Unlike the Burkean tradition of English—and to a lesser extent European—conservatism, America’s pre-Revolutionary society was more likely to view in the hierarchies of old not a conduit for transmitting the wisdom of the past but an unjust corset on individual liberty, and thus to better accommodate the accelerated pace of social and economic change sparked by the Industrial Age.
Upon a storied career at the intellectual apex of the conservative movement, Washington Post columnist George Will parted ways with Donald Trump’s Republican Party in what will likely be the last of a long and illustrious bibliography. The Conservative Sensibility, hailed as Will’s magnum opus when published in June of 2019, urged the American right to re-commit to the classical liberal principles of the country’s Founding. To Will, this meant steering clear not just of the national-populism that has dominated the party since the electoral upset of 2016, but of the movement’s older failures to meaningfully trim down the state, promote enough originalist jurists to the federal benches and protect the Republic’s constitutional design, with its system of so-called checks-and-balances.
In the run-up to last year’s presidential race, Will joined a slate of former Republican stalwarts turned #NeverTrumpers in pledging to vote for Joe Biden, but the deep divide within the right that his book portrayed was telling for another reason. In one of his chapters, Will points not just to Trumpism as the dark path to avoid but to European conservatism as well, which he describes as anathema to the American variety with a most telling epithet—“throne-and-altar conservatism”. By pointing to state-sponsored religion (altar) and the divine right of absolute monarchy (throne) as looming influences in the development of nation-states, Will alludes to a European conservatism that is millenary, traditionalist and hierarchical, anchored in the profound inheritance from the past that over centuries shaped what we call the West.
Not that Will views America as separate and apart from the West, nor that he ascribes to the Founding Fathers the will to break away from it, for that would make them—and Will too—quite the contrary of “conservative”. What Will calls to mind is the particular worldview of the pre-1776 society that birthed the Founding generation, with its belief in natural rights under limited government enshrined in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Unlike the Burkean tradition of English—and to a lesser extent European—conservatism, America’s pre-Revolutionary society was more likely to view in the hierarchies of old not a conduit for transmitting the wisdom of the past but an unjust corset on individual liberty, and thus to better accommodate the accelerated pace of social and economic change sparked by the Industrial Age. It is in that classically liberal, adaptive worldview inspired by the Founding that Will called American conservatism to re-anchor itself.
The contrast Will draws is largely valid, for those claiming the “conservative” mantle on each side of the Atlantic do indeed attach different objects to the verb “conserve”. The label’s elasticity is nothing new, and even within the American conservative movement, variances of even greater import can be identified across its component parts. The late Roger Scruton, to whom the last issue of this magazine was dedicated, used to bring this point home by differentiating conservatism from the ideologies it competes with, which tend to prescribe holistic, one-size-fits-all agendas easily transferable across national boundaries. Scruton—and Will himself, through the same word choice—have defined conservatism rather as a diffuse sensibility that prizes the established institutions of family, community, tradition and organized religion as indispensable wellsprings of social stability and human flourishing.
And yet even as conservatives, on account of their differing national and historical conditioning, may apply in varied ways their common appreciation of institutional legacies, the overarching trend of late facing them all is for these differences to gradually fade away. Owing to two distinct factors herein discussed—the proliferation of transnational phenomena, on one hand, and the sheer pace of social and economic change, on the other—conservatives in all places find themselves fighting largely similar battles. This may ring counterintuitive to the intrinsically indefinite nature of conservatism that Scruton described, but the trend towards homogenization has become manifest. Let’s unpack it.
Start with transnational forces. Beginning with the first globe-spanning explorations of the 16th century and reaching its apex sometime in the 1990s or early 2000s, the deepening links of economic and cultural interdependence across nations have been repeatedly invoked—largely by the ideology that Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Michael Anton has termed transnational progressivism—to build supranational institutions and endow them with ever more power plucked out from sovereign nation-states. This supranationalism tends to be inimical to conservatism, for it goes against the core principle of subsidiarity, one that our movement shares with Christianity. Said principle instructs that problems should be dealt with the closest possible to where they occur. Supranational institutions, on the contrary, operate distant from the local scale, which makes them more unaccountable and less accommodative of the varied cultural conditions under their jurisdiction.
