After all my years working in the American conservative movement, with its Tea Party activists, its think-tank theoreticians, and its political practitioners, I have learned one lesson that continues to frustrate me. Generally—and I emphasize this word—conservatives exhibit impatience in their approach to policy. While there are terrific exceptions, conservatives commonly seem to want their ideals to be turned into policy on short notice—or not at all.
As a sub-brand of this impatience, conservatives tend to demand holistic victories. In my experience from the political frontline, this all-or-nothing sentiment has driven too many voters in the past to make a negative selection. They look not for what they agree on with a candidate, but for one reason to disagree. This has the unfortunate consequence of elevating unremarkable candidates to remarkable offices.
Unremarkable politicians, who refrain from statements that anyone can distinctly disagree with, thus become palatable to the negative-choice voter. At the same time, their voting practice comes with a colorful irony: unremarkable politicians contribute to the status quo, thus perpetuating frustration among conservative voters.
It is time to break this unproductive loop between impatience, the single-issue rejection of remarkable candidates, and the political status quo. The NatCon Statement of Principles (SOP) is a first, major step in that direction. It gives us a high-quality platform to build a new conservative movement on.
Judging from the comments and reactions that the SOP has already inspired, we may indeed be on our way toward a more confident, less impatient conservative movement.
In the following, I offer my thoughts on how we can go from the Statement of Principles to the next phase, namely to put these principles to practical use.
It is with this ambition in mind that I point to past mistakes, like impatience and single-issue-rejection of good, conservative politicians and political parties. Among the many examples of such mistakes, we find the open-letter reply to the SOP. Its 29 signatories explain that they were “dismayed at reading” the Statement of Principles, in no small part because the SOP centers its conservatism around the preservation, perpetuation, and enhancement of the nation state. They identify two weaknesses in present-day nation states, based upon which they reject the SOP as a whole.
I will argue that while the Letter aptly identifies the two weaknesses, they are irrelevant with regard to the SOP. Any flaws, faults, and failures of the nation states of our time are of no consequence to the strength of the SOP, or of conservatism as an ideology. The only exception is their function as determinants of how we put conservative principles to work in real life.
It is with a touch of amusement that I note how the Letter’s rejection of the entire Statement of Principles based on the concept of the nation state is actually an application of the conservative-voter habit of single-issue rejection. In other words, the Letter signatories throw the baby out with the bathwater.
That said, I do not wish to dismiss their critique on methodical grounds. The content of their nation-state argument is common knowledge among public policy commentators, and therefore worth examination. In understanding the content flaws in the Letter’s rejection of the SOP, we can strengthen the arguments for national conservatism in general.
The Letter concludes that the nation state is of no special societal status based on a policy method known as ‘subsidiarity.’ This method, which is found in the constitution of the European Union, is also important to the SOP’s explanation of how government ought to be organized. Simply put, the subsidiarity principle prescribes that the jurisdiction of every authority that government has should be allocated to the lowest possible level of government.
Based on this method, the Letter argues that some policy issues are of such a nature that jurisdiction over them can only be entrusted to an international, or super-national structure. Therefore, the Letter suggests that the nation state has no special status among levels of government, and since the nation state is essential to the SOP’s principles, those principles must be rejected.
At no point does the Letter exemplify its claim that there are issues with this super-national government. Nor do they explain how a super-national government is materially different from a nation state; it is not difficult to argue the difference, but any attempt to do so comes out to the nation state’s advantage.
One question that the Letter leaves unanswered in this context: why cannot nation states voluntarily cooperate and solve the problems—whatever they might be—that the signatories believe individual nation states cannot address?
In addition to rejecting the Statement of Principles based on a single issue, the Letter also falls for the temptation of impatience. Today’s nation states, the Letter explains, do not resemble the conservative ideal, and therefore they cannot be trusted as platforms for conservative policy.
Polemically speaking, their modus ponens looks as follows:
P1: The Statement of Principles relies on the nation state in order to make the world conservative.
P2: The nation state as it exists today is not conservative.
Q: Therefore, we cannot rely on the nation state in order to make the world conservative.
I agree with the Letter that most nation states today are inadequate as a basis for conservative policy making. However, to conclude from this observation that the SOP cannot be implemented is to confuse ideological principles for policy practice. It is not the role of principles to explain how an ideology should be put to work in policy and legislation. The role of principles is to provide a theoretical foundation upon which policy can be constructed.
To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy: principles or ideals are not the tangible goals that you want to put to work in legislation. They are stars in the sky that help you find the direction in which you should travel. They tell you where to go, not how to get there.
Once the principles are in place, we move to the next phase of our conservative activism: the phase where we turn the principles into policy practice. This phase includes, among many other things, the transformation of today’s nation states into the societal institutions described in the SOP. In other words, I believe the Letter signatories are willing to accept the Statement of Principles if they can be convinced that we conservatives can make a realistic journey to the ideal we see ahead of us.
I may be giving the Letter too much credit; reading SOP signatory Henry George’s excellent response to the Letter, I am open to the possibility that the Letter is a principled rejection of the SOP. However, there is also the possibility that Henry George mistakes the practitioner’s impatience for principled opposition.
In either case, the next step for the conservative movement is to gradually transition from a conversation about principles to a debate about policy. It is time to begin the admittedly arduous work on a roadmap to national conservatism in practice: to turn the ideals into attainable policy goals; to identify the political and legislative mileposts along the way.
And, most importantly, we need to do this with our eyes on those principles, while relentlessly explaining how conservative principles make our neighbor’s life better.
