The case for American nationalism is clear. The United States is the most diverse nation on earth. If we will not have a nation and its constitution, then we will have anarchy. If we will not have a nation and its constitution, we will have Hobbesian war, figuratively or literally.
What, after all, is the alternative to nationalism? Anti-nationalism? Antipathy to one’s fellow citizens because they are one’s fellow citizens? Aversion to one’s own country? A narcissistic flight to group identities? These questions answer themselves.
Let others wring their hands over what, exactly, a nation may be, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. We can refute them by kicking a rock. Our starting point is the need for what we might call anti-anti-nationalism. It’s the understanding that anti-nationalism is a utopian fantasy, that it shortchanges citizens and undermines the possibility of American unity.
Yet anti-anti-nationalism is not enough. It must be channeled through an informed sense of something else: that quaint but important concept, “the national interest.” For too long, this phrase has denoted quasi-scholastic insider debates over foreign policy. I suggest that we use it in a more expansive sense to mean the well-being of our country as a whole. What is in the national interest within our country’s borders, as opposed to beyond them?
For quite a while now, the default answer on the domestic front has been: laissez-faire social and economic arrangements. The result, a growing number of conservative thinkers now argue, has been severe social stratification and the disengagement of many better-off Americans from the common good. The new thinking might be summarized as follows: Libertarianism, straight-up, is like moonshine. If your health is otherwise good, you’ll experience it as a tonic. But if anything about you is impaired, it could hurt or even kill you.
That is why libertarianism alone cannot be trusted to guide nationalism: It regards citizens who can’t handle the moonshine as so much collateral damage. Libertarianism straight-up has resulted at times in something inimical to the national interest, which should have the greater good of all citizens in mind. Libertarianism straight-up has given rise to a creed of “So What?”
So what if working-class Americans can’t find jobs? So what if people are crossing the border illegally—and endangering themselves, sometimes dying, in the process? So what if flyover country is plagued by drugs, health problems, and a drop in life expectancy? So what if people outside the coastal classes don’t want biological boys in girls’ bathrooms, or on their daughters’ sports teams? So what if parents don’t want their kids instructed in sexual-revolution theology in their public schools but don’t have the money to send them elsewhere?
American nationalism needs to be guided by something other than libertarianism—something that has a sense of the common good, a vision of the horizon beyond the self. What is vital to nationalism going forward is tradition-minded conservatism.
Traditional conservatism? I hear the pain out there. That unwanted artifact from the culture wars? That thing on the wrong side of history, reminding us of what we drank deeply of libertarianism to forget—namely, the unwanted so-called social issues?
Yes, that conservatism. We must recover the habit of mind that looks for wisdom not only to Adam Smith and the Austrian economists, but also beyond them to the American founders; to Athens and Jerusalem; to ancient and medieval philosophy; to the Christian intellectual tradition; to the glories as well as the ills of American history, including military history; to the riches of American arts and letters, which are not found in anti-American history books.
Any nationalism unmoored from such mindful conservatism will sooner or later go adrift. Only traditional conservatism can give nationalism the ballast it needs: memory, humility, discernment, gravitas.
The creed of “So What?” lacks these assets. It has no answer to identity politics, because it, too, is rooted in obsession with the atomized self. That’s just one example of the insufficiency of straight-up libertarianism to today’s national problems. Here are four more.
First: As a flood of books and lawsuits is making plain, one of the greatest tragedies in American history has been unfolding before our eyes during the past two decades. By the CDC’s estimate, more than 400,000 Americans have perished in the opioid and heroin catastrophe that began in the early 1990s, when pressure from drug companies on weak regulatory edifices resulted in rampant addiction and catastrophic maladies. That estimate of the dead covers 1999 to 2017. The actual number is obviously higher.
Social Darwinists might shrug at these numbers. They shouldn’t. Death rates are only the most visible toll of the crisis. There is also the generational fracture in many families, as grandparents and others step in for dead or addicted parents; the chasm left in many communities by the loss of their young adults to overdose or revolving rehabs; and the immeasurable damage to a generation of children who have lost older family members, sometimes more than one, and in more generations than one. Leaving aside the human devastation, the impact on the national bottom line is prodigious, and increasing. Recently, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell called the economic impact of the crisis “quite substantial,” adding that “it weighs on labor force participation,” especially for younger men and women. “It’s a national crisis,” he observed.
And who were the first responders to the scene, besides a handful of courageous and dissenting doctors and journalists and parents? Not the progressive Obama administration. It was too busy deploring the guns and religion of the afflicted populations. Not progressives at large—because the victims did not hail from an approved victim class; because their deaths contradicted the left’s racialist insistence on white privilege; because Hollywood has long made rural folk and residents of trailer parks into laughingstocks. Neither did card-carrying libertarians race to the scene of American carnage. Throughout the crisis, and still today, some have argued that the problem was not too many opioids in circulation, but not enough—that “the opioid overdose epidemic has resulted from too many restrictions on prescription opioids, not too few,” as a representative paper published by the Cato Institute put it earlier this year.