But so-called globalism is at odds with conservatism for a second reason, separate from the supranational bureaucracies that have tended to follow in its wake. The globalizing trends in our economies, cultures and societies are in fact less novel than commonly thought and not limited to the present-day challenges of so-called global governance—climate change, digital taxation, judicial action against borderless kleptocracies and so on. Many earlier modernizing trends were global in scope too, and as such also tended to homogenize conservative agendas premised on moderating them. Think of secularism and the decay of organized religion, the spread of universalist ideologies such as 1790s French Jacobinism or 1920s Soviet communism, or the trend towards meritocracy, a system that prizes academic and professional credentialism at the expense of virtue and excellence in serving one’s local community—these trends all challenge the national traditions that conservatives hold dear. Being equally felt across the West, they’ve tended to add uniformity to conservative agendas that would otherwise be shaped primarily by national challenges.
The more recent global trends of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s are sparking even greater homogenization, making conservatives across the West relate to one another in a way that lacks historical precedent.
The more recent global trends of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s are sparking even greater homogenization, making conservatives across the West relate to one another in a way that lacks historical precedent. It is this deeper coalescence that has seen the American right cheer on Brexit, social conservatives applaud Poland’s campaign against LGTB ideology in primary schools, and opponents to open borders praise the Visegrad Four for throwing down the gauntlet on Angela Merkel’s quota system for welcoming a mass inflow of migrants in 2015. A number of other milestones in countries from Israel to Brazil and from Colombia to Australia have been similarly popularized and hailed as examples for other conservatives the world across.
Mutations within our economies and societies form the second reason why conservatives are seeing eye to eye on common challenges. The American conservatism that Will describes as his own may be in nature more accommodative of so-called creative destruction and laissez-faire economics than its more traditionalist European cousin. Yet the bulldozing force of today’s economic, societal and cultural change is such and so widely accepted by our elites that even those not sharing a conservative’s instinct for prudence may be put off by it. Inversely, these forces are introducing a more traditionalist sensibility within classically liberal elements of the conservative movement that were erstwhile hostile to them. In other words, the scale and pace of change has grown the coalition inside which people of varying inspirations can self-identity as conservatives. Whether or not parties claiming that label will seize this as a political opportunity is a different matter.
The economy is arguably where change of the sort described has run deeper. Mutations in labor markets, trade, consumption practices and the sectoral make-up of the economy have long been a potential menace to the traditional, character-forming and society-shaping institutions that conservatives hold dear.
The celebrated conservative intellectual Russell Kirk began one of his famous essays by describing an “octagonal home, its roof crowned with a glass dome” that he spent entire afternoons as a child observing from a hillside across a river-valley near his hometown of Mecosta, Michigan. Kirk soon turns the essay into a profound argument about The Question of Tradition. He recounts returning a few years later to see the home entirely knocked down by a local man “with more money than he knew how to spend”, who builds a more profitable ranch-type dwelling in its stead. Kirk had themed his essay around conservatives’ duty to uphold tradition—the repository of wisdom that past generations endow us with, and that we are tasked with gracing future ones in what Edmund Burke described as “a partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn”. The anecdote of the octagonal home was for Kirk a clear example of how modern economic incentives—the quest of lucre, the lure of profits—hang as a perennial threat over the duty to preserve. Already in the 1950s, Kirk was urging alertness and suspicion vis-à-vis unbridled economic change. Yet a somewhat blind commitment to the system of free enterprise that is almost designed to deliver such constant change became, for reasons discussed below, a building block developing the conservative movement at around the time that Kirk wrote.
The coalescence between the right and the free market was best accomplished in the US. Conservatism, as it happens, was a philosophy without a movement until the early 1950s, when one William F. Buckley Jr., who’d made a name for himself as a young writer castigating the progressive conclave at his alma mater with God and Man at Yale (1951), emerged on the national scene with a highly pragmatic vision for retaking power after two decades of full progressive control of Congress, the White House and the Courts. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt’s start-of-century progressive agenda, solidified under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and threatening just around that time to spill into the Republican Party under the liberal influences of NY State Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, liberalism was, at the time Buckley wrote, an almost uncontested force in American politics.
