National Conservatism, the Return of the Repressed

National Conservatism Conference, Miami, September 11, 2022 —  Ever since the National Conservative movement hinted at its existence, it has been greeted with suspicion not only by the Left but even by some conservatives who might have been expected to welcome it as another important strand in conservative politics. Their criticisms have been various—for instance, that its nationalism must inevitably mean anti-market politics—but it was commonly agreed that it was something new and untried, maybe therefore not conservative at all. Those attacks settled down very often into a mainstream media orthodoxy that it was really a species of populism bent on attacking “liberal democracy” and thus highly suspicious.

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NatCon has survived such interpretations, and indeed prospered, but they’re worth examining. To help do so, I recently read Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, where he discusses the relationship between liberalism and democracy in Western politics and political thought. He defines democracy in a way we would all endorse as meaning periodic free and fair multi-party elections under universal adult suffrage. So far, so good.

He then goes on to liberalism and writes:

Liberalism in the sense I am using it refers to the rule of law, a system of formal rules that restricts the power of the executive, even if that executive is democratically legitimated through an election. Thus, we should properly refer to ‘liberal democracy’ when we talk about the type of regime that has prevailed in North America, Europe, parts of East and South Asia, and elsewhere in the world since the end of the Second World War.

This argument is both “normative”—it’s about how we should refer to our postwar system of government—and “positive”—it was the system of government we’ve had since 1945.

And the first thing to be said is that “liberal democracy” was not in fact the system of government we thought we had and said we had. If you look at the many statements of major political leaders, governments and international institutions such as NATO and the EU after 1945 and especially after the founding of NATO in 1949, they almost always used the naked, unadorned term, “democracy”, to describe the system of government which Western governments were united in defending.

In June 1978 in Brussels, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech on foreign policy in which she welcomed the approaches of Spain and Portugal to NATO as follows: “The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain and Portugal in particular is one of the few really encouraging things which have occurred.” And there are countless such official statements using “democracy” without adjectives to describe the West’s system of government.

Now, that’s not to say that I would have been surprised or disturbed during the Cold War to hear the term “liberal democracy” used more or less as a synonym for the naked noun. Almost certainly I would then have come across it in a book or lecture by a political theorist rather than in a speech by an active politician. “Liberal” was also the name both of a political party and of a broad political disposition which meant different controversial things in different countries: economically right-wing in Europe, soft on crime in America. That would have introduced confusion into the powerful idea of a government for, of and by the people. So it wasn’t a term in the Cold War.

But there was then also a context in which “liberal democracy”, though uncommon, would have been readily understood (but which was also conveyed simply by the word democracy alone.) And that context was as follows: For democracy to be genuine, it has to be accompanied by free speech, a free press, open debate, no major barriers to entry into the electoral process, and similar rules directly devoted to ensuring that elections were fair and meaningful. These procedural rules weren’t always spelled out; they didn’t have to be; it was clear that you couldn’t have elections without them. And that’s the major reason why democracy wasn’t called “liberal democracy”.

These limited liberal rules were inherent in the democratic process. They were a guarantee of democracy, not a corrective to democracy if it produced a result we didn’t like.  

That is not what is meant by “liberal democracy” in Fukuyama’s formulation. As he makes clear in the above quote, he sees it as a system of formal rules that restricts the authority of elected governments. That describes a much more extensive, intrusive and powerful system of rules that scarcely existed in 1945 and was still in its adolescence in 1989 when the Cold War ended. Western countries began to develop new institutions in a world when—it seemed—we didn’t need to worry about Russia or ideological threats from anywhere until 9/11—and that threat pointed us in only one direction and not the most important one.    

