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A healthy conservative nationalism? Not without classical liberalism

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Given President Trump’s new wave of nationalism—economic, political, and otherwise—various factions of conservatism have been swimming in lengthy debates about the purpose of the nation-state and whether classical liberalism has any enduring value in our age of globalization.

Unfortunately, those debates have been accompanied by increasing noise and violence from white nationalists, a dark and sinister movement hoping to exploit the moment for their own destructive ends. To fully confront and diffuse such evil, we’d do well to properly ground and guide our thought and action when it comes to nationalism, taking care to avoid the very identitarian impulses that so often fuel such pathologies.

Setting aside the related squabbles on the Left, which have their own degrees of illiberalism and self-contradiction, the Right is struggling to define how, exactly, a conservative vision of liberty, order, and virtue ought to manifest in our modern, globalized world. Despite a range of measured and compelling “pro-nationalism” arguments—from Israeli philosopher Yarom Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism to Rich Lowry’s new beat and forthcoming book—the more popular conservative conversation seems set on promoting a false choice between: (1) Post-liberal economic nationalism with government-managed “communitarianism,” and (2) globalist, corporatist capitalism with a heavy dose of atomic individualism

Might there be another path for conservatives who love their country and wish to promote its common values and principles?

Surely there exists a version of nationalism that doesn’t quickly devolve into blood-and-soil hoorahs, identity politics, zero-sum mythologies, and the complete abandonment of classical liberalism and democratic capitalism. Likewise, surely there is a way to embrace and inhabit global capitalism without blind allegiance to big corporations and passive servitude to the cultural values of a “global elite.”

For a glimpse of the tensions at play, one should observe the recent National Conservatism Conference in Washington, DC, an event organized by Hazony and accompanied by a diverse mix of conservative nationalists, ranging from hawkish (John Bolton) to populist (Tucker Carlson) to crunchy (Daniel McCarthy) to libertarian (Peter Thiel) and beyond.

The speech that gained the most attention came from Sen. Josh Hawley, who, while rightly pointing us to the importance of civic virtue and strong families and communities, did so while denigrating a so-called “cosmopolitan consensus.”

Such a consensus, Hawley argues, promotes “close and closer economic union,” “more movement of capital,” and “more trade on whatever terms”—features that would’ve been sure to inspire a grin on the run-of-the-mill “movement conservative” of yesterday. Yet for Hawley, such priorities now represent a “moral imperative” of “global elites,” not because such proponents value people and progress, but because they “distrust patriotism and dislike the common culture left to us by our forbearers.”

To prove his point, Hawley points to a number of progressive thinkers who express silly sentiments about “the evil of shared national identity” and the glories of “world citizenship.” But while these thinkers may indeed be quick to advocate for world government or open borders, they would also happily join Hawley in his denunciation of free and open trade as a primary source of our nation’s woes (see: Elizabeth Warren). Alas, Hawley’s pitting of the “cosmopolitan class” in Silicon Valley and Wall Street against the (supposedly) helpless working-class Midwesterner has all the rhetorical makings of a good, old-fashioned Marxian crisis of history.

Perhaps Hawley is more focused on resisting the progressive “globalists,” even if he insists on denigrates beliefs that many of them don’t actually share. But then what are we to make of the pro-market conservatives and libertarians who do actually find themselves in the same policy camp of this so-called “global elite”?

What about those (such as myself) who champion the moral imperative of free global trade and resist top-down attempts at social engineering, not because we “despise our common culture” but because we believe that economic freedom is a profound aspect of America’s national heritage? What about those who believe that free trade and free enterprise are valuable for the human person and can help to strengthen our culture/economy and affirm human dignity, if we’d only take the right perspective and personal ownership of our communities and institutions? What about those who believe that “more movement of capital” and “close and closer economic union” actually represent valuable channels for America to share its “common culture” and “common values,” while also strengthening, innovating, and distinguishing our own businesses, industries, and institutions in the process?

Such a perspective actually aligns quite well with the same end-game priorities that Hawley and many others are pointing to: thriving families and communities of faith, good work and creative enterprise for the “American middle,” and in turn, national solidarity and a “sense of shared purpose and belonging.” Hawley is right that this won’t occur if we simply shrug at the pain of economic disruption and blindly “trust the market” to be the end-all solution for meeting the needs of every corner of society. But it also won’t occur by wielding the typical top-down policy tricks of populists, protectionists, and (yes) progressives.

We can’t possibly revive healthy and self-sustaining communities and industries in America if the source is artificial at its core—driven by interventionist government policies that seek to “protect us” from global challenges, rather than calling us to better and more fully embody the moral and economic stewardship that true freedom actually requires. We can’t protect religious freedom, as Hawley desires, without the corresponding safeguards of economic liberty (private property, free exchange, and otherwise). We can’t topple the oligarchs of crony capitalism with a right-wing version of the same, no matter how “culturally conservative” the strategy may appear on its surface.

In a different speech at the same conference, Yuval Levin got a bit closer to an alternative: one that draws from America’s common heritage of classical liberalism, but does so with both an embrace of our nation’s “pre-liberal” roots. Only with both can we hope for a strong, healthy, and enduring nationalism that values both human freedom and human dignity:

Oversimplifying these commitments so that we leave ourselves a choice between an America of pure liberal abstraction or one wholly divorced from all universal ideals is no way to understand America, or to conserve anything about it. It even threatens to devolve into a nationalism rooted in race, which no legitimate American nationalism should ever allow itself to become.

And it threatens, also, to vastly oversimplify the liberal tradition itself. The idea that liberalism is just radical individualism backed with state power is the shallowest of caricatures—concocted first by those who viewed such a combination as a dream and then, strangely, adopted by some of those who see it as a nightmare.

Liberalism has always been much more than that, and some liberals have always been aware of the danger of emptying the public square of moral substance and of the importance of sustaining the liberal society’s pre-liberal roots, so that it doesn’t lose sight of the highest goods.

Indeed, sustaining those “pre-liberal” roots is the key that we sometimes miss. For while the progressives and the populists seek to bypass and break those roots in favor of their own arbitrary notions of security or progress or equality (etc.), the conservative ought to see them as essential to the flourishing of civilization. For the conservative, Levin argues, liberal society is, more simply, “the culmination of those pre-liberal traditions, achieved by the gradual development of political arrangements rooted in timeless ideals, that have allowed for an extraordinary balance of freedom and order.”

In developing our love of country in a globalized world, then, it would seem that we have some earnest work to do in the space between atomic individualism and economic protectionism—in conserving a balance between true freedom and true order. We have work to do in strengthening our global trade relationships, which consist of real networks between real people (creators, entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers). Meanwhile, we also have work to do in cultivating families and communities in “middle America” that rely neither on the whims of a “globalist elite” or the reactive games of U.S. legislators and the federal government.

As Levin concludes, “It has fallen out of balance some in our time, as our culture has leaned too far in the direction of radical individualism, but that means that it needs to be balanced by a more conservative idea of the liberal society, not by a rejection of the liberal society.”

To both compete in a global economy and retain a common and shared national vision, we don’t need more government self-protection, self-provision, and insulationism; we need virtue that manifests from someplace else, giving us the tools to embody our freedom with all the grit and risk that meeting those challenges actually requires.

The good news? It’s already happening.

Image: USA Flag, Free-Photos (Pixabay License)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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