Buckley, who founded National Review (NR) as a monthly venue for the movement he hoped to build, had a concrete recipe in mind for wrestling power away from that ascendant progressive coalition, best articulated by NR’s Frank Meyer. Fusionism, as Meyer called it, was about bringing together under the big tent of “conservatism” three disparate groups that hadn’t shared a home until then, but all of which stood to lose from progressive omnipotence. The so-called “three-legged stool” of Cold War hawks (1), social conservatives (2), and economic libertarians (3) remains a popular template for analyzing the American right. With the fall of the USSR, the hawkish leg of the stool would largely transmogrify into the liberal internationalism of the 1990s and later the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration, a swing that is now undergoing reversal with a new pro-restraint, anti-war sensibility gaining ground. Beginning in the 2010s, a second leg came under strain—libertarianism. This wing was perhaps never as internally cohesive as we’ve retrospectively come to see it, for it encompasses business-friendly Republicans wedded to tax cuts and deregulation and a more intellectually grounded sensibility, variously expressed in the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and other academic economists. Be that as it may, libertarianism and conservatism were, as a result of this fusion, married at the base.
This coalescence made practical sense. The economic contest against the impoverished USSR had produced a bipartisan consensus around free markets as the most surefire conduit to prosperity, assuming that somewhere along the path to central planning—a point not always clearly defined— lied stagnation and sclerosis. This allegiance to free markets also made sense theoretically, to some extent. An overweening, highly centralized and meddlesome government is necessarily anathema to the conservative institutions of family, organized religion and civil society, and to the principle of subsidiarity binding them together. But again, only to some extent. The seemingly unbreakable causality between untrammeled free-markets and human prosperity was and remains the product of historical circumstances of the 50s and 60s and is being tested today by far different ones. While it lasted, this causal bond muted the conservative distrust of economic forces that Kirk wrote about in his essay, and now conservatives are having to rediscover Kirk’s skepticism as the bond seems to break. Just like central planning can bulldoze over institutions, so can the untrammeled free market, when left to its own devices. Kirk was onto something—let’s reckon with it.
To achieve that reckoning is to prompt the question: does the free market remain a dependable conduit for the kind of economic, societal and human flourishing that conservatives should aspire to? If not, how large is the disconnect? How—what policies, what theoretical constructs—should it be addressed with? On this score, a variety of viewpoints exist within present-day conservatism, which places a cloud of uncertainty over just what kind of economic agenda it will espouse in the coming decades. Loath to any kind of rethink is the more classical liberal or libertarian element—so long as they accept the “conservative” label, which may be gradually less the case. For this side, to the extent free markets now fail to deliver the kind of prosperity that made their appeal in the past, this is due not to an excess of economic freedom but a shortage of it. This strikes pro-rethink conservatives as blind, facts-proof dogmatism. If free markets are held as an infallible vehicle to prosperity, and insufficient prosperity is only explained by insufficiently free markets, then free markets become the be-all, end-all—yet conservatism was premised on different ends.
Note how, as the high rates of economic growth that marked the 3-4 decades of the post-war era recede into memory, this libertarian belief in the infallibility of ever freer markets is becoming global in scope, for it is losing its appeal domestically. As stagflation, oil shocks and deindustrialization dampened the West’s growth in the 1970s, the libertarian contention turned towards the developing world. Free markets, these libertarian optimists contend, keep propelling millions out of poverty in places like Africa and South America, an argument that has gained salience with the disastrous economic effects of lockdowns in these poor regions. This focus on far-off corners of the world only goes to prove that the prosperity-producing potential of free markets has been far less at work back home since the 1970s—particularly for the middle classes. Branko Milanović, an economist formerly at the World Bank and recently the author of Capitalism, Alone (2019), has sketched out this phenomenon in what he calls the “elephant curve”. The graph shows just how unevenly prosperity gains have accrued worldwide from the 1970s to the present. The developing world as a whole and the elites of developed countries, on one hand, keep enjoying uninterrupted gains in earnings and wealth. On the other, the middle and lower classes in advanced economies have suffered losses in both. The U-shape of the earnings curve along the distribution of global income, with a slight skew towards the top 1% percentile, gives it its name.
