Politics & Policy

What Bret Stephens Gets Wrong about National Conservatives

Visitors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed / Reuters)
Our aim is not to dispense with what makes America great. It’s to reexamine old orthodoxies and to remember the lessons of American history.

Last month the Edmund Burke Foundation (of which I am president) held its inaugural National Conservatism Conference. While we organizers agreed on certain core principles, such as banning those who define our nation in terms of race, we disagreed on much else, from industrial to foreign policy. Defining national conservatism will — like any serious political project — take time, study, and a great deal of constructive criticism.

Unfortunately, some of our critics don’t have the patience for such a process. They prefer to presume the outcome. Bret Stephens provided a most illustrative example of this unfortunate reaction in his New York Times column from July 26. I’m quite fond of Stephens as a person and I’ve always respected him as a writer, which is precisely why I was so disappointed by his piece.

Stephens did not attend our conference. And he fails to cite so much as one word spoken at it. Rather than challenge our actual positions, he prefers to shadow-box his own nightmares of what nationalists believe — and his dreams are vivid.

To his credit, Stephens largely acknowledges the core of our argument: that nationalism can provide nations with the very things we most need today, including greater political cohesion, solidarity, and mutual self-sacrifice.

But then his logic takes an odd turn. Stephens insists that Americans can never enter this promised land of national unity because we are a “sovereign state,” not a “nation state.” He asserts: “Our identity is oriented toward the future, not the past.” And in supposed opposition to our nationalist vision, Stephens defines America as the country in which immigrants and minorities can rise, “where Jews celebrate Christmas by going out for Chinese food.”

Perhaps it’s this orientation toward the future that explains Stephens’ apparent disregard for American history. His assertion that Americans are not a nation would have surprised so many of our founders and subsequent heroes.

The Declaration of Independence already refers to Americans as “one people.” As Alexander Hamilton fought for ratification of the Constitution, he argued repeatedly that shared experience and struggle had transformed Americans into one nation. “From New Hampshire to Georgia,” Hamilton insisted, “the people of America are as uniform in their interests and manners as those of any [nation] established in Europe.”

As the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address with this most famous formulation of American nationalism:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

What Lincoln describes here is not a sovereign state ruling over people who share only a legal status. Instead, it is one nation bound together by something deep and profound. This is a glimpse of the alchemy that forges one people from many.

Stephens’s nightmares notwithstanding, nothing in Hamilton’s or Lincoln’s nationalism turned them into opponents of immigration. And neither was on record opposing Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas. Those who seek to elevate the national bonds shared by all Americans are not enemies of diversity. We’ve just focused on the next step: How do we unite a people so diverse?

Lincoln’s example looms large as we face the greatest threats to our unity in decades. America is unraveling into an unhappy confederation of hostile tribes. Both the extreme Right and the woke Left are seeking to impose a neo-segregation that divides us by the color of our skin. Large regions of our country have fallen into economic despair. Unprecedented numbers of Americans are choosing to numb their pain through drugs or end their lives through overdose.

As we face these challenges, it’s not only legitimate but necessary to look back and reexamine some of our orthodoxies. Conservatives are not exempt from this exercise. And to engage in it with an open mind is not, as Stephens asserts, some form of “intellectual plasticity.” It’s actually a sign of something far more rare among opinion leaders: humility.

For too long we conservatives have cited Friedrich Hayek and other proponents of laissez-faire to justify our inaction. We’d be wise to temper their theories with the wisdom of Hamilton, Lincoln, and others closer to home. Our American brothers and sisters are crying out to us. As their pain increases, so too should our impatience with any ideology that renders us too cold to listen or too impotent to act.


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