A Jaundiced Take on National Conservatism

The National Conservatism Conference first came to public attention in July, when its Washington, D.C., conference was widely covered in the media and generated scores of essays on the effort to combine traditional conservative ideas with the spirit of national sovereignty now sweeping the developed democracies. Now, the National Conservatism Conference held in Rome on February 3-4, titled “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations,” has attracted similar attention.

Introducing the conference, Christopher DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, noted that the “legacy of national freedom and biblical morality” of Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher, was “under assault.”

“Sophisticated people in the political, media, and university establishments,” DeMuth said, “have become openly contemptuous of democratic choice.” Since the 1990s, we have witnessed “the consolidation of bureaucratic anti-democratic government in Western Europe” and are “beset by hegemonic progressivism, which seeks to quarantine religious observance, traditional culture, bourgeois social norms and the family itself.”

The Rome conference, like the Washington conference before it, featured several deep and penetrating talks and has prompted equally worthy commentary by independent observers (not all of them uncritical, of course). It has also—as DeMuth predicted—been attacked, sometimes with striking dishonesty, by the progressive Left.

One attack, however, came from journalist Anne Applebaum, the author of several admirable books on the history of the Soviet Union and Communism, who was once friendly to Reagan-Thatcher foreign policy conservatism. Her February 10 essay at The Atlantic, “This is How Reaganism and Thatcherism End,” creates a caricature of national conservatism and seriously misrepresents the substance and spirit of the conference at which I spoke.

The prime mover behind the national conservative project is Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony and his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, which she says darkly is one of history’s “many bad books” that have had “great influence.” Applebaum’s summary of the book bears little relationship to its actual arguments, which have been explained and analyzed, celebrated and criticized in hundreds of reviews and essays. For example, she tells us that in “this [Hazony’s] worldview democracy has no significance.”

This is patently untrue. The Virtue of Nationalism vigorously affirms democratic sovereignty and the rights of free peoples to rule themselves. Further, Hazony is not simply endorsing naked majoritarianism. He argues in detail that “individual rights and liberties arose [and exist today] only in national states”—not in empires and transnational regimes whose rulers are unconnected to citizens and their interests.

Applebaum ridiculed conservatives who worry about the progressive ideology of identity politics, political correctness, and social justice wokeness that has come to dominate Western universities, corporations, and the media.

She mocked an Italian professor who “spoke darkly of a ‘dictatorship of relativism.’” But this “dictatorship of relativism” is not some hysterical fantasy; it is a serious intellectual argument first developed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI. The idea that moral relativism is a dominant force in American higher education was the primary thesis of Allan Bloom’s bestselling The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. The issue has been a central item of cultural debate for three decades, and those who have expressed worries about it, by no means, are confined to the ranks of political conservatives.

Absurdly, Applebaum argues that “no one knows how they [John Paul II and Reagan] would react to so-called cancel culture and Twitter mobs, or the backlash against Western culture on American . . . college campuses . . . or . . . the ugly strains of far-left thinking.” For all we know, they might have endorsed, not opposed, “intersectionality,” “wokeness,” and the de-platforming of conservatives and traditionalists in the name of transgenderism!

In fact, Reagan, when he was running for governor of California, made it clear in a letter to former President Eisenhower that he opposed what is now called identity politics and recognized it as an instrument of leftist politics. On July 22, 1966, the Gipper wrote Ike:

I am in complete agreement about dropping the hyphen that presently divides us into minority groups. I’m convinced this ‘hyphenating’ was done by our opponents to create voting blocs for political expediency. Our party should strive to change this—one is not an Irish-American but is instead an American of Irish descent.

Equally absurd is Applebaum’s introduction of Margaret Thatcher as a witness against, rather than for, the principles of national conservatism.

“The state is not, after all, merely a tribe. It is a legal entity,” she quotes Thatcher in 1998, “Concern for human rights . . . thus complements the sense of nationhood so as to ensure a nation state that is both strong and democratic.” But Thatcher’s formulation is identical to that of The Virtue of Nationalism, where allegiance to the nation state moderates conflicts among “tribes” (ethnic, regional, and other social groups), and where national independence is conditioned on protecting the rights and advancing the welfare of citizens. The formulation was elaborated throughout the Rome conference, and included many objections to the human-rights-suppressing machinations of tribal identity politics that Applebaum found so ridiculous.

Applebaum ends her essay with a series of conclusory attacks on Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who spoke at the conference. She declared that Orbán has “undermine[d] the courts and the rule of law.” She offered no evidence for this, and apparently has not read the latest annual reports published by the European Commission (EC) that review the judicial systems of EU member states.

A key EC document, “Monitoring the Application of European Union Law,” lists “infringement procedures” of member states not following EU legal rules. Hungary ranks in the middle with 22 infringement procedures, with Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, and Cyprus having between 27 and 37 such “procedures.” Of the open infringement cases listed in the 2019 report, Hungary has 50 “procedures”—fewer than Germany (80), Italy (70), the UK (65), and France (62). In its official “2019 EU Justice Scoreboard,” the EC, which is not particularly friendly to Hungary’s conservative government, found no evidence of what Applebaum called “the slow politicization of the Hungarian courts.”

To be sure, in September 2018 the European Parliament passed the Sargentini Report that launched an investigation of Hungary for alleged violations of the “fundamental values” of the European Union. The report was named after its author, Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green Left MEP.