Just what menu of causes explains the economic disenfranchisement of the first world’s middle class is less settled. The economic left—who has found a guru standard-bearer in Thomas Piketty—points to the role of property taxes and intergenerational wealth accumulation, a contention that remains in wide dispute in academia. What is indisputable, however, is the role of the offshoring of manufacturing jobs to China—and more recently to its even lower-wage neighbors—since the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This strikes right at the heart of the libertarian optimism described earlier, for the culprit here is at least indirectly the very economic freedom it extolls—in this case, the freedom of Western firms to relocate to where cheaper labor allows them to more efficiently meet the market’s needs. There is, however, one popular retort, inspired by a linchpin of modern economics—David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. The impoverishment of those erstwhile employed in industrial manufacturing, the retort goes, stems not from free trade with China itself but from the failure of Western policymakers to accompany that opening with public policies to redistribute its net benefits. In Ricardo’s stylized model of international trade, even when country A loses an industry to its trading partner country B with a so-called comparative advantage in producing the good in question, specializing in another industry where country A holds a comparative advantage of its own yields benefits more than offsetting the initial loss. Free trade is always a net benefit for society as a whole, Ricardo argued, so by merely redistributing the gains from winners to losers, policymakers could make free trade a win for all. The challenge of trade policy, in Ricardo’s view, lied not in whether or not to open up—failing to do so was a self-inflicted loss—but in whether the gains from trade were distributed.
What is indisputable, however, is the role of the offshoring of manufacturing jobs to China—and more recently to its even lower-wage neighbors—since the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This strikes right at the heart of the libertarian optimism described earlier, for the culprit here is at least indirectly the very economic freedom it extolls—in this case, the freedom of Western firms to relocate to where cheaper labor allows them to more efficiently meet the market’s needs.
Be that as it may, the sorry fate of the Western middle class is a hard truth that conservatives can’t afford to look away from. The crux of the matter is that the damage has been done—whether from open trade itself or from the incompetence of our governing class to manage it—, and one cannot simply turn back the clock on decades of deindustrialization and middle-class impoverishment. Even if one were to embrace the potential of redistributive policies to even out the balance between trade’s winners and losers, a practical agenda for making that happen may not always align with conservative principles. Affording jobless miners from Ohio or Pennsylvania—or from the Pas-de-Calais or Northern England—the latest virtual courses in computer programming may not, after all, result in a higher net level of prosperity. At least not of the kind that conservatives should want to maximize, if this means the miner has to uproot himself and his family from his home in search of programming jobs in, of all places, hipster Berlin or yuppie California. This is all in the abstract, but it tugs at the complex realities of managing a fully internationalized, open economy—a task much harder than initially advertised during the neoliberal hubris of the 1990s.
This reckoning with the limits of a fully liberalized global economy isn’t just compelling in the abstract. It is already happening in the down-to-earth realm of politics, whether we like it or not. In 2016, Donald J. Trump shocked America’s media and political establishments by eking out a narrow win in the Electoral College that relied on swinging Midwestern states that President Obama had won twice—Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. His majorities in these states hinged on voters with jobs in industries put at risk by trade with China or left jobless by competition from it. Since winning, Trump has accelerated a realignment, long brewing on the right but hardly visible outside the narrow realm of think-tanks and magazines, away from the GOP’s dogmatic embrace of free trade and towards a concern—sometimes principled, sometimes politically expedient—for the livelihoods of economically insecure middle-class workers. This realignment may or may not stick—it isn’t sure that it will endure if Trump loses in November and the momentum for it fades, even as a class of Senators, notably Josh Hawley [R-MO], Marco Rubio [R-FL] and Tom Cotton [R-AK], vies to cement it. But here’s the questioning that conservatives can’t avoid, whomever happens to become their standard-bearer post-2016:
Are free-markets an end unto themselves? Does our trust in their ability to unleash broadly-based prosperity survive the national-populist electoral upsets of Trump and Brexit? Writers on both sides of the Atlantic—Oren Cass in the US and Nick Timothy in the UK, famously—argue that free markets should instead be seen as a means. Even then, what is the ultimate end they should serve, and what specific public policies—other than an intuitive preference for low taxation and light regulation—should be leveraged in service of said goals? Are the concrete living standards and life prospects of the lower and middle-classes, as Cass and Timothy argue, the better variable to maximize, rather than computational abstractions such as GDP?
