What Is ‘National Conservatism’?

(Tom Brenner/Reuters)
At the second National Conservatism Conference, notes toward an empirical definition of national conservatism.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C onventional wisdom among Western elites today holds that populist leaders are nothing but accidents in their respective countries’ political histories. On the basis of that interpretation, these elites attribute populists’ power to voters’ credulity and susceptibility to false narratives that obscure the salutary movement of our societies toward more global exchange, international norms, diversity, and rights. And from this, they conclude that the new populist leaders won’t survive contact with political reality, and that education and communication will bring wayward citizens led astray by demagoguery back into the fold. Former U.S. Secretary of State and losing 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton surely illustrated that attitude when she said: “I believe that free people, human rights, and democracy will win out over closed societies, oppression, and authoritarianism. We are on the right side of History.”

Yoram Hazony, the Israeli author of The Virtue of Nationalism, however, hopes to show that populism has deeper roots than is commonly thought. His second National Conservatism Conference, headlined “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations — A National Conservatism Conference,” convened a select audience of about 200 guests and 30 speakers from conservative political and intellectual circles earlier this month in Rome. Media coverage, at least in Europe, focused on the presence or absence of this or that political figure (Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister, canceled at the last minute). But journalists were mistaken if they thought the question at stake was the next election and the role intellectuals may play in it. Populists have reached power without the latter and may manage to keep it without them. But politicians, even very talented ones, eventually lose or die. And if anything they create is to survive into the next generation, it will be through educators. 

In placing this conference under the patronage of John Paul II and Reagan, the organizers mobilized two figures who did leave long-term legacies. One was the “neoliberal revolution” of Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the American context, this revolution wouldn’t have been possible without an alliance of libertarians and conservatives — an alliance that national conservatism intends to break. The other provides a positive example of the emancipatory power of the national idea, commemorating the victory of a Polish pope and an American president against communism in Eastern Europe.

“If your wife and children are enslaved, you feel trapped. It doesn’t matter that you have freedom; that’s a fiction. It’s the same with a nation. If your nation is enslaved, then you do not feel freedom,” Hazony said, summing up the spirit of national conservatism. Although he launched it last July at a Washington, D.C., conference organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation, Hazony’s national conservative movement was oriented from the beginning to opportunities in Europe. At the February summit in Rome, speakers insisted that the reality of Brexit and travails of the European Union made it clear that liberal democracy as a mechanism for government and representation is in a major and possibly fatal crisis. National conservatives say this crisis can only be solved by a transition of power akin to the collapse of the postwar social democratic consensus in the 1980s, which ushered in the neoliberal era. But what will replace our dying consensus? As Douglas Murray argued in his speech, our political moment hesitates between old parties that have lost our confidence and new ones that have not yet earned it.

These new parties have emerged because existing parties — and the ruling class common to all of them — have proven themselves incapable of offering solutions to the problems that most concern Western voters, who fear the loss of status, class mobility, identity, and sovereignty. Elections, in such conditions, are not enough to grant legitimacy to the victors. A growing number of people believe that their supposedly representative government neither represents, instead granting ever more power to supranational entities like the European Union, nor governs, instead imposing legislation on a hostile populace. Each new election worsens the crisis by handing power to leaders who are immediately challenged and weakened, confirming the prejudice of a growing part of the population against the entire political class and process.

There are two solutions. Either part of the ruling class splits from its peers to introduce anti-establishment reforms (think pro-Brexit Tories and Hungary’s Fidesz party), or it refuses to do so and confronts new political forces that attempt to replace it (Forum for Democracy in Holland or Vox in Spain). New parties are likelier to appear when the old ones seem united in defense of the status quo. Compared with the disruptive newcomers, even yesterday’s adversaries have much in common to voters.

The establishment strategy to fend off these newcomers, whom they describe as demagogic, is to say that populists exploit citizens’ gullibility with facile solutions and fake news (much of the anti-Brexit Remain campaign focused on the Leave campaign’s supposed lies). Misled by such contempt for its adversaries, the ruling class underestimates their strength and stability. More important, it risks dismissing all the problems to which populists rightly draw attention, pooh-poohing them as expressions of ignorance about the virtuous mechanisms of globalization.

While national conservatives might seem to share populism’s critique of the ruling class, they diverge on the difference between governance and representation. Populists ask whether governing elites really resemble those they govern. National conservatives, however, seek to install new elites, fearing the populists’ desired fusion of representation and governance. Hazony reminds populists that the consent of the governed provides insufficient guidance for responsible political action. Political decisions must be not only legitimate, but also correct. Leaders must have specific virtues to make the right decisions. Chief among these virtues, Hazony argues, is loyalty.

