There is a spectre haunting the West, and it is called nationalist conservatism. It has garnered much attention in right-of-centre conversations across countries which have embraced it in some form at the political level, or at least have dipped electoral toes in the water. Countries as diverse as Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the UK (sort of) and Brazil. Oh, and the US of A.
Moreover, what might be termed the nationalist conservative moment has implications for those of us in Australia currently pondering the meaning of the May election, the future of conservatism within the Liberal Party, and the leadership role, if any, of the disparate voices on the right across the minor parties which are constantly competing for attention and Senate slots. Major conferences – one recent, another forthcoming – on both sides of the Pacific provide a fulcrum for considering “where to from here” for conservatives in both America and in Australia. In particular, some threshold conversations are much needed to confront the ever-deepening tensions between the classical liberal and traditionalist strands of the conservative movement, perhaps finally to fess up that these tensions can never be resolved.
The emergent American movement’s foremost champion in the news media is Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ redoubtable new star. Its American political machine is just starting to rev up again for 2020.
Four of the nascent movement’s emerging journals of record in the USA are The American Conservative, American Greatness, First Things and the Claremont Review of Books, the latter two being must-reads for the intellectually aware. The much embraced author of the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins 2016), JD Vance, is involved in these initial intellectual rumblings.
The most recent manifestation of nationalist conservative activity in America has been a little reported (and unnoticed in Australia) conference in Washington DC this July organised by one of the new “movement’s” intellectual drivers, the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony. Hazony is also the author of nationalist conservatism’s bracing new guide, The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books 2018) and founder of the Edmund Burke Foundation. A National Review columnist suggested this book will “become a classic”. It is, above all, a statement in favour of what Hazony terms “national freedom”, as opposed to the individual freedom cherished by the many descendants of the Enlightenment.
One critic of the book (at Quillette) had this to say:
Yoram Hazony’s welcome new book The Virtue of Nationalism analyzes this political shift and offers a defense of its value. Hazony’s book is by far the most interesting and compelling articulation of the nationalist case put forward thus far. This makes The Virtue of Nationalism an important book, since those looking to defend the nationalist cause will surely want to arm themselves with its formidable intellectual resources, while those (such as myself) who are critics of nationalism must now contend seriously with its arguments.
Hazony has become somewhat of a star on the YouTube circuit, not without reason.
The Washington DC conference – itself overshadowed by the American mainstream media’s obsession with “racist” presidential tweets – was keynoted by, among others, Tucker Carlson, the legendary (and for Silicon Valley, oddly pro-Trump) tech billionaire investor Peter Thiel, Quadrant‘s international editor John O’Sullivan and, perhaps surprisingly, the foreign policy hawk and noted neo-con John Bolton.
According to The Atlantic’s Emma Green:
It might have been the first-ever nationalist revolt launched from a Ritz-Carlton ballroom. This week, conservative intellectuals and politicos in Washington tucked into plated dinners and sipped from at least four varieties of seltzer at a new gathering, the National Conservatism Conference. In defiance of conservative-movement shibboleths, they applauded new rallying cries: No more worshipping at the altar of free markets at the expense of the middle class. No more endless wars dedicated to slaying perceived monsters overseas. No more shame about saluting the flag, defending borders, and demanding assimilation. “Today,” declared Yoram Hazony, the American-educated Israeli scholar who organized the event, “is our independence day”.
The conference has been interpreted widely as an attack on Reaganite nostalgia, National Review conservative orthodoxy, the more rampant of the Never Trumpers in the broad conservative movement and, last but not least, the libertarians who have been such prominent stars in the American conservative firmament in recent decades. Daniel McCarthy explains the need for the kind of philosophical pause and re-appraisal of conservative thinking occasioned by the DC conference:
What has been known as conservatism in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan left office, fully thirty years ago, has become inadequate. This has been evident for a while, though we’re only now noticing.
One critical review of the conference saw it as an attempt to find a philosophy to underpin Trumpism. Another saw the conference as “declaring war on the conservative establishment”. The New York Times described it as “polishing nationalism in the Trump era”. One of the speakers, the social conservative Mary Eberstadt “… 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?
As Crisis Magazine’s Austin Ruse reported it:
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.