And thusly politics in the West undergoes a profound realignment, with economics perhaps the more important, but not the only track. Another area where conservatives are called to balance the dogmatic idealism of progressive elites with our own belief in prudence and tradition concerns the question of national sovereignty. To address the cross-border challenges mentioned at the start, transnational progressives have sought to remake the ages-old natural order of world politics, profoundly shaped by the primacy of the nation-state, through practically unlimited transfers of power to unaccountable supranational institutions. They have done this in the name of “global governance”, even though the case for why these issues are better dealt with by unelected, supranational bodies rather than through the cooperation of sovereign nation-states accountable to their respective polities is never persuasively made.
Recent fever pitches reached between conservative governments and the supranationalism of the EU have helped sort out the intellectual case for each of these approaches. Think of the way the Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Matteo Salvini’s Italy threw down the gauntlet against Chancellor Merkel’s handling of the 2015 migrant crisis, or the way Poland and Hungary have recently withstood the EU’s open season against their policies to ameliorate judicial accountability and to monitor the transparency of foreign-funded NGOs, respectively. But the conservative case for the primacy of the nation-state and for intergovernmentalism—the cooperation between accountable national governments unencumbered by unelected supranational bodies—ought to be steeped in sound political theory. On this score, the nation-state is the most successful political innovation in mankind’s history—there lies the old wisdom that conservatives ought to rediscover.
In Europe, that innovation is commonly associated with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which put an end not only to the Thirty Years’ War but to millennia of non-stop military strife between European powers vying for domination of the Eurasian landmass and its rich resources. At that fateful date when the Habsburg Dynasty and a coalition of Protestant states, along with France, agreed to cease attempting to annihilate each other, a historical turning point was reached, the profound significance of which is truly hard to overstate. The wisest way to balance rival powers in the interest of peace and stability, the Treaty’s letter argued, was to confine each to the nation from which their sovereignty stemmed, delineating a set of fixed, inviolable and historically defined borders, having each pledge not to interfere in each other’s affairs. The ideal of Westphalian sovereignty—and the attendant principle of non-interference that has tended to go hand-in-hand with it—have truly changed History. Some historians, however, have traced it much further back. For Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, national self-determination is a markedly pre-modern notion, anchored not in 17th century European geopolitics but in Jewish theology. In The Virtue of Nationalism (2019), Hazony describes the modern nation-state ideal as a distant sequel to the Biblical theme of an exclusive covenant between God and the nation of Israel who, as a matter of religious belief and geopolitical statecraft, should be afforded a neatly delineated piece of land where others ought not to trespass—and vice-versa. Be that as it may, the nation-state has been an immense force for good for two main reasons. Linking the ability to self-determine to culturally unified publics bound together by language, history, religion and other national commonalities, as it happens, ensures peace (1) and enables democracy (2). The nation-state has thus become a durable construct, encapsulating centuries’ worth of wisdom—one that conservatives ought to defend against the latest fantasies of supranationalism.
This reckoning with the limits of a fully liberalized global economy isn’t just compelling in the abstract. It is already happening in the down-to-earth realm of politics, whether we like it or not.
