What Do the National Conservatives Want?

Orlando, Fla. — As J. D. Vance takes the stage to give the final keynote address at National Conservatism II, news of Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race begins to ripple through the crowd. The revelation quickly spreads in the Signal and Twitter group chats used by the conference’s youngest digital natives; soon after, it’s passed along via whisper to attendees of all ages. When Vance — still unaware the race has been called — mentions the possibility of a Youngkin win in an offhand remark, the furtive excitement that had been building across the Hilton Orlando conference center spills out into cheers.

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“I heard somebody say he won?” Vance grins, scanning the room for confirmation.

For the national conservatives, the GOP’s clean sweep of the state — which saw the party clinch victories in the races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the Virginia House of Delegates — feels like a vindication of sorts. Not necessarily because the winning candidates branded themselves as Trump-style nationalists, but because their focus on cultural issues such as critical race theory (CRT) — a major priority of the national conservatives, and one they would argue the mainstream conservative movement did not elevate until recently — factored heavily into their victories.

A sense of political momentum is palpable at this conference: The three-day event boasts a far larger and more diverse repertoire of top-billing speakers than its first iteration in 2019. And the broader national-conservative political project has garnered an increasing amount of nervous attention from the mainstream press as the influence of many of the writers and intellectuals in the movement’s orbit continues to grow. “All of the energy, all of the excitement, all of the intellectual innovation is on our side,” Vance tells National Review.

Conference attendees are united by a belief that the culture war has been neglected by a conservative mainstream that is too libertarian, too reluctant to advance its own vision of the common good in the public square, and insufficiently attentive to the traditionalist priorities of faith, family, and home. Nevertheless, over the course of the last year, that seems to have started to change: A record-breaking number of laws pushing back against transgender ideology and the teaching of CRT have swept through state legislatures across the country, and the mobilization of parents upset about left-wing radicalism in public schools has played an important role in upsetting the powerful Democratic Party establishment in elections such as the Virginia governor’s race.

The political salience of these issues gives some credence to the national-conservative critique of the broader Right’s past hesitancy to engage aggressively on cultural issues — even if the conservative movement as a whole is now leaning into this fight. “When you actually go after someone’s child, you’re going to provoke a natural and very strong reaction from parents, who are then also in a position to rally in a sophisticated way against it,” Manhattan Institute senior fellow and anti-CRT activist Chris Rufo, another speaker at the conference, tells National Review“And so that’s what we’re seeing in these school-board protests, which is just a totally organic and grassroots reaction against all of this.”

“People care about it because it matters,” Rufo says. “It’s their life, it’s their relationships, it’s their future employment, it’s the possibility of what kind of life they can build here in the course of the next 20 to 60 years. . . . And if you sense that there’s something perverse or wrong or malicious about [left-wing cultural ideology], if you sense that it directly attacks you, your sense of potential, and your own deepest-held values, you’re going to desperately try to seek some kind of antidote to it.”

This is a powerful impulse. Conference-goers — a politically disparate association of West Coast Straussians associated with the California-based Claremont Institute, post-liberals, right-wing populists, and any number of other ideological subgenres grouped together in what has come to be known as the “New Right” — come together in the belief that the conservative movement has failed to fully harness the relative cultural conservatism of the American electorate. There remains some ambiguity about what the national conservatives are for, but they know what they are against — what Israeli–American conference organizer Yoram Hazony described in his speech as “the idea of a public liberalism and a private conservatism.” For too long, national conservatives argue, the Right has seen the protection of liberty as the sole purpose of political life and has largely relegated discussion of virtue to the private sphere. But “there is no real wall separating the public from the private — that’s a myth,” Hazony says. “The public sphere reaches down into the private.” Politics, in other words, is not downstream from culture.

In the minds of the national conservatives, the peculiarly libertarian brand of pre-Trump conservatism — what many on the New Right derisively term the “dead consensus” — has little to offer American voters beyond tax-cutting and deregulation; it sees the highest political good as the prospect of “doing your taxes on a postcard,” rather than a substantive vision of human flourishing. National Conservatism II showcases a general sense of impatience with this more moderate center-right orientation. “Neoliberal platitudes are not going to save our late-stage republic now,” Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer tells his audience. “Values-neutral proceduralism, such as exaltations of laissez-faire absolutism and legal positivism in constitutional law, will not save America now. Corporate tax cuts and other Wall Street Journal editorial-board prescriptions simply are not going to cut it. We need a more muscular, assertive, and masculine vision of conservatism.”

There remain serious disagreements, of course, about what this “more muscular, assertive, and masculine vision of conservatism” looks like in practice. If the consensus is truly dead (and not everyone in the conservative movement agrees that it is), then a new one has yet to be born. The question of what might come after the Paul Ryan–era platform is central to National Conservatism II, but it has yet to be answered in full.

Despite Donald Trump’s role in initiating the GOP’s move towards a more aesthetically nationalist politics, the former president’s legislative record does not offer an entirely coherent policy platform. While in office, Trump routinely focused on ever-changing personal squabbles; meanwhile, his policy agenda at times seemed to reflect the priorities of Jared Kushner and Mitch McConnell over those of his national-conservative backers. Depending on whom you ask, the America First agenda is everything from immigration restriction to criminal-justice reform; from tariffs to tax cuts; from socially libertine “Barstool conservatism” to Catholic integralism; from culture-war hawkishness on critical race theory and identity politics to the Platinum Plan and urban-opportunity zones.

That ambiguity leads to fierce disagreements over what Trumpism, populism, and national conservatism look like in practice. The challenge for the young national-conservative project is to formulate an actionable policy agenda without betraying important first principles or straying toward the more radically anti-American statism of certain fellow travelers. The outlines of this agenda — attentiveness to family formation; more aggressive pushes to defund hostile institutions benefiting from favorable government policies; an offensive against Big Tech; and a commitment to the 2016 America First agenda of immigration restriction, trade protectionism, and foreign policy realism — begin to come into focus at the conference.

Click here to read the full article at NationalReview.com

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