“NatConTalk is a recent entrant into the conservative conversation, or what remains of such under the hegemony of social media, our contemporary digital coliseum.”
he Anglo right is in a state of flux and has been since President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory and all the more so since his 2020 election loss. What it means to be on the Right, what the beliefs and principles of this side of the political spectrum are, is no longer grounded in firm foundations. Some see the American right as having drifted from its classically liberal roots towards a new authoritarianism as epitomized by President Trump, Brexit, and all the rest, while others see the Right as struggling to return to a truer version of itself after a 60 year post-war deviation.
Yoram Hazony sits in this latter camp, and his YouTube discussion show, NatConTalk, is an effort to articulate and explore the new ideological landscape. NatConTalk is a recent entrant into the conservative conversation, or what remains of such under the hegemony of social media, our contemporary digital coliseum. The show stands at 14 episodes as of the end of December, 2020. It features Hazony interviewing a range of political, sociological, and economic thinkers on the Right, who tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day. Most of these interviews are stimulating examples of earnestly conducted discussion with good faith questions and answers.
The themes discussed are filtered through the lens of what Hazony and his confreres at the Edmund Burke Foundation call “national conservatism.” As such, the main theme is the upsurge of national-populism since 2016, with President-elect Joe Biden’s victory less a repudiation of this and more a victory for dullness over crassness, leaving the structural changes that brought President Trump to power intact. This national-populism is given an intellectual explanation by Hazony, as the call from dispossessed populations across the West to reassert national sovereignty, cultural security, and economic stability. The supposed triumph of post-Cold War neoliberalism, as well as the post-Second World War consensus, is coming apart under the weight of its contradictions. The gap between promised salvation-through-liberty and the reality of perdition-through-serfdom is too big to ignore any longer.
The nationalist uprising witnessed since 2016 is contrasted with the rise of China to pre-eminence on the world stage. This subject is dealt with in the show’s second episode with journalist, author, and China watcher David P. Goldman. Goldman provides a refreshing corrective to the utopian “expert class,” who saw China as the way and the light towards a global convergence. Now, China show itself to be hungry for the power granted by its mix of state capitalism underwritten by a technology-enforced social-credit system. Goldman also argues against the defeatist catastrophists who see the civilization-state’s rise as inevitable and the United States’ decline as equally unstoppable. Goldman lays to rest the myths about China’s supposedly Communist nature. As he notes, it is arguably more accurate to see it as continuing the millennia-old centralized Confucian tradition of governance, controlling an imperial entity with no common spoken language known as “Chinese,” and a social system of clans over which the emperor (now Xi Jinping) presides like a mafia boss, or capo di tutti capi.
Goldman is realistic about the challenge facing the United States and the wider West in the coming years and decades. China’s advantage in communications technology is real, especially in terms of 5G and computer and mobile chip technology. Meanwhile, its missile capabilities mean that war in the South China Sea or Straits of Taiwan would be extremely costly for the United States Navy. Goldman’s contempt for the neoconservatives and neoliberals who sought to make the world safe for democracy and markets through the barrel of a gun is matched by his disdain for those who see China’s rise as heralding a Cold War 2.0 that will inevitably—perhaps hopefully—turn hot. As he argues, China wants to assimilate larger and larger parts of the world to its economic Mandate of Heaven through its rapidly developing digital communications hegemony. It is more interested in us as potential serfs for its form of state-capitalism, rather than it longs for conquest followed by obeisance to its new emperors.
It is here that we see a theme that national conservatism revolves around: moving away from free-market orthodoxy as it pertains to free trade, especially in terms of manufacturing capability. Goldman argues for increased government involvement in specific parts of the economy, particularly linked to technical research and development. It would be foolish to escalate competition with China to a kinetic level, something that would be disastrous for all concerned. However, as he lays out, the foundations for the current digital economy were laid by the United States government through research funding, in grants given by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other agencies. Dual-use technologies, originally military but with subsequent civilian uses, provided the boost to the United States’ economy towards the end of the 20th century, and could do so again.
