advancement of all domestic and foreign policy alike through the lens of national self-interest — as opposed to policy advancement based on transnational considerations or the needs of foreigners. National conservatism means a hardened immigration system that prioritizes cultural assimilation above all else — as opposed to a laxer immigration system that prioritizes the cheap labor needs of the Fortune 500. National conservatism means a foreign affairs approach premised on narrow alliances with like-minded, self-sufficient nations who share America’s core national security concerns — as opposed to a foreign affairs approach premised on a tendentiously moralistic, sovereignty-undermining transnational agenda. National conservatism means a world order of sovereign nation-states — as opposed to the soft tyranny of the unelectable transnational bureaucrats in Turtle Bay and Brussels. National conservatism means a domestic affairs approach that, while undoubtedly market-oriented, resists the vestigial temptation to shirk the levers of political power as a means to advance the conservative cause in the realms of Big Tech, higher education, and other private spheres that increasingly pose just as dire a threat to our way of life as does over-zealous Big Government itself. National conservatism means a conservatism that works for the American heartland and for all rungs of the economic ladder — as opposed to a purist anti-regulation agenda that merely speaks for the economic interests of the bi-coastal elite.
Sen. Hawley of Missouri, the only elected official to speak at the Conference, is perhaps positioned as the political figure most closely attuned to this political moment. Hawley is likely too infatuated with trust-busting President Theodore Roosevelt and antitrust law for my own taste, but he is a brilliant young statesman whose biography, substantive beliefs, and approach to our national politics alike all position him perfectly to lead ascendant national conservatism on the home front. His rousing Conference speech, which was the final of four keynote presentations, is well worth watching in full:
Hawley’s domestic platform, if coupled with Cruz’s signature “non-interventionist hawk” foreign policy approach, would be one embodiment of the future of the conservative movement in America. As I wrote in January:
If conservatives can channel their “virtuous” fealty to nationalism and promote policies that galvanize a moral spark for a disaggregated citizenry that begin to heal the wounds of our bitterly fractious politics, that is one possible distillation of the future of the conservative movement. So long as we do so without throwing the free enterprise baby out with the surrounding bathwater.
Organizers, speakers, and attendees alike left the Conference with no shortage of questions. Indeed, there are many, many unanswered questions as to the precise form that this upstart national conservative movement will take as applied to any number of issues. But conservatism is unquestionably healthier now than it was before the Conference began — we are moving the ball in the right direction. A paradigm shift has begun.