This phase can be daunting, but it does not have to be. In the first place, with the SOP’s excellent contribution, we already know what stars to navigate by. I am sure we will continue to debate principles, but given the strength of the SOP, that debate should reasonably be confined to teething problems. The main focus now should be on how to put the principles to work—and this may not be as difficult as it may seem. We already have good examples of conservatism in practice, such as:
- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has shown that it is possible to practice conservatism on family- and community-friendly terms, while also creating a strong, thriving economy;
- Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has made a name for himself as an unwavering opponent of cultural Marxism and a bulwark against one of the Left’s most repugnant practices: the sexual exploitation of school kids.
- Donald Trump, who made Herculean efforts to fight for conservatism against excessive and destructive abuse of government powers.
In short, the conservative movement has a rich portfolio of practitioner experience to draw on.
This does not mean that we simply open the toolbox and find universally applicable plug-and-play policy solutions. Every place where conservatism is practiced has its own peculiarities. However, current examples of success tell us that it is possible for conservatives to be transformative.
More than anything, Orbán, DeSantis, Trump, and other conservative leaders provide fuel for confidence.
To further facilitate conservative activism, we can already today identify the most important policy area where conservatives should begin practicing their principles: the economy. The first and foremost reason for this is the widespread presence of government in our economy today.
Simply put, we cannot help families become strong and independent if they depend on government to make ends meet every month. We cannot produce the prosperity that lifts all boats in our society unless we give the generators of prosperity sufficient freedom to thrive.
Conservative economic thought essentially falls into two categories. On the one hand, we have the so-called neoliberal approach, often associated with ‘Reaganomics’ and the American anti-tax revolution of the 1980s. It has also been said to underpin the expansion of U.S. foreign trade in the 1990s and 2000s.
On the other hand, we have a more cautious, nationalist approach to the free-market economy. This one is astutely spelled out in the Statement of Principles:
We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition. … But the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation.
The SOP goes on to exemplify the consequences of free-market absolutism by pointing to how “globalized markets allow hostile foreign powers” to outcompete Western nations, in particular for manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, global corporations with “little loyalty to any nation” can be harmful as they (by my interpretation of the Statement of Principles) put profit motives above the interests of the nations in which they operate.
With this point about free enterprise, the SOP highlights the need for a balance between free-market capitalism and the national interest. This balance includes “economic independence from hostile powers” and the preservation and growth of “manufacturing capabilities critical to the public welfare.”
A similar view is expressed in a related commentary by our writers Harrison Pitt and Robert Semonsen. While not explicitly sharing their thoughts on the SOP, they make the following observation regarding economic policy and national conservatism as it was expressed at the National Conservative conference in Florida:
There were also encouraging signs of a possible rapprochement between traditionalist conservatives and free-marketers. The relationship between these two factions within the Republican Party has been strained in recent years, splintering especially over Trump’s nationalistic rejection of the theory that ‘free trade’ is always and everywhere an unalloyed good.
Pitt and Semonsen, like the Statement of Principles, are correct in their criticism of what foreign trade has done to Western economies in the past 30 years. Many so-called tiger economies have benefited enormously from trade globalization, but China is alone in unabashedly abusing foreign trade for the purposes of economic warfare.
To make matters worse, governments in the West, primarily in the United States, have sold trade globalization as an unmitigated benefit for all parties involved. This, of course, is not true: while China experienced exceptional economic growth for the better part of the past three decades, Europe and North America have slowly drifted into the shadow realm of economic stagnation.
In other words, as the SOP and the Pitt-Semonsen comment make clear, the practice of free trade cannot be disconnected from the national interest. At the same time, it is essential to keep in mind that trade with China has never been free in the genuine sense of the term. The Chinese government has consistently engaged in hostile economic practices—economic warfare—where exports from China are unabashedly supported while exports to China are subjected to all kinds of disadvantages.
The blame for letting this happen to Western countries lies with those who sold economic relations with China as ‘free trade.’
I believe, therefore, that the national-conservative movement is correct in demanding a balance between the national interest and economic freedom, but this balance needs a bit more nuance. It is a good idea to borrow a page from President Trump’s trade-policy playbook: free trade with nations that commit to free trade; economic warfare with nations that commit to economic warfare.
Perhaps my difference on this point with the Statement of Principles and with Pitt-Semonsen is more a matter of terminology than anything else. I share much of the criticism of Reaganomics, the shortcomings of which I recently explained, and I also agree with the criticism of multinational corporations and their unhealthy involvement in national politics.
That said, we must also remember that when the corporate world involves itself in the political world, it is often because the political world has involved itself too deeply in the corporate world. Let us not forget that government, wrongly used, is a dangerous power tool: in America, its regulatory machine is estimated to cost the economy upward of $2 trillion per year; in Europe, government often taxes and spends nearly half of the economy.
Plainly speaking, big government distorts economic incentives: it becomes profitable for corporations to hire expensive lobbyists for the purposes of swaying the use of government power in their favor.
Again, I am the first to recognize that the issue of free-market capitalism is not unproblematic. The libertarian proposition of a completely unregulated economy is naive at best, and one reason why libertarianism is a lost cause today.
I also find merit in the often-heard critique that capitalism is soulless and to some degree in conflict with essential parts of conservatism. However, again I urge restraint: as I pointed out back in June, capitalism is not antithetical to conservatism. When intelligently harnessed, free-market capitalism is an excellent generator of national prosperity.
At the risk of redundancy, let me note that the sideboards that conservatives wish to place on economic liberty are of a different kind than those which have motivated much of government’s economic involvement over the past 60-80 years. While the Left has used the welfare state to build a burdensome system of economic redistribution, conservatives are driven by a desire to build a value-based framework around the economy.
It is our job during this phase of conservative practice, to explain to our neighbors why this difference matters. In doing so, we will also explain why conservatism is the best way to build free, prosperous families, communities—and nation states.