What that has meant is the gradual development in Western countries of the transfer of powers from democratically elected and accountable parliaments to non-accountable courts and bureaucratic agencies, and internationally from national governments to supranational bodies, international courts and enforcement agencies of treaty obligations that have been expanded far beyond their original interpretations. This massive change covers everything from trade and war-fighting powers to cultural and legal traditions. Our laws and regulations are now made in a wilderness of overlapping sovereignties often exercised in private and not subject to the rules we would impose domestically. At the same time, as Professor Thomas Gallagher has demonstrated in the Hungarian Conservative, one supra-national institution, the European Union, has now taken this process a crucial stage further: “Since the year 2000, if not earlier, the EU has acquired the legal power to insist that member states comply in their internal affairs with a particular set of political values. It acts as a pedagogue promoting a new liberal order centred around the values of egalitarianism and diversity. Imposing and regulating behavioural standards within its own ranks has thus become a major preoccupation.” In effect, the expansion of liberalism is now redefining democracy in a way that renders some political attitudes—generally conservative or patriotic ones—unrespectable in political debate.

Let me suggest that there were two moments in this expansion of liberal institutional authority which should have prompted concern and opposition from both democrats and nationalists. The first was when courts expanded their legal authority from merely declaring a law “unconstitutional” and leaving it to Congress or Parliament to amend it, to imposing their own solution in place of the law. That is now commonplace in the US, Europe and the Anglosphere—but not universally so: there’s no court superior to the New Zealand Parliament. The second moment was when a supranational authority of any kind imposed a final decision on the laws and regulations of a democratic parliament. Expressions of concern there were, frequently, but there was no effective opposition to this gradual growth of non-democratic and anti-national political authority. In fact the mainstream parties of the Centre-Right were themselves complicit in what John Fonte was the first scholar to identify as post-democratic and post-national politics. And that only began seriously to change when insurgent political parties emerged and began to win elections precisely because mainstream conservatives had ignored their constituencies, appeased the new supranational authorities and gradually imbibed post-nationalism.

National conservatism, ladies and gentlemen, is nothing new, not in the least. It is the return of the repressed.

Nationalism and patriotism were the common coin of conservative politics until after 1989 when they began to be seen by progressives across the spectrum as atavistic obstacles to a new post-national, post-democratic age. Consider the rhetoric of Churchill, Roosevelt, Reagan and Thatcher—it was patriotic, bold, unashamed and persuasive to millions. When Margaret Thatcher heard the argument that nationalism had led to the Second World War, she replied that Nazism and communism were two ideologies—one of race transcending nation, the other of class transcending nation—and that it was national loyalty that had inspired the popular resistance to both oppressive ideologies. And it continues to inspire the great majority of citizens in democratic societies.

Fukuyama accepts some of this analysis. One of his aims is to persuade liberals and the Left to embrace nationalism and the nation-state. His overall argument is one that conservatives should support. Life and politics would be far less stressful if no one felt the nation was up for grabs at every election.

But reservations creep in when he explains exactly why liberals should not give up on the idea of the nation: “National identity is malleable, and it can be shaped to reflect liberal aspirations and to instil a sense of community and purpose among a broader public.” Does this really mean embracing nationality and the nation, however? Or is it a purely instrumental exploitation of the idea of the nation to advance a liberal political agenda? Would the nation be safe if its interests were to clash with the progressive Left’s preference for supra-national bodies or even with his own more detached liberalism?

Doubts on that score are encouraged by his critique (“serious misunderstanding”) of Christopher Caldwell’s argument in The Age of Entitlement, that the 1960s civil rights revolution brought in a new constitutional order in which courts regularly overrule laws passed by democratically elected governments. He thinks that seeking to overturn this order means accepting that democratic majorities would then be able to restricts the rights of some citizens as under racial segregation. That’s extremely unlikely in reality, but since the mere possibility is unthinkable, Fukuyama tells disappointed democratic majorities to suck it up.

What then does he propose as a solution for the far more likely (since it’s actually happening) possibility that courts and agencies will continue to rule large and increasing areas of life in resistance to the laws of governments elected to implement them? Courts and agencies are not told to suck it up. Instead, he suggests that they should exercise greater restraint in infringing on the prerogatives of legislatures. And if they don’t? Well, in that case, they “risk delegitimising themselves”.