Another speaker at the US conference, Daniel McCarthy, who is editor of the conservative quarterly Modern Age (founded in the 1950s by the doyen of post-war American conservative thinkers, Russell Kirk), went even further than Eberstadt in attacking libertarianism. McCarthy opined that “classical liberalism contains within itself the seeds of progressivism”. A big call, it would seem. Yet there is much in this view. It is not merely that one might expect today’s economic liberals to be social liberals as well, but that on a much deeper level and philosophically, the liberal ultra-rationalist, ultra-individualist and perfectibility-of-man beliefs of the Enlightenment were always going to end up underpinning the core agenda items of today’s left liberals and libertarians.
On this understanding, the concerns of the emergent nationalist strain of conservativism are not merely not aligned with economically liberal conservatism, but are actually antithetical to it. Why, then, would one even expect (Australian) Liberal Party wets, who now dominate the party, to cheer for those conservatives who oppose the progressive, globalist, diversity-obsessed to-do list?
The Nationalist Conservative conference comes hot on the heels of the recent debate over “David Frenchism”, a synonym for National Review-style anti-Trumpism. French, of course, was suggested in 2016 by the increasingly weird neo-con Bill Kristol as a possible independent candidate to oppose Trump.
As Alexander Griffing notes:
This … conference also took place in the aftermath of the so-called Sohrab Ahmari vs. David French battle that has rocked the conservative world. That conflict goes right to the heart of the debate surrounding rising neo-nationalism: Just how far should the right go to maintain national identity and conservative values? And in pursuit of its goals, is it OK to limit individual liberty — once one of its cardinal values?
As Griffing notes, First Things published an open letter in March, “Against the Dead Consensus”, signed by a number of prominent conservatives — including New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari. The letter attacked the marriage between conservatism and classical liberalism, with the authors insisting “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016”, and making a call to arms against “tyrannical liberalism”. Ahmari then published his own piece in First Things, titled “Against David French-ism”.
This debate has been described as a “watershed moment” for conservatism. Ahmari himself has said that David French, his followers and his pre-Trump conservative ideas are simply too “nice” for the culture war we are in. In the era of GetUp and the leftist guerrilla war, where they play by no rules except those of Saul Alinsky, he has a point.
Here is Ahmari:
Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.
Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time …
This is all very interesting for Australia as we “embrace” the recent electoral vindication of Scott Morrison’s very, very tepid conservatism. (I am yet to find an Aussie conservative who is remotely enthusiastic about the May 18 result, save of course for the blessed relief of not having to endure Bill “Shifty” Shorten in The Lodge). Yet on the right in Australia there are rumblings, which, as it happens, seem to have taken on board some of the foci of our international friends who have placed nationalism front and centre of the new pushback.
Under the radar, the former Australian Conservatives of Cory Bernardi have been gathering their thoughts about what comes next, following the inglorious performance in the Senate that dashed the expectations and hopes of many, and Bernardi’s subsequent decision to de-register the party. Mostly, the conversations which have largely taken place on social media, concentrate on a new name and branding, and not on what I would regard as prior questions such as – ‘should we even be a party and stand candidates for election’, and ‘with whom should we being having consultations?’
This all coincides with the coming to Australia of the American-style CPAC conferences. Headlining this August are our own brand new nationalist and sort-of conservative leader, the ever surprising Mark Latham, the electorally defenestrated Tony Abbott and Mr Brexit himself, Nigel Farage. Also attending will be the usual who’s who of the Australian right-of-centre in-group and media personalities. Details and tickets can be obtained via this link.
While the CPAC event is an interesting development, there are still very few signs of unity of purpose or belief among the various intellectual strands of liberalism/conservatism in Australia. This is the case for the Liberal Party, for the other parties that might be considered to be on the right, and among the think tanks and the media.
Australian conservatism, as represented in the Parliament, is notoriously philosophy-free, pragmatic and generally focused on the shenanigans of party politics and its personalities. The dominant intellectual strain among the think tanks here has been that same libertarianism which seems now to be on the nose among the emerging US nationalist conservatives. The Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies seem still to have as their main focus in the era of Folau the grasping, regulatory State, when the State is far from the only enemy, even the main enemy, of personal freedom. In any event, the libertarian strain of the Australian right has as its main game “the right to have views” in the public square, and not, as the social conservative base would have it, the importance of defending “the right views” in the public square. Ironically, most libertarians would probably agree with the progressive critics of the Christian right’s “outdated” views, while at the same time defending the latter’s right to have those views.
