This essay was adapted from a speech made at the 2019 National Conservatism Conference.
When I arrived at this conference, I was immediately struck by the color scheme of the title on the stage’s backdrop: the bold orange lettering of “National,” and the thinner white text of “Conservatism.” It’s worth noting that the conference was the brainchild of Yoram Hazony, a graduate of Princeton University and co-founder of the Princeton Tory. So it was clear to me that the black and orange color scheme (especially visible on the lanyards being worn by all the participants) was part of a Princeton cabal, yet again seeking to take over the country.
For those in the know, Princeton’s unofficial motto is “In the Nation’s Service,” introduced in 1896 by its president, Woodrow Wilson. This unofficial motto was subsequently augmented by a later president, Harold Shapiro, a century later: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” And then it was altered even more recently in 2016 by the current Princeton president, Christopher Eisgruber, to its current iteration: “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.” I think we can expect that it will take only five years for Princeton to conclude that “humanity” is not sufficiently inclusive, and it will be changed to “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of All Intergalactic Life Forms.”
We should pause to reflect on the nature of this “evolution” (to use the word invoked in an official notice about the motto’s most recent change—evolution now means an inexorable movement in one predictable direction, and not, any longer, random selection). A moment’s reflection about the changes to Princeton’s motto over 110 years is especially necessary in the shadow of those gigantic orange and white words that loom behind the speakers, “National Conservatism.” We should pause to consider not only the color scheme of the title, but the combination of these two words and the relative prominence of one word to another. “National” is boldly highlighted, the larger word in the combination, and combined with the smaller, thinner, less prominent word “conservatism.” The assumption conveyed in the title, and, in the main in the conference, is that “nationalism” and “conservatism” are a natural combination, with strong nationalism assuring sufficient conservatism, a pair as obvious as Laurel and Hardy, Astaire and Rogers, Batman and Robin, Beavis and Butt-Head. Yet, the origin and “evolution” of Princeton’s unofficial motto is instructive.
Nationalism, as an “-ism” in America, was especially pronounced during the Progressive period during which the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt rose to prominence. The embrace and rise of nationalism in America was not the project of “conservatives,” but was promoted especially by the self-described Progressives. This project was especially aimed at the weakening of more local and regional forms of identity and identification that had been a hallmark of the American political experience. Theodore Roosevelt stated in his important 1910 speech, “The New Nationalism,” that “The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage.” This is a refrain that was found throughout the writings of the Progressives, the need to move the loyalties and identities of Americans from their local places and people to a more abstract devotion to the nation and its ideals—coincident with the time in which America began to acquire an empire, and thought increasingly of itself as the embodiment of a universal idea that was unbounded, in theory and increasingly in fact, applicable everywhere. Indeed a recent book, How to Hide an Empire, by the historian Daniel Immerwahr, notes that it was during this exact historical period when the word “America” began to be used to describe ourselves, replacing what had been the main self-description of our nation: the United States, more often than not, followed by the grammatically correct plural “are,” not the singular “is.”
Progressive thinkers were especially suspicious of the more immediate, and in their view, limiting and parochial identities of people as members of towns, communities, states and regions. In this regard, they were inheritors of the views of at least some of our Founding Fathers, and especially Alexander Hamilton, who was explicit in the Federalist Papers about his hopes that people would ultimately transfer their allegiance from their localities and states to the nation. Progressives such as Herbert Croly, in his 1909 book The Promise of American Life, were explicit in this praise and embrace of Hamilton’s vision of a more homogeneous America, and Croly pointed to what he expected to be a more enlightened consciousness, an actual evolution of human nature, toward a perfected humanity that would brought about by the new nationalism. Influenced by Auguste Comte—as was another nineteenth-century liberal, John Stuart Mill—Croly hoped for the rise of a “religion of humanity” whose first churches would be through a new and purified form of national identity. It was around this same time, in 1892, that Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist, published “The Pledge of Allegiance,” with the hope and aim of aligning people’s loyalties and commitments to the nation and away from the parochial identities that had previously defined the identity of the citizens of the United States.
Thus we can see how nationalism can come to undermine itself, and how the evolution of Princeton’s motto is entirely predictable—and, I would hope, worrisome. If the aim of liberal philosophy, and especially progressive liberal philosophy, is to transcend our local parochialisms, our particularities, any particular culture and tradition located in specific places with specific peoples, then ultimately the nation will come to be understood as itself too confining, too limiting, too arbitrary. We will need to amend the Progressive motto, from “the nation’s service” to “the service of all nations,” and then to the service of humanity and to the service of the cosmos. It is especially in light of the recent efforts of today’s progressives—the heirs of the nationalism of Wilson, Roosevelt and Croly—to transcend the nation, to aspire to membership in a cosmopolis—that it seems natural for conservatives to rally around the ideal of the national community. But conservatives should be wary simply of occupying the space recently vacated by progressives and concluding that this is therefore inherently conservative.
I would propose that a future iteration of the National Conservatism Conference should instead make as bold in its title and goal the word and ideals of “conservatism,” to ensure at least that we more visibly discern what is the object and aim of this political project. What is it we wish to conserve? Many at the conference have spoken eloquently about the need to shore up the family, the working person, the churches and synagogues, the neighborhood. Conservatism should be about nothing less: How do we conserve those elements and institutions that foster a flourishing life? We’ve known since time immemorial that a flourishing life depends upon a deep and wide network of people of mutual care, commitment and sacrifice. Yet the nation has at times, and too often in American history, been embraced from a stance of hostility to the local, the communal, the particular and, yes, the familial.