Start with peace. Whenever leaders with continental ambitions or universalist agendas have sought to impose them on foreign peoples by transcending the corset of the nation-state, political strife or armed conflict has tended to follow—think of every empire from the Ancient World all the way to Napoleon and Hitler. This shouldn’t come at a surprise, for imperialism is almost by definition experienced as an unjust yoke wherever it extends and can hardly be carried out peacefully. As for democracy, the argument is slightly harder to make in theory, but the historical record is no less clear. Entrusting the power to self-determine away from the nation vastly complicates the democratic experiment, a hard truth made abundantly clear by the EU’s travails in this area. This doesn’t mean nation-states are all democratic, granted. But inversely, all successful democracies tend to operate on a national scale. The word borrows from the Greek demos, which implies a body politic sharing a sense of common destiny and thus agreeable to power-sharing across its differing factions. An empire, by definition, lacks a demos. If electoral contests between the provinces of the Roman, Persian or Napoleonic empires seem an unlikely abstraction, it is because assembling culturally disparate people into a common political experiment can hardly be done democratically, for each will lack the sense of national kinship required to share power with the others. If it had been tried, then decisions on a number of issues would have likely ran along national lines, with each voting bloc less willing than the next to peacefully transfer power when a majority emerges in a neighboring nation. The successful exercise of pan-European democracy is similarly tricky when decisions break along national lines, for the losing side rarely accepts the outcome as legitimate in the same way than if their fellow compatriots had won the day. This hasn’t erupted in broader daylight in the EU largely because member states fear losing access to funds—but even this isn’t a solid enough basis to build a democracy.
Is it any coincidence, in light of this, that conservatives distrust the EU’s ambition to form an “ever-closer union”? That the sole political grouping that owns that label—the ECR Party—stands at sharp odds with supranationalism and the delegation of ever more power to the European Commission and the Parliament? That the Euro-realism we embrace instead places the nation-state at the heart of the European project? These are all politically intuitive realities, but as conservatives we ought to add sound political theory and historical understanding to mere intuition.
With its ambition to override nation-states, the EU is running into both of the aforementioned qualms. This is so clear in the case of democracy that even the EU itself has imported from the academic jargon into official documents the notion of an “EU democratic deficit”. But the way it has sought to remedy it is likely to make the problem worse. Granted, the EU’s supranational direction of travel since the Treaty of Lisbon has benefited the Parliament at the expense of the Commission—an institution by all measures less accountable and democratic. But expecting enhanced democracy and accountability from delegating greater legislative functions to Strasbourg is, at the very least, misguided. Sure, MEPs are directly elected, serve limited terms and their work is more transparent. But entrusting them with greater powers doesn’t amount to creating a demos, which remains the fundamental defect of the European project as currently conceived. A more powerful Parliament has if anything exacerbated the EU’s democratic deficit, for European elections are still largely fought along national lines. Upping the stakes of European elections only heightens the disconnect between what the peoples of Europe wish for when they vote for their MEP—concerns largely national in scope—and what the EU is designed to deliver—a supranational agenda. Even as MEPs build their voting record on EU-wide initiatives, at the time of their (re)election they still run on national platforms. Polls have consistently showed that a majority of voters have their national news cycle in mind when they vote in European elections.
Meanwhile, pan-European issues are top-of-mind for a few pockets of Euro-federalists only. For all their naïve fantasies, the 500 million citizens living under the EU’s jurisdiction remain—and this, conservatives should celebrate—an assemblage of culturally disparate, distinct nations, loath to sharing their entire political destiny with the nation next door. Hungarians didn’t acquiesce to having their immigration policy dictated by Angela Merkel, not any more than the German pensioners the Chancellor represents can accept to have the euro weakened through devaluations to boost the Southern eurozone’s economies. Neither efforts towards building a European press nor making European elections more direct and consequential will serve to overpower the underlying reality of distinct European nations, for the weight of History is far greater than that of the bureaucrat’s pen. In the words of American conservative scholar James Piereson, “nations can only be built as a result of time”, so even if one agrees that a European nation is a desirable outcome—and conservatives should argue in the negative—building an agenda of power-delegation on the mistaken assumption that it already is will yield major dysfunction. Which is the EU’s current predicament. As hinted at earlier, none of this is to obviate the need for inter-state cooperation—but the EU’s conceit lies precisely in conflating cooperation with supranationalism. Conservatives should wholeheartedly embrace cooperation, of a different sort than currently practiced by today’s supranational EU. Foreign policy is but one example where the voluntary cooperation of sovereign member states can yield better results than supranational policies insulated from public sentiment and the different national diplomatic corps. On this score precisely, conservative Euro-realism doesn’t impel de-arming the EU of its foreign policy instruments, but rather directing them towards better aims. A tougher policy on China, stronger support for the transatlantic alliance and a beefed-up posture against human rights abuses worldwide are but a few examples of how EU foreign policy could be better leveraged.