But the “fundamental values” endorsed by the Sargentini Report are not those of European civilization as a whole but rather those of transnational progressives. It blasts the Hungarians for cracking down on illegal immigration, for using “antagonistic rhetoric” criticizing NGOs supporting illegal immigrants, for requiring transparency for NGO funding, for opposition to same sex marriage, for not listing “gender identity” as a possible cause for discrimination, and for not providing adequate workplace facilities for breastfeeding employees. Anne Applebaum’s response on Twitter was, “Well Done @EU Parliament.”

Applebaum writes that the Orbán government has “removed funding from university departments that the ruling party dislikes for political reasons.” What she does not tell us is that Hungary has removed taxpayer funding not from legitimate academic disciplines but from ideologically-based “gender studies” programs that promote political propaganda and activism rather than scholarship. The U.S. Department of Education might consider similar defunding in American universities. In any event, it is odd that a self-proclaimed champion of democracy would object to a government’s making funding decisions for “political reasons.”

Applebaum is favorably disposed towards the EU and posits leaders in Western Europe (e.g. France’s Emmanuel Macron) as exemplars of proper behavior. Yet while excoriating alleged corruption in Hungary, she ignores corruption issues at the heart of the European Union and Western Europe.

On January 14, the Daily Telegraph reported that the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen is “facing renewed scrutiny over a scandal from her time as German defense minister.” A parliamentary inquiry is underway “into how defense ministry contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros were awarded to private consultancy firms without proper oversight” during her term as minister.

Likewise, in France, the New York Times reported that the justice minister, the defense minister, and the minister for European affairs in Macron’s cabinet all resigned over allegations of misusing European Union funds.

Applebaum referred to “Orbán’s destruction of independent press,” yet about half of Hungarian media is continuously critical of the Orbán government. Recent local elections resulted in vigorous public debates and mayoral victories for the anti-Orbán opposition in four of Hungary’s five largest cities (including Budapest.) This simply does not happen under “authoritarian” governments.

Applebaum concludes that as Orbán “undermines” civic institutions “you are just a few short steps away from corruption and tyranny. This is the real face of the new ‘nationalism.’” Then, in the most revealing sentence in the entire essay, she adds, “You can see why [national conservatism] appeals to men like Netanyahu or Trump.”

If we combine Applebaum’s disdain for Netanyahu and Trump with her relentless attacks for the past several years on the British Brexiteers and her disparagement of the conservative governments of Hungary and Poland (where her husband is a leading opposition figure) her strategy becomes clear. When you disagree with conservative democrats on sovereignty, constitutional, cultural, and social issues, don’t deign to argue with them on the merits—simply smear them as “authoritarians.”

Applebaum wrote “that many people in the room [in Rome] seek [‘a new political identity’] if it will grant them the right to abolish the rule of law when they gain power.” This is an example of smear tactics par excellence. “Many people?” I met no one at the conference who wanted to “abolish the rule of law” and I doubt that Applebaum met any such person either. But don’t take my word for it: virtually all of the conference’s talks and panel discussions have been posted. I urge readers to look for evidence of lurking authoritarianism, and to judge for themselves whether Applebaum’s account of the gathering is anything but the “caricature” she said she was trying to avoid.

Hawkish Liberal Internationalists Fly Home

Applebaum is a major figure among a group of once hawkish liberal internationalists centered at places like The Atlantic, The American Interest, the German Marshall Fund, the National Endowment for Democracy, and Freedom House who hate Trump and his close ally Benjamin Netanyahu and have declared war on conservatism. Specifically, they disdain a democratic conservatism in the United States, Britain, Israel, and Central Europe that focuses on sovereignty, patriotism, religion, and traditional values and garners strong working-class support. They will, of course, be more favorably inclined to “conservatives” who favor global integration and bureaucratic government.

While they are sometimes uncomfortable with identity politics and grudgingly recognize that their beloved EU has a “democracy deficit,” they are willing to overlook these deficiencies for the sake of an anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anti-Bibi, anti-Central Europe, transnational progressive elite coalition.

It appears that they have made a political decision to ally with hard globalists. This would include alliances with progressive (and anti-Israel) NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; advocates of mass migration from the developing world like George Soros; and the “global governance” law community that seeks to diminish democratic sovereignty. For example, transnational progressive lawyers Harold Koh and Sarah Cleveland participate in their allied (and Soros-funded) organizations. This alliance with harder globalists is useful in order to target their main enemy—national (and, yes, that means democratic) conservatives.

Serious democratic conservatives in America, Britain, Israel, and Europe should be under no illusions about the contempt directed at them by Anne Applebaum and her clique of liberal internationalists who claim to be the great arbiters of democracy in the world today. As one of the conference sponsors, former Thatcher speech writer John O’Sullivan, told me, “They want to close the Overton Window of respectability on us. But they don’t have the key.”

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About John Fonte

John Fonte is a senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at Hudson Institute. He is the author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others? and co-editor of Education for America's Role in World Affairs, a book on civic and world affairs education used in universities and teacher training institutes. He has been a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he directed the Committee to Review National Standards, and also served as a senior researcher at the US Department of Education, and as program administrator at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). He has served as a consultant for the Texas Education Agency, the Virginia Department of Education, the California Academic Standards Commission, and the American Federation of Teachers. He was a member of the steering committee for the congressionally-mandated National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) which issued the "nation's report card" on civics and government. He served as principal advisor for CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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