Cass and Goldman represent the reality that ideas only matter insofar as they result in the flourishing of the governed.
This chimes with the work of another NatConTalk interviewee, Oren Cass. Cass worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Now, though, as the author of The Once and Future Worker and founder of American Compass, he spends his time filling out what a post-Trump right looks like. His economic vision harks back to that of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom believed in and advanced what is known as the “American System.” Simplified, this means the American government intervening in certain ways to help set the grounds for the American economy, for example in setting rules for trade and for protecting nascent industries and potential growth areas. This involvement, what one might call national developmentalism, is as American as apple pie, as Julius Krein put it.
Cass deviates even further from current Republican economic orthodoxy by singing the praises of labor unions and their potential both for rebalancing the economy in favor of producers—something he articulates at length in his book—but also as part of the social fabric, fulfilling common goods not translatable into Gross domestic product. If what Hazony dubs national conservatism has potential to shape the conservative intellectual and political sphere in America, it will partly come through its willingness to break with the economic dogmatism on trade, intervention, and development that has hardened over the last 40 years.
Cass and Goldman represent the reality that ideas only matter insofar as they result in the flourishing of the governed. Saying “ideas have consequences” is all well and good, and many of Hazony’s guests would agree. But the consequences of those ideas only matter when put into practice through political power, and power needs to be gained and used through structures and institutions in order for conservatism to achieve anything. Cass and those like him represent a realization that saying “ideas have consequences” without the attendant power to implement them is simply a deflection strategy away from conservative impotence.
This impotence is linked to the fact that what passes for conservative ideology in America is increasingly irrelevant to large swathes of the American population, and it actually harms those it claims to represent. This is something picked up on in different ways by several of Hazony’s other guests, including Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, David Brog, Mary Eberstadt, R.R. Reno, and Joshua Mitchell.
Hazony and Brog spend most of their discussion talking about how, despite half-hearted claims to the contrary, the policies of successive Republican governments have not actually done very much for working-class Americans. The bipartisan stance on trade and immigration simultaneously offshored gainful manufacturing employment for millions of workers, who then competed for the poor-paying service jobs and gig-economy positions against immigrants happy to work for less. Neither side cares as both stand to benefit from cheaper products, cheaper domestic help, donations from industry, and comfortable sinecures in-between or after public life.
This removal of economic guardrails was accompanied by a stripping away of what Deneen calls the moral and social guardrails that enabled people to live flourishing and fulfilled lives within communities bounded by a sense of direction through life. Much of Deneen’s interview will be familiar to those who have read his renowned book Why Liberalism Failed. The fact is that both Republicans and Democrats represent different sides of the same liberal coin. The Right’s emphasis on the maximization of autonomy is twinned in the economic sphere with the Left’s emphasis on liberation from all bonds of loyalty, affection, and duty in the social sphere. As Deneen argues in both his book and in the interview, economic immiseration is matched by social desolation. The promise of liberalism fails to provide the ways to live a good life, with social and economic means acting as the solvent on ends that makes life worth living.
Both Mary Eberstadt and R.R. Reno approach the issues raised by Deneen in different ways. Reno considers the post-war consensus as the immediate cause of America’s woes. The emphasis on openness in the works of Karl Popper, Frederick Hayek, and others discussed in his book Return of the Strong Gods was, in his view, an attack on what he calls—inspired by sociologist Émile Durkheim—the strong gods of family, community, country, faith, and truth. These philosophers were emblematic of a move after the catastrophe of 1914-1945 to do away with what was held as the cause of so much suffering. Closedness was found guilty of war, murder, massacre, and genocide. Therefore, openness was the key to unlocking the door to a society that defended against this ever happening again. Popper’s vision of openness mainly applied to the sphere of knowledge, where truth was never final, always provisional. Meanwhile Hayek’s vision of openness applied to the economic sphere, doing away with state involvement and intervention as steps on the road to serfdom. All the same, while his arguments are interesting and not without merit, it is ironic that Reno became a prophet of openness in his railing against Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, going so far as to call mask-wearers cowards on Twitter.