In the opioid crisis, every line of cultural authority turned out to be a Maginot Line—from corporate executives who pushed out the most addictive substances known to man as if they were gummy bears, to doctors who should have known better, to weak regulators enticed by revolving doors. The list goes on.
But tradition-minded conservatives did not ignore this crisis. You can see it in the pages of magazines like First Things, National Review, and the American Conservative, though not only there. And the fact that some were paying attention, that they questioned the credal “So What?,” underlines again the need for a nationalism in which such a conservatism has a place.
Second: Social conservatives have been calling attention for years now to a problem that others profess not to see—the sexual disorder that disfigures the public square. Once upon a time, people who didn’t want to be part of that disorder could opt out. Today, thanks to the increasingly hysterical demands of a progressivism in thrall to the sexual revolution, that option is no more.
The flight from biological science—the unhinged insistence, belied by any DNA test, that there is no such thing as male or female—is increasingly written into regulations and law. It exacts consequences that no one even a few years ago saw coming: employment penalties, the intrusion of biological males into traditionally private female spaces, and an immense pressure for social conformity and forced participation in delusion.
This race from empiricism, and the social coercion it entails, are perilous for a self-governed people. If even the plainest scientific facts are in public dispute, and if citizens can be punished for speaking the truth, how are we to adjudicate any questions in public life?
The creed of “So What?” has nothing to say about this denial of reality and its harmful consequences. Across the country, meanwhile, millions of citizens, especially parents, do care. They deserve to be heard, not pilloried as haters and bigots. Their concerns need to be understood, not penalized and stigmatized.
Here again, tradition-minded conservatism listens where others do not. And here again, a note about social class should be sounded. Rich people can avoid some of the social chaos out there by sending their children to elite private schools. Well-organized and self-sacrificing parents can avoid it by homeschooling. But what about the poorer or less fortunate children who make up the majority of students in public schools? Those kids, and those schools, have become sexual-revolution social experiments in which the socially and economically weak contend with powerful, well-heeled, and well-organized ideologues. It’s past time that someone stood up for the Davids in this arena.
Third: Contrary to the “So What?” that’s been dominant since at least the Moynihan Report, tradition-minded conservatives have been right to insist that it is in the national interest to strengthen the building blocks of civilization itself: families.
The liberal-left and the rest of “So What?” have been ignoring for decades the kinship implosion documented by generations of secular social science. The breakdown of the family across the Western world has far-reaching social and economic consequences—from massive migration into Europe, undertaken in the name of demographic implosion, to the financial clouds looming over every Western welfare state, to the crisis of loneliness now swamping the elderly in every materially advanced nation.
The problem for small-government conservatives is this: There is no reining in the growth of the state without first reining in some of the behaviors that have accelerated that growth. The exploding modern state and the imploding modern family cannot be understood apart from each other. The state bankrolls the fatherless home and its complications; the fatherless home and its complications fuel the growth of the state. Meanwhile, the shrinkage of the family leaves a vacuum to be filled by more and more social programs—clumsy, expensive, and impersonal substitutes for the support and care of one’s own.
Fourth, and speaking of the Moynihan Report: Tradition-minded conservatism, dominated by religious Christians and Jews, is this country’s strongest bulwark against resurgent racism. Religious history is long and blemished. But anti-religious prejudice cannot write out of American history some other salient facts. These include the religious roots of abolitionism; the presence of clergy on the front lines of the civil rights movement; the reality that generations of poor children, especially in the inner city, have been lifted into a better life thanks to Catholic schools. Martin Luther King Jr. cannot be understood apart from his role in this tradition of religious influence on the American polity.
Still today, the churches are the go-to of first resort for American blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups whose deepest needs can never be met by either a paternalistic welfare state or “So What?”-ism. Neither can anyone else’s.
White nationalism is pro-abortion and racialist, and it despises Christianity. This tells us that tradition-minded conservatism, the enemy of every element of that program, gets something big right. Progressivism’s efforts to shut down Christian charities, Christian schools, and Christian expression are subversive of the national interest.
Left-liberalism increasingly regards many American citizens as malignant. Hostility to the hinterland echoed through the rhetoric of former president Obama, former candidate Hillary Clinton, and other leaders of the liberal-left. The newest round of progressives goes even further. Not only do they fail to understand citizens who are different from them. They are ever more detached from reality, in ways that might best be described as clinically interesting.
American conservatism, whatever its flaws and varieties, is now the only political movement in which free and independent thinking about the country’s future can be found. Left-liberalism can’t fix our problems. “So What?” can’t, either. It will take a deeper conservative tradition to show solidarity with all citizens, a solidarity that tomorrow’s nationalism must share if it is to further the national interest.
Mary Eberstadt is senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. A version of these remarks was delivered at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C.