Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m not grateful to have been invited to last week’s third National Conservatism Conference. The interest displayed by this crowd in economic policy ideas that depart dramatically from the right-of-center’s longstanding free market dogmatism was especially gratifying, and there was no shortage of thought-provoking and compelling speakers.
It’s just that my four days at the session left me unconvinced that National Conservatism as it presently seems to be constituted can create or contribute to a winning American political coalition. The main problem: Most of those spearheading the drive to establish National Conservatism as a major national force haven’t recognized which culture wars they should be fighting, and which they shouldn’t — and how this failure to discriminate is endangering other objectives that the movement (and others) rightly deem crucial. In fact, unhappiness expressed to me by more than a few conference attendees with the stances on social and cultural issues taken by those putative leaders make me skeptical that it’s a movement yet to begin with – or can be if their vision prevails.
The economic dimension of national conservatism, at least judging by the presentations and hallway conversations, is not only politically astute; it’s substantively sound. All the speakers who addressed these issues – including such nationally prominent figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and the state’s Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott (the event was held in Miami) supported smarter, more restrictive trade and other economic policies (especially toward China), reduced immigration inflows and genuine border security, and federal policies to promote strategically important industries and to ease economic pressures on the middle and working classes.
The same goes for National Conservatism’s critique of the overly, and often recklessly, adventurist foreign policies pursued by the mainstreams of both major political parties for decades.
But the conference organizers and another set of speakers seem wed to other goals and measures that are already backfiring among the American electorate and that, intriguingly, clash with other elements of their agenda. The most important by far were near-total opposition to abortion and a determination to tout the United States as a “Christian nation.”
The political folly of these priorities couldn’t be more obvious. As I’ve written, there’s long been a strong national consensus favoring the right to an abortion early-ish during a pregnancy and then favoring broad restrictions later on with significant exceptions (rape, incest, life of the mother, health of the mother). Indeed, that’s why comparable majorities have supported maintaining the abortion policy framework established by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling – which was entirely consistent with that common sensical compromise. P.S. Contrary to the claims of the extreme pro-lifers on an off the Court, Roe gave states plenty of latitude to enact all manner of abortion curbs. (The other major misconception or falsehood surrounding Roe comes from the pro-choice movement: It never established an unfettered right to an abortion.)
If you’re skeptical, consider that the day that a draft of the Supreme Court’s eventual decision striking down Roe was leaked to the press (May 3), Republicans held a 4.1 percentage point lead in the RealClearPolitics.com average of polls gauging the public’s preference for control of Congress in November’s midterm elections. The latest figures show Democrats with a 1.1 percentage point lead in the so-called Generic Ballot.
It’s true that abortion isn’t the only reason, that the actual votes determining control of Congress aren’t cast nationally but state-by-state, and that Republicans hold enough built-in advantages in the Congressional map to keep their hopes of prevailing very much alive. But the polls also show that the Court’s Dobbs decision, the enactment of and efforts to enact near-abortion bans in Republican-run states that the ruling has permitted, and GOP talk of more such moves (including on the national level) is increasing Democrats’ interest in voting and boosting the party’s prospects. (See, e.g., here.) And not so coincidentally, Republican candidates and leaders all over the country are backing away from hard-line anti-abortion positions.
Adamant opposition to abortion in practically all circumstances also seems to clash violently with other stated National Conservative positions. For example, many speakers at the conference emphasized their support for individual liberty. But what about the right of women uninterested in becoming mothers to lead the lives they wish? Even if the unborn must indeed be deemed human life very early in pregnancies, should the wishes of those women count for absolutely nothing the minute they conceive – and simply because they failed to take adequate precautions, or because precautions taken failed? According to many, and possibly most, at the conference, the answer is “Yes.”
The repeated references to America as a Christian nation are just as problematic. For reasons like those suggested above, if that’s a rationale for insisting that U.S. policies conform with scriptural teachings (and Section 4 of this “Statement of Principles” by the movement’s leading lights certainly suggests this “Where a Christian majority exists” – i.e. in most of the country), that simply won’t wash with big majorities of voters. But the historical arguments advanced for this view don’t impress, either.
Sure, the Founding Fathers were Christians, and for the most part, observant Christians at that. But so what? The England they came from was overwhelmingly Christian. What else realistically could they be? For similar reasons, the Founders were ovewhelmingly white, too. Does that mean that America should be seen as a Caucasian nation?
And does Christian dogma really deserve much credit for the ideals that make up the American creed of freedom of expression and conscience and other major liberties for the individual; representative, accountable government; equal justice under the law; and the like? Clearly, in most of Christendom at the time (e.g., Russia, Spain, Germany) these notions were unknown or actively rejected. Instead, the great American experiment in self-government is rooted in specifically English thought and practice. And ironically, the major contribution made by Christianity that hasn’t been present outside Europe has been the faith’s willingness to leave big swathes of human life to secular institutions and authorities (as in Jesus’ admonition to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”)
Even worse, precisely because they’re so unpopular as well as intellectually feeble, National Conservatism’s focus on these particular culture wars is weakening the ability of the entire conservative movement (except the libertarians) to fight effectively the culture wars that must be fought – specifically, over woke school public curricula; the metastasis of left-wing authoritarianism in so many major, powerful American institutions; and the related spread of divisive identity politics.
I have nothing but respect for those National Conservatives I met – and other Americans – to declare that they’re less concerned with winning politically than with remaining true to their consciences. But their version of the perfect is shaping up as a powerful enemy of the good and formula for defeat – especially if they wish to contend, as they clearly do, in an arena that rightly values the art of the possible.
That’s why I was so encouraged to find out that many of those I met at the National Conservatism Conference agreed that hard-line anti-abortion stances and pro-Christian nation preaching need to be dropped if any of National Conservatism’s other worthy causes are to be advanced.
For me, nothing could be clearer than the following as a recipe for political victory and national well-being: focusing tightly in an America First-type way on confining U.S. foreign policy to advancing and protecting U.S. sovereignty and core security (especially against foes like China), on taming inflation and building sustainable prosperity; on securing the border; on fighting crime; on removing propaganda from public schools; on preserving a strong voice for parents in their children’s education; and on resisting the intolerant woke and rigid identity politics ideologies being pushed by our most powerful institutions.
National Conservatism as it exists now is close to being on board. If it can go the extra mile, show better judgment politically, and accept a more inclusive, more historically accurate view of “Americanism,” I’ll be happy to join its ranks.