This emphasis on openness over closedness finds its echo in the work on the place of sex, love, and family in the shadow of the sexual revolution that forms the core of Eberstadt’s writing. Eberstadt is revolutionary in that she argues in her books and her NatConTalk interview that the West’s secularization followed rather than preceded the change in family formation after the 1960s. Her central contention is that the belief in God is passed down from parents to children, part of the lexicon of life we learn from those closest to us. Attendant on this is the formation of our identity, our sense of who we are, and our place in the world. Eberstadt’s argument is that the disruption and destruction of family life forestalls the creation of a healthy sense of identity, the language of life no longer learned in stable family units, leading to a withering of faith and identity.
The consumerism of sex, as Eberstadt sees it, partners with the consumerism of identities. Neither is sufficient for a good life.
Identity politics is not simply an eruption of ideological rage, though it is that. The rise of wokeness is also a scream of pain from two generations now of young people either from broken homes themselves or from social circles rendered unstable by the same. The sexual revolution, the most tangible instantiation of what Deneen calls the removal of moral guardrails, has left young people lost in a world of meaningless sex, broken homes, and no transcendent guide with which to move through life. The consumerism of sex, as Eberstadt sees it, partners with the consumerism of identities. Neither is sufficient for a good life.
Identity politics is the main subject of the discussion between Hazony and Mitchell, inspired by Mitchell’s new book American Awakening. Identity politics as religion is already a well-worn idea, but Mitchell brings his knowledge and experience as a professor of political theory at Georgetown to offer a depth to the subject matter that is often lacking. His analysis of the politics of identity revolves around the Protestant, indeed Calvinist, focus on purity and stain. Except, this is not the inevitable mix of purity and stain within each soul of Calvinism but, rather, purity and stain between different identity groups. The tragedy of the individual divided by goodness and sin moving through a fallen world is repudiated in favor of a barren landscape of warring groups, aiming for an earthly heaven of precisely graded and stratified equity. Calvinism is secularized; group sin is left without individual redemption—the consolation of suffering redeemed by faith lost, leaving behind people desperate for some form of resolution to their existential pain.
All of this paints a bleak picture of the situation not only in America but across the Anglosphere. Economic stratification and social fragmentation feed on and reinforce each other, both entrenched and defended by what Rod Dreher calls “soft totalitarianism” that represents the private corporate version of China’s state-led social credit system. From the writing and interviews of the authors and thinkers under review, it appears that the main problem of our time is an excess of freedom, choice, liberation, and openness, all of which increasingly lead to the exact opposite.
The answer is not to go back, obviously. We cannot return to an idealized past that never existed. That does not mean we should ignore lessons from the past, lessons that served us well up until yesterday. This is part of Brog’s point in his arguments in favor of faith: Our societies, as imperfect and morally blemished as they may be, are what they are because we live in the glow of the embers of faith. Our view on the human person and the inherent dignity of the human soul did not appear from nowhere and bear the imprint of the Jewish and Christian religions, even if we (in our rational, scientistic times) wish to deny this. Even an acceptance of these facts would go some way to salving some of the torment wracking our cultures.
What is really needed is a rediscovery of our place in a web of relationships, our inherent interdependence on each other today, with those yesterday and those tomorrow. This requires a rediscovery of the idea of a “we,” as Reno argues. A sense of “we” involves not only a sense of our rights but also our duties, our responsibilities, as well as our wants and wishes. For a sense of “we” to develop to balance the overemphasis on the “I,” the idea of love for the things that matter—like family, community, country, and perhaps even faith in transcendent truth—is one that should be paramount.
If this is what national conservatism is aiming for, then it is a worthy project, one that could be a part of the restoration of the means for ordinary people to live what Leon Kass calls worthy lives in modern times. At present, NatConTalk seems to be a worthwhile part of the effort to enlarge the conversation on the right to bring this about.
Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.