In Defense of National Conservatism
This essay was originally published on July 28, 2022 by Law & Liberty.
Scott Yenor responds to Tyler Syck’s and Mark Tooley’s criticism of national conservativism.
Two recent Law & Liberty articles try to expose soft spots in national conservatism. Tyler Syck’s criticism pits national conservatism against our reigning civil rights regime, while Mark Tooley challenges national conservatism for embracing a relationship between religious faith and nationalism outside of the American tradition.
National conservatism is a work in progress. National conservatives have issued a Statement of Principles to explain their general disposition, and I signed it. Generally, national conservatives worry that the sovereignty of the nation is being worn away through universal, globalist powers imposing an inhuman, stultifying ideology. International bodies are part of this global imperium. So are multi-national corporations and other oligarchic entities, which are destroying popular government and the institutions necessary for virtuous, happy lives all around the globe. Everywhere, governments, bureaucracies, and corporations are demanding conformity to the reigning civil rights regime—and crushing opposition. This reigning civil rights regime sees all inequalities as signs of universal oppression, and its purveyors demand a remaking of the world by experts in the name of elusive, ever-changing notions of equity.
The alternative to this global imperium must be named. Thus, national conservatism defends our civilized and civilizing commitments like the rule of law and free enterprise and the institutions that serve the permanent and aggregate interests of civil society like the family and sound science. Above the individual is the nation and above the nation is God, not a new world order.
What would a national conservatism look like? Consider some recent headlines. According the National Association of Realtors, Chinese investors spent more than $6.1 billion on homes in the United States last year. This is certainly consistent with free-market economics on a global scale. Is it good for our country when adversaries and foreigners own large portions of our land?
Chinese companies have bought up land quite close to American military bases in North Dakota and elsewhere. Foreign ownership of American land generally plays a role in making real estate very expensive for our citizens. In principle, though, at some point too much foreign ownership of American soil upsets the country. National conservatives bemoan these developments and advocate for real estate nationalism. Foreign nationals own about 3% of America’s farmland, way more than foreigners own in other countries. We need agricultural nationalism. Slots in our elite engineering programs are allotted to foreigners at increasing rates—they pay full price after all. Is this wise? Public research nationalism is needed.
Responding to Syck and Tooley may further flesh out what national conservatism means.
Syck seems blind to the fundamental conflict between the current American nation and our old constitutional government, and the civil rights regime as it has developed in the last two-plus decades. As a result, he embraces today’s pathologies and misreads our situation.
This new civil rights ideology compromises the glories of our civilization. Our universities have been undermined, ceaselessly attack our civilizational patrimony, and they now tend to compromise the free inquiry necessary for advancements. Our Christian heritage is denied or ridiculed. Family life is undermined through a commitment to ideologies associated with feminism and sexual liberation. The rule of equal laws is compromised as people are judged not by their actions but by their race or ideology. Censorship from private sources undermines public dialogue. Floods of unassimilated immigrants undermine national unity and national will.
Syck may recognize these realities, but doesn’t want to trace them to our civil rights regime or to do anything about them. Consider his point about “Family and Children.” Great nations require great families, and coming-apart families portend societal decadence. National conservatives think that “radical forms of sexual license and experimentation,” among other things, undermine family life. Syck disagrees. Family collapse, he suggests, is a product of “oppression and poverty”—a thought derived mostly from the reigning civil rights ideology. Blaming license and sexual experimentation, he thinks, is a veiled attack on same-sex marriage. National conservatives, he claims, “will not hesitate to enforce certain moral views about sexuality, abortion and the family” with the “full force of the federal government rather than the constitutionally intended channels of schools, states, and churches.”
Same-sex marriage and the ideologies leading up to it are definitely associated with family decline. Those who argued for gay liberation, second-wave feminism, the deregulation of pornography, at-will divorce, transgenderism, and other forms of “sexual license and experimentation” thought their victories would undermine a monogamous, procreative and responsible marital culture and therewith national greatness. The same is true for many advocates of same-sex marriage. Progress in sexual license has nearly everywhere coincided with family decline—declines in marriage rates and birth rates. Unlike Syck, national conservatives see the necessary relationship between culture and family and are interested in doing something to arrest the spread.