The argument is perhaps harder to make on the issue of peace, but no less important. Granted, stoking armed conflict isn’t among the many vices that can be chalked up to the EU. But not all conflict is armed, and not all of it is even explicit—it can simmer below the surface without making headlines. The EU was in large measure built on the historically dubious premise that the maelstrom of genocide, destruction and war that marked the first half of the twentieth century was attributable to the noxious forces of nationalism. Conservatives, instead, are instinctively inclined to see nationalism as benign, for it cements noble loyalties and anchors nations in a shared culture and sense of belonging. There may be something to be said about the potential for nationalism to transform from a benign love of country into a zeal for conflict, but World War II is no good example of that potential, for Nazism does not fit into the conceptual mold of nationalism. To label Hitler as a nationalist, as mainstream European historiography has tended to do, misses his larger ambitions, which weren’t to elevate the German nation to European domination but rather to eliminate it altogether and replace it with a racialized version of its former self. In light of this nuanced reading of History, conservatives should feel emboldened to embrace nationalism, which in its purest form is a benign, pacifying force, for it goes hand-in-hand with sovereignty as a universal principle and respecting the right of other nations to self-determine. In deriving its driving impetus from the horrors of World War II, the EU has chalked up to nationalism what was instead the work of imperialism, thus blinding itself to an otherwise noble ideal.
There’s something in common between the challenges of rekindling a conservative economic agenda concerned with the welfare of the middle classes and upholding the nation as the ultimate locus of democracy and peaceful world politics. The uptick of European federalization brought on by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the worldwide spread of neoliberal economic policies in the 80s and 90s have together thrust these challenges front and center in conservative politics, but the two had been in many ways lurking in the background, waiting to be revisited. But as this rethinking takes place on both sides of the Atlantic, another challenge has sped past them, in a largely unforeseen way, snatching first place ahead of quandaries far more familiar—“identity politics”. Put bluntly, this third, novel challenge requires simply that conservatives reconnect to the old truths of the human species.
The left, as it happens, is no longer—even by its own admission—defined around the interests and worldview of the working class, not even the economically vulnerable, as used to be the case with Marxism and some elements of social-democracy. Progressives across the West have come to define themselves instead around a worldview oftentimes termed as “intersectionality”, a convoluted attempt to synthesize every claim of systemic inequity between social groups into a theoretically cohesive whole. This holistic worldview demotes class and nationality as henceforth irrelevant criteria for apprehending social groups, replacing them with race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and a potentially endless etcetera of ever more anecdotal identifiers. The groups thus defined are given the labels of “victim” or “oppressor”, which turbocharges the case for compensating the former at the expense of the latter past the liberal requirements of free speech, due process and general democratic discourse. To be sure, “identity politics” hasn’t followed a single pattern of intrusion into European public discourse, and some countries—for reasons primarily to do with History and migration—are far more advanced in its importation than others. And yet under the ascendance lately of radical feminism, the LGTB movement and the souring of race relations exacerbated by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, all European countries have, to one extent or another, experienced the widespread onset of wokeness, as this overweening public sentiment has come to be called in America, where it originates.
