Politics & Policy

A Big-Government Nationalism, or a Burkean One?

Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The ‘national conservatives’ have a choice to make.

The National Conservatism Conference, which took place July 14–16, was something of a flashpoint in an ongoing debate within the conservative movement. Many on the right are now questioning long-held dogmas, and the conference was perhaps the most serious attempt yet to organize the ascendant heterodoxies into a cohesive new intellectual and political program.

The conference, organized by prominent Israeli-American scholar Yarom Hazony, enjoyed widespread coverage in every corner of the mainstream media. The explanation for this unusual interest is quite clear: President Trump, a self-declared nationalist himself, has reinvigorated many long-dormant sentiments within the American Right — isolationism, skepticism towards trade, immigration restrictionism, and a more sunny view of statist solutions to social ills. The conference was, in many ways, an effort to bind these previously discordant and heretical strains of conservative thought together into an identifiable political movement: “national conservatism.”

However, the speeches at the conference revealed two competing intellectual factions. The first looks to the bold, big-government nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, while the second prefers a more humble, decentralized, Edmund Burke–inspired vision of a revitalized civil society.

Nowhere was this tension more plainly expressed than in the speech of Yuval Levin, who is something of a thought-leader for the latter wing. Levin’s remarks were a display of optimism about the new developments in conservative thought, but they also contained words of caution about the dangers of nationalism gone awry. The excesses of Rooseveltian statism, warned Levin, can do serious damage to civil society — the very social institutions and voluntary associations that allow for the flowering of a healthy civic nationalism. Framing the debate in the terms of Burke and his opposition to the French revolutionaries, Levin said:

Modern theorists of nationalism actually consider the French Revolution a great example of nationalist fervor because it sought to erase local connections in favor of a single, strong, national identity. Progressive nationalists in early 20th century America thought this way too. In laying out his “new nationalism” in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt argued that “The New Nationalism puts the national need before the sectional…It is impatient of the impotence which springs from over-division of governmental powers.” This is not Burke’s kind of nationalism at all. He reserves maybe his hottest anger against the French for their eradication of local distinction and regional power. The decision of the National Assembly to eliminate the old counties that for so long had composed the French nation and replace them with perfectly square districts strikes Burke as an abomination. He writes: “It is boasted, that the geometrical policy has been adopted, that all local ideas should be sunk, and that the people should no longer be Gascons, Picards, Bretons, or Normans, but Frenchmen, with one country, one heart, and one assembly…But instead of being all Frenchmen, the greater likelihood is, that the inhabitants of that region will shortly have no country at all.” By breaking local attachment we only weaken national feeling. The nation is not best understood as one whole to be divided into parts but as the sum of various uneven, ancient, loveable elements. This has everything to do with Burke’s concern for national sentiment and love of country, and with his emphasis on national character. We are prepared for love of country by a love of home.

Some of the sentiments expressed by the Rooseveltian national conservatives, by contrast, came dangerously close to endorsing the civil-society-consuming statism to which Burke was so opposed. This wing focuses much of its ire on the libertarianism that characterizes the conservative economic consensus. To be sure, there is certainly much to be criticized about market fundamentalism and its contribution to the deterioration of the working-class American family — but this emergent view sees the state-assisted construction of a new national identity as the solution to these social ills, and implicitly favors the subjugation of local affinities to the sovereignty of a stronger national identity.

David Brog, president of the newly formed Edmund Burke Foundation, articulated this impulse in his speech:

America is unraveling into an unhappy confederation of hostile tribes. Extremists on the Right are murdering Jews in synagogues and African-Americans in churches. The woke Left is bullying us into a neo-segregation, in which we’re judged by the color of our skin and not the content of our character. We’re too obsessed with growth to see that the rising economic tide has swallowed entire regions. We’re too proud of our tradition of immigration to admit the failures of assimilation. At a time of such angry division, what can bind up our wounds? What can bring us together? A renewed patriotism would be a great start, but it’s not enough. Patriotism asks us to love our country – what we need now is more than love of country. We need to love our fellow citizens. We must feel connected to each other, and a connection that is deep enough to overcome our superficial differences, a connection that is profound enough to motivate mutual sacrifice. We need to internalize the reality that our futures — the futures of every American citizen — are inexorably, even mystically, intertwined. What we need today is a renewed American nationalism.

We are divided, of course, and we should love our country and our fellow citizens. But Brog went on to approvingly cite Theodore Roosevelt — as did Josh Hawley, John Bolton, and a handful of other conference speakers — as an inspirational figure for this vision of a renewed American nationalism. That particular aspiration should give conservatives pause.

Teddy Roosevelt, like the French Jacobins, wanted to construct a new national identity by clearing away all the seemingly erratic and asymmetrical clutter between the individual and the nation. He was, in his own words, “impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues,” and proclaimed that “the national government belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the national government. The betterment which we seek must be accomplished, I believe, mainly through the national government.”

Alternatively, Burke famously wrote:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

In many ways, this latter insight has been the organizing principle of the American conservative movement. For most conservatives, an affinity for limited government is derived not from a dogmatic libertarian opposition to the exercise of government power, but rather from a deep respect for civil society. An attachment to one’s country and a willingness to sacrifice for it do not magically materialize, nor can they be imposed by a state. If the failures of totalitarian regimes in the 21st century taught us anything, it is that government planners are hopelessly unable to instill a sense of artificial purpose or identity upon their societies. Human flourishing is inextricably connected to an ecosystem of rich civil associations.

We should be honest with ourselves about the failures of what Senator Hawley described as a “cosmopolitan consensus” — liberal trade policies accompanied by libertine social philosophy — that has been disastrous for the American working family. But we should, simultaneously, be careful, lest we risk further harming those civil associations in pursuit of a bold, ambitious new political program.


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