Orlando, Florida, home to some of the world’s largest theme parks, was a remarkably fitting location for the second National Conservatism Conference. It’s hard to imagine anything more adrenaline-inducing for Missouri Senator Josh Hawley than getting together with like-minded politicians, academics, pundits, and activists to craft a conservatism for the 21st century.
Except, perhaps, conspiring to throw out the results of a free and fair presidential election.
Barbs aside, the “national conservatism” movement is an important development on the American right. Disagreements among its adherents and apostles abound, but the basic premise of the movement is simple; a healthy society can only be brought about by a state which enforces a—usually religious—moral code.
This in turn contributes to a rejection of liberal democratic freedom and a skepticism that a free market can be a social good. In either case, freedom is not a virtue, because freedom allows the pursuit of morally bad things. Instead, true freedom is leading a life, with some paternalistic guidance from the state, according to the dictates of some high—or highest—moral good.
The individuals who make up the movement are not always in agreement as to precisely what moral code the state should be enforcing, or to what extent liberalism and liberal democracy should be rejected. One sub-group, the so-called “integralists,” seeks to make Catholic morality the foundation of law in the United States. Others prefer a turn to localism, in which the national government is not reformed but local institutions take up this moral responsibility. Elected officials aligned with the movement, such as Mr. Hawley or Florida Senator Marco Rubio (both of whom spoke at the conference) typically take a softer tack by aiming at “woke” corporations and embracing—in rhetoric—some form of economic populism.
Beyond disputes between proponents, there are contradictions in general within the movement’s thought. In his speech to the conference on masculine virtue, for example, Mr. Hawley began by denouncing the “socialist” policies of the Biden administration but ended with a somewhat vague call for pro-family and pro-worker economic reforms. More broadly, national conservatives have, with some caveats, yoked themselves to the political career of a thrice-married and almost proudly vulgar former reality television star.
Here things begin to fall apart for the national conservative or “post-liberal” right. Lofty ideas about the Highest Good and the alleged emptiness at the core of the liberal political project don’t appear to have captured the interest of the conservative base. JD Vance, a candidate in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio and a keynote speaker at the conference, polls consistently behind Josh Mandel, who is plenty radical himself but not connected to the post-liberal movement.
Nor is it the case that the economic populism espoused by some post-liberals is catching on within the Republican Party. Mr. Hawley’s critique of the precarity of the American worker and the financial hardships faced by families are sharp enough, but neither he nor the larger Republican Party have broken more than rhetorically with neoliberal economics.
Indeed, national conservatism only seems to enjoy participation in political power insofar as it is aligned with more mainstream attempts to discredit elections that Democrats win and screeds against critical race theory or immigration. The philosophically-oriented academics and the politicians envisioning themselves as scholar-statesmen are, rather than leading a revolutionary movement, grunts in service of a project that is narrower, more vulgar, and altogether more potent than their own lofty goals. One clear point of agreement, however, both among national conservatives and between the movement and the Republican base, seems to be a clear support for state involvement in the correction of perceived social and moral drift.
As thrilling as the national conservatism conference may have been for Mr. Hawley and Co., much of its substance seems to be as fantastical as the conference’s theme park setting, almost a form of live action role playing. But the areas of agreement between the national conservatives and their more successful counterparts within the conservative movement are not less dangerous because of this. The increasingly authoritarian response to changing demographics may be dressed up in different ways, but the disturbing possibilities looming over the horizon bode ill for democracy no matter what.
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