Syck’s worries about national conservatives using the “full force of the national government” are inventions of a fevered imagination. The “full force of the national government” is, as Syck sometimes seems to understand, today on the side of libertinism. No state-level solution to sexual license is possible as long as our national institutions are in the grip of our reigning civil rights ideology. Our Supreme Court made local diversity on abortion impossible until this year. The Court undermines local regulation of obscenity through its First Amendment jurisprudence. The Court has also quashed state diversity by constitutionalizing contraception, sodomy regulation, and same-sex marriage. National civil rights laws nationalize second-wave feminism as an official American ideology. The U.S. Department of Education well-neigh requires states to adopt gender radicalism through its national standards. In our circumstances, getting the national government out of the business of quashing states who would like to go their own way on family and gender policy is a truly needful thing. National conservatives agree on that much.
Beyond that, national conservatives have not agreed on the something that must be done to arrest the spread of ideologies hostile to marriage and family life, or on the level of government at which they would be done. I gave my thoughts on what that something is at last year’s National Conservatism conference—but others interested in preserving America may disagree.
Syck’s broadside against national conservatism is traceable to his embrace of our reigning civil rights ideology, wittingly or unwittingly. National conservative solutions, he worries, involve “trying to beat the left at its own game”—to wit, legislating a different morality than the left is legislating. To which I say, “guilty as charged.” National conservatism does indeed fight for a vision of the public good. Syck embraces liberal neutrality, “creating a space in which citizens can come up with answers of their own.” National conservatives recognize the political truth that there is no neutral ground: our public institutions necessarily legislate morality. Every national conservative is an anti-contemporary liberal to that extent.
Maintaining Our Moral Ground
Which morality will it be? Like many national conservatives, Mark Tooley recognizes the inevitability of morality and the further truth that morality is downstream from religious faith. But Tooley worries that national conservatives put forward the wrong idea of how faith relates to the state. I think Tooley overdetermines what the “Statement of Principles” suggests in this regard, but let us deal with the deeper issue on which Tooley and national conservatives seem to agree: how to maintain a common life rooted in Christian faith and a Christian moral vision?
Tooley thinks separationism has accomplished this goal in the American experience, while national conservatives would have public and private institutions honor Christianity above other religions and would protect the rights of minorities to practice their religious traditions. Fundamentally, national conservatives think that America should take its Protestant roots more seriously and legislate toward a Protestant vision of family life, public research and so on.
Tooley appropriates Tocqueville to his side, but it seems to me that Democracy in America more strongly favors the national conservative argument. Tocqueville praises the Americans for obscenity laws, for their pro-family ethic of separate spheres for men and women, and for honoring female chastity. These laws shaped and reflected Christian public opinion. American national conservatives hope that Christianity can have an indirect effect on public opinion moving forward, as opposed to the establishment of state churches for which Tooley imagines we are advocating.
Such a relationship was the norm in America until our civil rights regime imposed a secular, atheist vision of the good life on the country. Liberals have squeezed the Protestantism from public schools, so that only evolution could be taught, while prayer and Bible reading were abolished. Perhaps a healthy relation between faith and state could rise again if our civil rights regime could be displaced.
These two critics think national conservatism goes too far. The question, it seems to me, is whether the national conservatism goes far enough. Desiring to promote “stable family and congregational life and childraising” is different from having a realistic plan for getting there in our circumstances. Doing what is necessary to promote “stable family and congregational life” would, in all likelihood, involve serious rollbacks in our public commitments to gender equality and sexual libertinism.
Much the same could be said on immigration policy and other aspects of national conservatism. Do we have the stomach for a more restrictive immigration policy, since it would almost certainly require natives to do work that they deem beneath their dignity? Do we have the stomach for restricting the purchase of ever more American real estate by foreigners, as it would put downward pressure on property values? Every national conservative policy slaughters a sacred cow—and comes with serious corresponding pains.