Nor has there been a genuine accommodation of these philosophical strands within the Liberal Party, other than in the interests of that party’s tedious pragmatism born of the endless yearning for ministerial leather that is embedded in the party’s DNA. Moreover, reflecting Daniel McCarthy’s comments noted above, many, perhaps most, of the now dominant leftist faction in the Liberal Party would find the views of Australian conservatives far more abhorrent than the views of the progressive Left on the core concerns of our times.
Surprisingly in view of the growing conservative estrangement from the Liberal Party and the political opportunity that this might be seen to provide for the rightist minor parties, Australia has failed to see these hopelessly unconnected, disparate groupings come together, collaborate or even to speak with one another in a formal sense. Look at One Nation, the Katter supporters group, the Australian Conservatives (which incorporated the once quite successful, punch-above-its-weight Family First group), the reborn Democratic Labor Party, the NSW based Christian Democrats and other assorted groups coalescing around individuals like Clive Palmer and Fraser Anning. They all seem determined to avoid talking to one another, or even to find common ground on which they might agree.
The preference of this motley collection of amateur political players has been for log-rolling strategies in the Senate – you support me on this and I will support you on that – in order to achieve their fairly narrow and limited policy objectives, and for maintaining their separate identities, clinging to a fragile presence in the parliament largely through “preference whispering” and outright luck.
This seems a very poor strategy without any longer-term, thought-through focused objectives or action plans. And cheer-squadding conferences, pleasant though they might be and (perhaps) useful for rallying the troops against shared opponents, will not begin to resolve the harder questions. In particular, how might Australian conservatives disillusioned with both the “broad church” Liberal Party, and with the too-libertarian and too-progressive focus of the leading think tanks and right-of-centre media stars, find a safer and more permanent political home in Australia?
Like the libertarian right in the United States, the dominant strand of right-of-centre thinking here has always maintained the view that the principal, perhaps the sole, job of the State is to protect liberty. On this reasoning, that is the beginning, middle and end of, for example, why we worry about the Folau and similar cases.
But there are other voices on the right here, who worry about much more than protecting liberty, important though this is. They worry about the strangulation of the good, the true and the beautiful in our society and polity, by non-State agents . They worry about the current trajectory of our traditions, Jewish and Christian. They worry about the fates of the unborn and the frail elderly. They worry about cloying political correctness gone completely insane. They worry about our debased culture. They worry about lost jobs and lost careers, the kind that provided for the nurturing of stable families. They worry about the untrammelled social power of corporations, enforced by so many corporate “diversity officers” and the like. They worry about woke cosmopolitanism. They worry about the economic and governance impacts of rampant internationalism. They worry, along with JD Vance, about the pathologies rife in our communities. They worry about the out-workings of a shared belief by economic liberals and leftist progressives in the utter primacy of individual autonomy, unconstrained by what Ahmari calls “the authority of tradition” and by the mediating influences of family, community, nation and church.
These voices are underwhelmed by the globalist compact of the economic and social liberals, and are hounded, annoyed and distressed by many, many things, not just the State.
Perhaps the time is nigh for an Australian conservative conversation along the lines of the Ahmari/McCarthy/Tucker Carlson/Hazony push in the US. If so, we are left with a series of questions, especially as we lack a galvanising figure like Trump who delights us and entertains by flipping the bird to so many of our foes.
First, will the think tanks, the media in-crowd with gigs at News Corp and Sky, the conservative Liberal Party rump, the rag-tag parties of the populist right who come and go in the Senate, and the remaining Australian Conservatives, step up to the plate?
Second, will there be a nationalist conservative moment down under, a serious questioning of our free market, in-house National Review-style conservatism? Many DisCons think aloud, “if only we had our own Trump”, yet we don’t ponder what an underpinning Australian Trumpist philosophy might look like. We probably need our own Hazony as well as our own Trump.
Third, is an accommodation of any deeply shared values – whether focused on nationalism or not – across the disparate right of Australian politics even remotely on anyone’s radar? Or even a discussion of whether such an accommodation is realistic, or merited, or broadly appealing?
Fourth, will an Australian leader of the stature and fortitude of Trump or Farage emerge? Perhaps it won’t be an individual leader, but rather a traditionalist “ginger group” operating in the same challenging way the Liberal Dries did in the 1980s, when the main task of the day was how to unlock a schlerotic economy.
Fifth and finally, in the wash-up of the May election, which really settled so very few of the nagging worries of those Aussie mainstream voices noted above, what is the appetite among the elites for making Australia great again?
I am not holding my breath as we all await answers.