The profound changes in public mores sparked by identity politics is everywhere to see, particularly during the woke fever pitch reached after the Floyd case. Statues of historical figures are desecrated and knocked down, not for their partaking in slavery—a fair enough reason for depriving them of recognition, you may argue—but for being insufficiently woke. Winston Churchill, though an indispensable Allied factor in the defeat of Nazism, deserves scorn according to the radical woke left, for he was also a “toxic” defender of Western civilization. Or think of how, for all the welcome shame heaped upon sexual abusers, the so-called #MeToo movement has stealthily weakened the procedural safeguards of due process. It has oftentimes thrown into the vortex of extra-judicial shaming individuals who were later exonerated for lack of evidence or whose innocence was later proven beyond doubt, but who were never fully restored to their erstwhile respectability, their standing irreparably sullied by unsubstantiated allegations. This was notably the case of US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh throughout his Senate confirmation hearings.
With its ambition to override nation-states, the EU is running into both of the aforementioned qualms. This is so clear in the case of democracy that even the EU itself has imported from the academic jargon into official documents the notion of an “EU democratic deficit”.
Identity politics was also, in some ways, behind the EU’s open season of attacks recently on the socially conservative Law and Justice government of Poland—among the few in Europe to oppose sexually explicit education in primary schools. This policy reflects the broadly shared preferences of a majority of Polish parents, yet LGTB advocacies and a good number of EU officials have taken to labeling Poland’s government as “homophobic”. Sensitizing primary school children around the important issues of consent and reproductive health, on one hand, and the rights of the LGTB community, on the other, are entirely separate issues, you may object. They are indeed, but Poland’s government has become the latest victim of the conflation of the two by woke LGTB interest groups who seek to co-opt the realm of sexual education with an agenda that is about much more than that. Think of such radical propositions as “deconstructing gender roles”, a dangerous notion that is gradually infiltrating schools on the misguided premise of protecting “trans” rights at the expense of a decent learning environment for children. The naming and shaming of Poland as a country in thrall to homophobia for simply reflecting the wishes of Polish parents wishing to preserve the innocence of their children is a sobering example of the extremes where hyper-radicalized woke politics threatens to take us—in Europe as a whole too. On this score, conservatives are prompted not so much to concoct a whole new paradigm to confront the illiberalism of the left, but simply to rediscover the old truths that lay at the base of the conservative worldview. The inquisitorial spirit of woke radicalism would label these views as retrograde—truth is another social construct, in their view—but conservatives should boldly embrace them, for they have proved their validity throughout centuries of human development. These are, to cite just a few:
Someone’s race doesn’t define them entirely, and the attempt by the left to shoehorn entire ethnic groups into political categories is, by definition, prejudiced—not progressive. Gender is anchored in biology—not a social construct. Granting everyone their due right to live out their sexuality as they see fit can’t become an excuse to shove through a radical agenda of indoctrination into the classroom. The moral failings of leading figures of the past can’t be used to deface their standing in the present, for their epoch and ours operate, by definition, according to entirely different moral frameworks. Applying to the past the moral standards of the present would inevitably deprive us of any historical reference points—a gloomy scenario for any civilization that wishes to preserve itself. The history of slavery and colonization, however shameful by today’s standards, doesn’t turn all whites of the present into oppressors, not any more than it turns all people of color into victims of oppression.
The challenges herein spelled out are neither simple nor solvable from a single angle. Policymakers, scholars and the peoples of Europe will all play a part in redefining a conservatism that is willing and able to confront the challenges of economic displacement, supranationalism and identity politics, with a balanced blend of statesmanship, informed debate and common sense. What these challenges are instead is unavoidable—there’s no way around them if conservatives wish to remain a relevant force across Europe’s highly fractious, diverse political landscape. Only by confronting the potential failures of untrammeled economic neoliberalism, the EU’s over-confident Euro-federalism and the left’s embrace of noxious intersectionality will conservatives avoid becoming a fossilized version of their former selves. Will they be up to the task?
Identity politics was also, in some ways, behind the EU’s open season of attacks recently on the socially conservative Law and Justice government of Poland—among the few in Europe to oppose sexually explicit education in primary schools. This policy reflects the broadly shared preferences of a majority of Polish parents, yet LGTB advocacies and a good number of EU officials have taken to labeling Poland’s government as “homophobic”.