Social Conservatism and the New Nationalism

Jack Fowler, a longtime publishing executive at National Review, sat alone and lonely at the way back during the conference.

A National Review writer sat among the press and wrote a first-day story. She reported it as straight news, no comment.

To be sure, National Review editor Rich Lowry spoke to the crowd and did an outstanding job of explaining why American is “not an idea.”

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But the feeling you got during the intensive two-day National Conservatism conference in Washington, D.C., this week was that this new nationalist movement stands athwart National Review waving sayonara.

I wasn’t the only one who got the feeling that National Review and other organs of the mainstream right were watching a parade that was passing them by, and they were helpless even to jump in front and try to lead.

Also kibitzing from the sidelines, AEI’s Ramesh Ponnuru tut-tutted that the conference remained silent about the explosion of new and “racist” Trump tweets going on at the same time. On the final night, conference organizer Yoram Hazony dismissed this charge with “We have other work to do.”

Forget about the likes of Bill Kristol and his refugees from the implosion of The Weekly Standard. They consider at least some of the speakers—Tucker Carlson—to be outright racists. This remnant didn’t even sit in the back and take notes, though, for sure, mocking pieces will soon appear in The Bulwark.

Others, too, seemed to be missing from the conference. I counted only three from the Heritage Foundation, one of them a speaker, but none of them were on the organizing committee. No one was there from the Family Research Council, no one from Concerned Women for America, Susan B. Anthony List, or Focus on the Family. I could be wrong since there were over 500 at the conference, each of them vetted and approved for admittance.

An Acton Institute executive, an old friend who stuck out a bit like a sore thumb in this libertarian-bashing conference, wanted to know the thing that surprised me the most about the conference. It was that I did not recognize that many people. I kept asking, “Who are these guys?”

It’s not like I didn’t know anyone. The Acton guy is my friend Alex Chafuen. The Heritage folks were friends Lee Edwards, Bridget Wagner, and Mike Gonzalez. The Catholic Vote guys—Brian Burch and Josh Mercer—were there. I spent a lot of time with Al Regnery, Mark Wheat, and Dan Oliver, all old hands in the conservative hustings. The First Things team helped organize the conference, and Rusty Reno was front and center. But for the most part, attendees were new faces and new voices, which made the event exciting.

David Brog, whom I had never heard of, opened the first night. I had to google him. He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer who lately ran something called Christians United for Israel. His several interventions were invigorating. He said we had come together because we had never really felt at home in the modern conservative movement which has been run mostly at the pleasure of the libertarians. Brog spoke in favor of faith and family as the cornerstones of the American republic, yet they are two institutions the libertarians treat indifferently at best and at worst as enemies.

As far as I could tell, Ronald Reagan came up only twice, both times set in amber. Hazony remembered playing Reagan in a debate, and he recalled the Reagan posters in his childhood bedroom. I did not hear a single person talk about emulating Reagan, restoring Reagan, or anything to do with Reagan going forward. Teddy Roosevelt was mentioned more—a lot more—and as a model for the new conservative movement based on nationalism. Though Reagan was not criticized and he was not a libertarian, there was also the sense that Reagan-type solutions are a thing of the past and that rote evocations of the Gipper are fast fading.

What about social conservatism? Social conservatives have always been the most loyal of conservatism’s three-legged stool. We have supported a robust foreign policy. We have supported smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes. Social conservatives have produced the ground troops of the conservative movement. Social conservatives and our issues have nonetheless tended to be treated as the red-headed stepchild by the foreign policy types and libertarians who make up the remaining two legs.

Will this new nationalist movement treat us any differently? Maybe. Maybe not.

The only talk explicitly billed as socially conservative was by my hero Mary Eberstadt. Like many speakers this week, Mary went hammer and tongs after libertarianism. She calls it “the creed of ‘so what?’”

“So what if working-class Americans can’t find jobs? So what if people are crossing the border illegally—and endangering themselves, sometimes dying, in the process? So what if fly-over country is plagued by drugs, health problems, even a drop in life expectancy? So what if people outside the coastal classes don’t want biological boys in girls’ bathrooms, or on their daughters’ sports teams? So what if parents around the country also don’t want their kids instructed in sexual-revolution theology in their public schools, but don’t have the money to send them elsewhere?”

Mary’s talk and many others were bracing critiques of what Grover Norquist, who was not there, refers to as the “leave us alone” coalition. He famously said he wants the federal government to shrink until it is small enough to drown in a bathtub.

This new coalition does not want the federal government to be that small or to leave us alone. It wants government involved in fixing specific societal pathologies, including all those Mary mentioned and many more. J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame was explicit in this, as was Tucker Carlson, and many others.

What about abortion, the driving force of social conservatism?

As far as I could tell, only Tucker Carlson explicitly mentioned it in his criticism of enemy corporations that need legal abortion for women in the workforce. At least among the many speakers I heard, Organized Homosexuality was not mentioned at all.

Though I know for a fact that conference organizer Yoram Hazony, who recently published the masterful book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is foursquare on all the social issues, without a doubt social conservatives will still need to fight for our issues in this new and exciting coalition that seeks to supplant brain-dead Reaganism and mainstream conservatism.


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