There’s a marked disproportion between these two remedies, leading me to think that under “liberal democracy” neither the nation nor democracy will be very secure.

5 thoughts on “National Conservatism, the Return of the Repressed

  • padraic says:

    A timely article, given the current debate around a Federal ICAC. Thanks John. The comment that “… the gradual development in Western countries of the transfer of powers from democratically elected and accountable parliaments to non-accountable courts and bureaucratic agencies, and internationally from national governments to supranational bodies, international courts and enforcement agencies of treaty obligations that have been expanded far beyond their original interpretations..” is spot on. In relation to some of the changes resulting from the international influence an example was discussed and illustrated in Keith Winschuttle’s article of 28 September on the impact on our national laws from adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, plus my comments at the time on the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
    In relation to the first point about the local transfer of power to non-elected bodies it can be seen from the following list that the first of such cabs off the rank was the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in 1975:

    Racial Discrimination Act 1975 – Whitlam – Labor
    Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 – 28 October 1975 – Labor
    Ombudsman Act 1976 – Fraser – Coalition
    Freedom of information Act 1982 – 9 March 1982 – Fraser –Coalition
    Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1986 – Hawke – Labor
    Migration Review Tribunal 1993 – Keating – Labor
    Refugee Review Tribunal 1993 – Keating – Labor

