Culture Wars/Current Controversies

A National Conservatism?

Conservatism since Edmund Burke has been about the cultivation and protection of intermediary institutions, of local communities, and of families. Rarely, if ever, does the nation-state, known as The United States of America, serve to protect any of these things.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen many divisive conversations about such things as “national conservatism” and “Christian nationalism.” I will readily admit, I’m deeply concerned about this recent marriage—however tepid and lax or even slovenly and experimental—of nationalism and conservatism. Overall, nationalism has been a brutal force in the world, rarely serving the good of human welfare. While, of course, there are always exceptions. One can immediately think about the Irish resisting the English or the Polish resisting… well… everyone. Still, the exceptions, in many ways, prove the norm that nationalism is not healthy for a flourishing conservatism.

Generally, conservatism and nationalism, especially in the American conservative tradition, have been, at best, uneasy marriages and, at worst, out-and-out enemies. For example, in his Jefferson Lectures in the late 1980s, Robert Nisbet said without hesitation:

Moralists from the Right, blinded by their private picture of “world Communion,” fail to see the undying persistence in the world of the nation-state, be it capitalist or communist. Nationalism has spawned more wars than religion—and Communism is a latter-day religion—ever has or ever will. All the while Stalin was bending, rending, torturing, and terrorizing, always shaping Russia into an aggressive military nation, with Marxism-Leninism its established religion, our right-wing moralistic ideologists in this county were seeing stereotypes, pictures in their heads, of the defunct Trotskyist dream of Russia not a nation but instead a vast spiritual force leading all mankind to the Perdition [Nisbet, The Present Age, 38].

Further, he contended in his lectures, though World War One prepared the United States to become a nation, it was the New Deal that solidified it as such.

The New Deal is a great watershed not only in twentieth-century American history but in our entire national history. It is the mesmerizing idea of a national community—an idea that had been in the air since the Progressive era, featured in books by Herbert Croly, Walter Lippman, John Dewey, and others, and had come into full but brief existence in 1917 under the stimulus of war—was not at long last to be initiated in peacetime, as a measure to combat the evils of capitalism and its “economic royalists” [Nisbet, Present Age, 50-51].

As opposed to nationalism (and patriotism, properly understood), Nisbet believed, conservatism in the American tradition has always been about the preservation of private associations and local communities and norms—our little platoons and subdivisions. In this, Nisbet was closely following the ideas of Edmund Burke as well as Alexis de Tocqueville. Much of what Nisbet wrote in the 1980s also hearkens back to his earliest and most famous work, 1953’s The Quest for Community. “I believe the greatest single influence upon social organization in the modern West has been the developing concentration of function and power of the sovereign political State,” he wrote. “The real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetrations of man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances and its revolutionary dislocations of established centers of function and authority.” [Nisbet, Quest for Community, xxxiii-xxxiv]. The nation state, as of 1953, had reached into every single aspect of human life. How much more so in 2022?

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