Any “national conservatism” worthy of the name needs to be clear and forthright: the nation should be embraced as the appropriate and necessary political unit only and insofar as it can be supportive of those aspects of our lives that need conserving. Today’s progressives are now hostile to the nation not because they have ceased to care about transcending any of those commitments to local and communal forms, but because they now see the nation as itself a form of parochialism. Libertarians, who have so vocally opposed this gathering, are fearful of the nation for another reason: because they believe that only a laissez-faire world can ensure the blessings of liberty. It has been in the pincer of these two powerful political movements in our recent history that the family, the community, the neighborhood and rich associational life have declined broadly in America, and this has especially devastated those at the margins of our society: the white working class now struggling along with African Americans, those with broken families, an absence of social capital and the decimation of community.
We know that the best indicator of a flourishing life is a healthy and intact family, and we can even (perhaps) agree with Hillary Clinton that “it takes a village”—by which I mean, a community, an actual village, to support families in raising children. But in America today, the ability to raise flourishing children has become a luxury good—the ultimate luxury good. Today’s progressives decry the “deplorables” even as they monopolize not just much of the financial and cultural capital, but even more importantly the social capital. Meanwhile, the libertarians promote a globalized economic order that has decimated the life prospects for the working class.
A national conservatism in part asks the question: What can the nation do to support the objects and aims that conservatives care about? If you want to raise your own children, what policies and programs can make it possible for you to do so? What kind of economic policies can support the widespread opportunity for good work throughout our nation, so that those seeking decent employment don’t all have to move to Washington, D.C.? What kinds of emphases on support for education will make it more likely that our most talented young people won’t all become deracinated, placeless, commitmentless cogs on their path to a consulting job and dreams of making it rich trading abstractions of abstractions of abstractions? What kinds of policies will help our communities flourish: not just roads to get out of town with a rented U-Haul, but “strong towns” and cities, places where people want to live because they can easily practice the virtues of neighborliness and sacrifice for a visible common good?
Here’s the irony: a growing number of conservatives realize that it will require the assistance of the state to correct many of the problems that have been created by the state—problems caused by the progressive bias against the local, parochial and particular. A further irony is that a national conservatism, targeted toward the aim of “conserving” families, neighborhoods, communities, regions, if it is successful, will actually make our identification with the nation less important, and certainly will make our reliance and focus upon Washington, D.C. less all-encompassing. Because of the forces first unleashed by the liberal project that was vested in the nation, we can’t simply rely upon “laissez-faire” as the secret recipe for strengthening our families and communities. Do we really think that opening the field even more for Google, Facebook, Amazon and, yes, PornHub, is going to lead to a revival of the homely virtues of a Norman Rockwell painting? For those who think the state is our enemy, consider the recent instance in which corporations forced Indiana to reverse its support of religious liberty, undermining legitimate democratic legislation with active cheerleading by a political left that has spent decades condemning corporations. Do we really think combating such opponents with arguments favoring laissez-faire is the answer?
The nation should be understood, to use a phrase of the British pluralist John Neville Figgis, as “a community of communities,” not composed of individuals who constitute the state through a social contract, but composed of the manifold and varied communities (starting with the family) in and through which our individuality is cultivated, fostered and constituted. The nation should be above all devoted to efforts to sustain, foster and support the communities that comprise it, and to combat, where necessary and possible, the modern forces that have proven to be so destructive of those constitutive communities.
Of course, the “nation” can’t on its own sustain these communities—if anything, ultimately these communities will sustain the nation. It’s no surprise that those most hostile to the nation today are also hostile to the family, religion and community in a substantive sense. “National conservatism”—giving pride of place to those things we seek to conserve—will also recognize the limits of the nation, the limits of any mere public policy to reverse deep cultural decay. More than any political policy, there is a need of a change in ethos, one in which the virtues of honor, sacrifice and gratitude replace those of individual assertiveness, selfishness and pride so dominant today. Parenting is difficult, and while rewarding, those rewards are more likely to be recognized and enjoyed at the conclusion of the hard years of child-rearing than in their midst. Our elites today praise accomplishments and achievements of professionals, of athletes, of various leaders, but can barely spare a word for the daily struggles, challenges and small but vital achievements of parents. The nation can’t “do” that, but its leaders can set a tone, use the pulpit, propose a change in what it is we honor, esteem and praise.
And the nation is ultimately not sufficient nor properly conceived if it is not (as those words later added to the Pledge, in 1954, at the prompting of that famous hate group, the Knights of Columbus) “under God.” To be under God is to put each nation both under judgment, a law beyond any and all nations, and a comprehensive order in which the nation is ultimately only a part. The rise of Progressive “nationalism” also was marked by the rise of the belief that the nation could be the vehicle for the creation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and launched us into the strange time where those who most vehemently declare their hostility to religion are the most dogmatic, judgmental and fanatic. The nation under God is a nation capable of humility about itself, about both its purposes and its abilities. This capacity for humility, self-critique and consciousness of the insufficiency of all merely human institutions is, to my mind, a fundamental hallmark of a “national conservatism” worthy of the name. I hope, and pray, that a renewal of those things we most seek to conserve will in turn spur a revitalization of this nation, these United States.
Image credit: Carol Highsmith, U.S. Library of Congress
This essay is part of our issue 22 symposium, “What are nation-states for?” Read the rest of the symposium here.