The victory of a new political majority cannot guarantee the loyalty of the personnel that it brings with it. The tribulations of the Conservative party in the United Kingdom over the past three years are sufficient proof of that. To supply such virtuous leaders, Hazony argues for national conservative intellectual and educational initiatives to form the character of the new elite’s members. Marion Maréchal, niece of National Rally’s Marine Le Pen and a guest speaker at the conference, withdrew from politics to found an institution in France in pursuit of that goal. Through such initiatives, Hazony intends to draw conservatives out of the political and moral torpor imposed on them by their adversaries’ monopoly of the means of intellectual production. He also hopes to challenge conservatives’ own self-perception in a discourse largely shaped by their foes.

Hazony says that this political education must target two falsehoods: that “nationalism is war,” and that “global problems require global solutions.” Once rid of these misconceptions, conservatives will be able to clarify their position within the neoliberal alliance established since Reagan’s victory. Against libertarians, Hazony claims, conservatives must assert the primacy of the political over the economic, and that of sovereignty over international agreements. Against the neoconservatives, conservatives must oppose imperial adventures and protect the principle of national independence. More broadly, this political education would confront the Enlightenment’s political rationalism centered on the figure of the rights-bearing individual. It would offer politics a new center: man, conceived as a creature of loyalty and attachment, whose natural extensions are the family, the religious community, and the nation.

Hazony seeks to dispel the idea that the new political parties comprise ambitious but obscure amateurs whose power only resides in their personal qualities. He intends to transform national conservatism into a school of thought whose mission will be to define the legacies of these victories. Rather than transform the structures of our political institutions, national conservatism aims to change the character of our democratic regime by changing the character of the people in charge of its functioning.

Current elites oppose this project at their own risk. The strong measures that are necessary for the preservation of our regime require a restored faith in the electoral system as a source of legitimacy.  National conservatism allows this by transforming the anti-elitism inherent to populism into a posture that makes its integration within the political game much easier. The enmity of the people and the elite takes the shape of a rivalry between two elites.

The tenets of Hazony’s national conservatism have practical merits: the nation is a self-evident reality; the dissolution of nations into a post-national order and individuals and contracts is a naïve illusion; and the current ruling class is defective. Yet his project reaches its theoretical limits when it intends to make national conservatism a school of thought, not only perfectly distinct from liberalism, but also capable of replacing it.

In the introduction to The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony declares: “I argue for regarding a world based on independent national states as the best political order.” He contrasts this best of political orders with universalism, which, he argues, necessarily generates imperialism. Concerning himself exclusively with the question of where sovereignty should be located, he abandons the classic question of political thought: What is the best regime? Is loyalty to one’s national tradition really sufficient to organize political life?

If the conservative can so easily dismiss the question of the best regime, if he can avoid asking anew the foundational question, it is because this question already appears to him as settled. It is in that sense wrong to say that conservatism is a philosophy or a political theory, since it presupposes that the essential questions have been solved by the tradition it seeks to preserve. Conservatism is more a sensibility than a school of thought — which is why it is so easy to know who is a conservative and so hard to know what conservatism is. Conservatives, from Burke to Churchill, are always “old liberals” whose reason is informed by a feeling: fear. They fear that the progress they have given birth to may destroy something that cannot be repaired. The conservative is a man of his time, in that he is a man produced by “progress.” His relationship to tradition is even radically modern, as it is grounded in the consciousness of his power to destroy it.

That conservatism is a sensibility more than an ideology does nothing to diminish its merits. One can even consider it as a supplement, without which the rationalism of the liberal state would be incapable of proper functioning. Conservatism aspires to give political orientation to progress, which tends, if undirected, to take the form, or the appearance, of a spontaneous movement (as if the globalization of exchange and the extension of human rights were natural, uncontrollable phenomena rather than the results of human decisions). But it cannot establish itself as a substitute for the ideology of progress. Which explains why conservatism provided liberal democracy with so many statesmen (who have so often saved it), but no alternative regime.

Still, Hazony raises an important point: A certain understanding of liberal democracy is undermining the existence of the nation, putting at risk not only our personal liberties, but also liberal democracy itself. The latter, first and foremost, means the possibility of discussing together how to chart the course of our collective life. Yet too many liberals forget that we only try to convince those from whom we do not want to be separated. And without national feeling — and a desire to convince one’s countrymen — discussion, far from venting conflicts, is bound to bring opposing groups to the brink of catastrophic disunion. As Hazony put it, separation may be a fact, but it is not a virtue.

Alexis Carré is a French writer whose work focuses on the dangers threatening the link between liberalism and democracy. His work is available on his website and via Twitter @Aliocha24.

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