    In a newspaper article – “Visa seekers stay while they manipulate our system, The Australian 14/1/19” – it stated that “54,000- odd refugees and other visa refusal cases that were waiting to be decided by the AAT at the end of last month.” With a workload like that it will have to expand exponentially to keep tabs on Parliamentarians, the Public Service and associated entities – as is proposed in the new legislation. It has already shown how it can challenge Ministerial decision-making when for example the Minister for Immigration wants to deport a criminal or illegal migrant who is a non or dual citizen – as he is entitled to do under legislation – his decision is challenged in the AAT by the deportee backed by activist legal supporters (probably taxpayer funded).
    Australia was governed more economically and efficiently before the introduction of the AAT in 1976. Ministers would make decisions based on legislation passed in Parliament and their departments would then rapidly implement those decisions. Now, the Ministers and their public servants are hamstrung by having to wait for approval by an unelected judicial body for many decisions. It is ridiculous that in a democracy with separation of powers and a system of representative government that this is allowed. Why bother voting if the government cannot carry out its programs effectively? The Constitution states “The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament, which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, and which is herein-after called ‘The Parliament’ or ‘The Parliament of the Commonwealth’”. There is no need for these extra-Parliamentary controls. Parliament has always self-regulated its members and should continue to do so, with the primary arbiter of their behaviour being the ballot-box. Industry groups are allowed to self regulate as were professional registration bodies but the latter have had to cede some of their functions to the newly created State and Territory Human Rights Commissions. I suspect some of the support by MPs from all sides of politics for a Federal ICAC is playing politics in that by palming off tough decisions to unelected bodies they can minimise the risk of unpopularity as well as subsequently berating the Opposition for not supporting the findings of such bodies and which the Government intends to implement. It’s even worse for citizens who may have voted on the basis of a pre-election promise (aka “democracy” or the will of the people) only to see the promised policy reduced to dust when handed to a non-elected body such as the AAT. It is incongruous that while there is support in Parliament for an ICAC there is significant opposition to legislation regulating other sectors like Industry Superannuation bodies. If a Commonwealth ICAC is legislated, it would no doubt be used as a political weapon and hamper real work of Parliament and that will turn off the electorate even more as they would see it as a body wasting MPs’ time through endless Parliamentary debates instead of their getting on with the job.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    It’s a good piece from John O’Sullivan and good comment from padraic ; in the last 25 odd years of my life the impacts discussed in it have more and more come home in my mind. The previous 45 odd years didn’t seem to worry about it too much and of course that’s the main source of the problem. The younger you are the less you think of these things and, depending on work committments and general interests, the less you go out of your way to buy the books to enable you to properly get it all in context. The media cannot do this in my view.
    I like the idea of National Conservatism and can only hope that it can take on, and come to pass in the form of a Government with a decent majority in both houses ; then all that would be needed would be to lump all of these ridiculous controlling Acts together, go through repealing them all, then pull the teeth completely of all the even more ridiculous International bodies putting a further layer of control on us…..and then ignore the screams of hatred and outrage from the left, all of it, near, in-between, far and far far left and of course the wet type right as well.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    There’s a lot more to this excellent article than the impression one could get from first reading it. Thank you John O’Sullivan – you’ve certainly got me thinking. My thoughts are actually all over the place at the moment.
    But I’d like nevertheless to say it’s a very thought-provoking and important article with strong implications for what democracy means, or what it is evolving to mean ( if it’s not a fixed concept like probably most assume it is).
    There are many layers to the issues this timely article raises for me. Significantly more issues for me,and probably for others, than the article refers directly to.
    The issues of course include the more obvious ones like the implications of international treaties and forms of EU style governance and their affect on the essence of democracy, particularly the national expression of democracy.
    Then of course there are the arguably less obvious influences on democracy like the influences of unelected bureaucracies in general and unelected courts.
    Then less obvious still, the influences of businesses,especially monopoly or near monopoly private businesses and dominant global businesses. And then the media, especially dominant or near monopoly media and their dominance in certain national and international settings. I’d include the newer social media in this as well as traditional media.
    Then there’s the influence of social movements and let’s not forget religion – especially in countries where one form is dominant.
    Lastly there are economic influences and economic belief systems. Many would argue for example that private free and competitive capitalism is usually closely linked to democracy (I would) – and probably a necessary if not an entirely sufficient condition for democracy.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    4th para. “Affect should read “effect”.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    It is arguable that conservative values have tended to lose out more from the emergence of many of the bodies referred to in the article and in padraic’s wonderfully detailed and useful response. But things are certainly not about to get any better.
    Whether you like it or not the Coalition is the main political safeguard for conservative values in this country. That’s just a fact of life. The future therefore looks pretty grim for conservative values because the current Coalition leadership has been remarkably successful in a very short period in making itself irrelevant to the national debate on anything. Astoundingly it’s even managed to take its vote considerably lower than the 70 year low the Morrison government recorded at the last election.
    Unlike true conservatives the current Coalition leadership seems to stand for nothing. On most occasions it either agrees with the government or sits on the fence while it waits for gotcha moments to pin on the government. That’s so patently obvious to everyone, and the alarmingly low polls confirm people are completely awake to it.
    An excruciatingly dumb example of this quest for a gotcha moment above all else got to the farcical stage with the monotonously persistent daily questions taunting Labor if it was still going to deliver the $275 cut in power bills by 2025. Given the current world energy situation no one in the country would have felt any government could have possibly honoured such a promise. No one except Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor.
    The Coalition brain’s trust thought they were onto a winner – until even they very belatedly saw how absolutely foolish their calls had been.
    Meanwhile the Labor government has been completely mismanaging the response to the serious inflation threat and being allowed to successfully shift blame for any adverse consequences resulting from actions to address the inflation threat onto the Reserve Bank and even past conservative governments. Recent polls now even show that Labor is preferred as the most competent economic manager! That’s been unheard of for over a decade, probably longer.
    Oppositions led by real leaders like Tony Abbott or John Howard would never have allowed that to happen.
    True conservative values require conservative oppositions to pressure governments to take the tough and unpalatable decisions when such decisions are necessary – like they are now to curb inflation and reduce debt. But Angus Taylor and Peter Dutton have been more obsessed with holding the government to account for a $275 energy cost reduction when such a reduction was patently impossible.
    So the outlook to reclaim any lost territory for conservative values looks very bleak indeed. Labor and those pushing left of centre causes will be praying Peter Dutton stays Coalition leader forever.

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