Saturday, June 25, 2022

That Weird and Dangerous NatCon Manifesto

National, nationalist, nationalism are all honorable words with legitimate political referents - as are conservative and conservatism. But the ideological neologism National Conservatism - as in the recent public statement "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles" - is another matter altogether, a weird document, its weirdness exacerbated by its ideas' evident danger to democratic constitutional governance.

The so-called "national conservatism" project appears to have arisen as an alternative to some more traditional types of conservatism, in other words a MAGA-updating of conservatism purporting to give the latter a more morally and intellectually plausible veneer. Although Trump himself is never mentioned, the movement's recently issued manifesto,  "National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles," would hardly have even been conceivable apart from the Trump phenomenon and its "populist" triumph over traditional conservatism. The manifesto's signers were themselves, many of them, likewise more traditional respectable conservatives before boarding the irresistible MAGA train. That train, of course, has long since left the station, and any window-dressing restraint from more traditionally conservative moral and political precepts must likewise inevitably be left behind in the end.

Of course, as with most ideologies, there are sensible statements of moral and political principles in this document, principles many might happily accept. Thus, for example, the statement begins by affirming "the idea of the nation because we see a world of independent nations - each pursuing its own national interests and upholding national traditions that are its own - as the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe." In practice, that means that they "oppose transferring the authority of elected governments to transnational or supranational bodies—a trend that pretends to high moral legitimacy even as it weakens representative government, sows public alienation and distrust, and strengthens the influence of autocratic regimes." If that is a reference to the EU, for example, I fully share the concern about the EU's infamous "democratic deficit," which is why, were I British, I too would probably have supported Brexit. For the present, at least, there appears to be no political unit larger than the nation state, which seems able to offer its citizens both a sufficient sense of participation and actual political accountability. 

But nothing in the statement seems to acknowledge the fundamental reality that  it has been capitalism, more than anything else, that has imposed "a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe." One need not have read Karl Marx to know that!

When it comes to how this particular independent nation state of ours should be organized and governed, the authors purport to "believe in a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers. We recommend a drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state and the policy-making judiciary that displace legislatures representing the full range of a nation’s interests and values." Fair enough, but then we read "in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order." It hardly seems possible not to read that as code for the claim that Republican-run states should be free to pursue their preferred policies, but that a presumably Republican-run federal government should freely interfere with local autonomy in Democratic states, presumably to prevent measures that would combat climate change or restrict gun violence - obvious examples, one supposes, of blue-state "lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution." Put differently, the constraints of federalism for Democrats but centralized authoritarian power for Republicans.

But the statement really gets weird when it addresses religion. I would heartily agree that "No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition." But, while I would agree that the wanton secularization of American society and culture has done us grievous harm, what if anything can be done about that is problematic at best. "Where a Christian majority exists," the statement proposes, "public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private." Attaching the adjective "Protestant" to "Christian" in the above formulation, something like that may once have been the case earlier in US history, when the country was less pluralistic and hence less secular, when the Protestant majority set the cultural tone and discriminated against the Catholic minority. But that is not our national reality anymore, and it ought to be manifestly out of the question now. Achieving it is, in any case, a practical impossibility in that it would require the kind of governmental religious power and moral coercion that the constitution (which the authors purport to revere) disallows and which modern experience (e.g., Quebec, Ireland, Spain) suggests can only be harmful to religion itself in the end. I suppose a lot depends on whether one's concern is with the actual flourishing of religion or rather with religion as a prop for political authoritarianism.

The authors advocate "accepting and living in accordance with the Constitution of 1787, the amendments to it, duly enacted statutory law, and the great common law inheritance." What does that even mean? The "Constitution of 1787" no longer really exists, having been amended first by the Bill of Rights, and then even more radically amended by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments after the Civil War, and then otherwise democratized by the 16th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th amendments. The original constitution was a determinedly anti-democratic document, which has been - not totally - but radically democratized since then. Ironically, the statement stresses that "change must take place through law" and condemns "rioting, looting, and other unacceptable public disorder" - conveniently ignoring the fact that the most salient example of such "public disorder," an explicit attempt to accomplish a political change outside of the law, was, of course, the MAGA riot/insurrection/attempted coup on January 6, 2021. Like the globalizing and secularizing role of capitalism, the MAGA insurrection seems to be yet another inconvenient truth.

To be fair, when addressing economics, the authors do say "the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation." But the bulk of their economic complains concern "globalized markets" and right-wing ideological culture war concerns about "trans-national corporations showing little loyalty to any nation damage public life by censoring political speech, flooding the country with dangerous and addictive substances and pornography, and promoting obsessive, destructive personal habits." Likewise, what starts out as a commendable commitment to reenergize a national effort to refocus national resources - as an earlier American generation did to go to the moon - degenerates into petty pot-shots at "most universities." One wonders what intellectual institutions would merit a role in their culture warrior vision of America. The Claremont Institute? Whatever one thinks of the varied virtues and faults of mid-20th-century America, we did not make it to the moon by subordinating science and medicine to divisive culture-war priorities.

Speaking of culture war, there is, of course, really no such thing as "the traditional family," given the many and various ways that fundamental institution has evolved and adapted throughout all of human history. That said, the authors are, in my opinion, quite correct when they lament that "The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations." And they are likewise correct in faulting  "an unconstrained individualism that regards children as a burden." But they again neglect to acknowledge the connection between that "unconstrained individualism" and the "free enterprise" system they largely endorse. Again, one need not have read Marx to know that capitalism "has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." The NatCon statement laudably advocates "Economic and cultural conditions that foster stable family and congregational life and child-raising are priorities of the highest order." Yet it offers no actual examples of relief for today's socially stressed and economically hard-pressed families, nor any suggestion of how the authors' presumably preferred political party might ever be dragooned into signing on to any policy proposals that might actually address the pressing needs of real families.

In a somewhat surprising display of historical honesty, the authors acknowledge the "immense contributions" of immigration and "note that Western nations have benefited from both liberal and restrictive immigration policies at various times." But they seem to think that this is one of those times when more restrictive policies  would be better for the country. If so, they should then at least be obliged to tell us who is going to do the work in "the sciences and engineering" that they are calling for - not to mention who is going to do the increasingly required work of health care for our aging population (which will grow even older without immigration).

There is so much in this that, in a modern, pluralistic, 21st-century, secular society, seems just plain weird . Sadly, however, these are not disembodied ideas to be debated by academic intellectuals and on-line pundits, but a manifestly dangerous anti-democratic agenda. If recent history has taught us anything, it should have taught us that fringe ideas - like fringe candidates in 2016 - can acquire political power even if the majority of citizens oppose and vote against them.

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