Mugged by Fallacy

The national conservatism movement is drenched in nostalgia for a past that never was.

This isn’t really a column I want to write.

I admire Christopher DeMuth deeply. He is, without qualification, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve spent my whole career surrounded by very smart people. He was the president of the American Enterprise Institute when I first started working there as a larval policy gnome in the 1990s. He often knew more about various policy issues than the specialists studying them. He’s charming, friendly, and again, quite brilliant.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that smart people can be wrong. And it’s because I respect him so much that I think it’s worth engaging him at some (possibly unforgivable) length. If “national conservatism” is going to succeed, it will be because people like DeMuth put their well-deserved reputations behind it.

Last week, he wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed based on his remarks to the National Conservatism Conference—which he chaired.

It’s a very strange piece, one that has caused a lot of head scratching among friends and admirers.

Read in a friendly light, it makes national conservatism seem fairly anodyne. As Matt Continetti notes in a letter to the editor:

Christopher DeMuth’s “Why America Needs National Conservatism” (op-ed, Nov. 13) was so fascinating I read it twice—and the second time I conducted an experiment. I removed the adjective “national” whenever it modified “conservatism” and found that it didn’t make much of a difference to his case.

You should definitely read the whole letter. I think Matt nails the generous, albeit skeptical, interpretation of DeMuth’s essay.

I, regrettably, want to shine a less forgiving light on it.

“Natcons are conservatives who have been mugged by reality,” Demuth writes in a nod to Irving Kristol’s famous definition of a neoconservative. He goes on:

When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change. We too breathed the air of liberalism, and there are always things that could stand a little reforming. We could be Burkeans—with an emphasis on incremental improvement, continuity with the past, avoiding unintended consequences, and working within a budget.

But now the American left is so radical that the Burkean “conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive.” The new progressive enemy we face cannot be reasoned with because “compromise is antithetical to their goals and methods.”

“National conservatism”—which we never get a good definition of—is the answer because progressives are anti-nationalist. He asks, “Why national conservatism?” and then answers the question thus:

Have you noticed that almost every progressive initiative subverts the American nation? Explicitly so in opening national borders, disabling immigration controls, and transferring sovereignty to international bureaucracies. But it also works from within—elevating group identity above citizenship; fomenting racial, ethnic and religious divisions; disparaging common culture and the common man; throwing away energy independence; defaming our national history as a story of unmitigated injustice; hobbling our national future with gargantuan debts that will constrain our capacity for action.

The left’s anti-nationalism is another sharp break with the past. Democratic presidents of previous eras—including the original progressive, Woodrow Wilson —were ardent nationalists.

As you might guess, this is where I heard the record scratch. But we’ll get to Woodrow Wilson in a moment.

First, to Matt’s point, there is literally nothing in this “national conservative” indictment of the left that is at all new or distinct. I could find you dozens of examples of AEI scholars from the DeMuth years—or decades earlier—who made these arguments. There are probably 10 National Review articles, per decade if not per year, on each of these topics. Even the idea that the concept of the American nation is central to the conservative project is nothing new. (Heck, I was railing against progressive cosmopolitanism in the pages of NR almost 20 years ago.) 

Our mutual hero, Irving Kristol, often made the point that nationalism could and should be husbanded to the conservative project (or vice versa): “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.” It was also central to his understanding of neoconservatism: “Neoconservatism is not merely patriotic—that goes without saying—but also nationalist. Patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness.”

I have my conceptual and terminological quibbles here, but suffice it to say any definition of nationalism that Irving Kristol could embrace, I probably could too (and the same might go for DeMuth’s if I understood it better). But that raises plenty of questions about DeMuth’s thesis. What does he mean by national conservatism? Why and how is it new? It remains a mystery.  

His first example of how Biden isn’t a nationalist is odd. He writes that “in 2021 President Biden gazed on his countrymen’s epic invention of COVID vaccines and concluded that he should help the World Health Organization seize their patents.” But this is a conservative complaint, not a nationalist one. A nationalist president could conclude that throwing “greedy” American corporations under the bus in order to paint America as the savior of the world is in the national interest. The conservative argument against this is the traditional one of property rights, moral hazard, and the glories of the free market.

The nationalism comes out when DeMuth talks about Big Tech, making the case for unspecified regulation. He doesn’t explicitly embrace industrial policy and protectionism, but there are several passages that advocates of such an approach would reasonably assume are supportive of just that. “Private enterprise is the source of cornucopian blessings, but it needs boundaries and discipline,” DeMuth writes. This is true, but it’s not new.

The left were what now?

Which brings me to DeMuth’s larger story.

I should note that DeMuth’s argument about the voraciousness of the Democrats stumbles on the fact that the Democrats elected the most moderate candidate available. And while Biden’s moderation has not lived up to the hype, the fact that Biden is so unpopular stems in no small part from his failure to stand up to the left. Republicans are poised to punish Democrats with perhaps historical severity, suggesting that the stakes are not so steep nor the situation so dire as DeMuth suggests.

But put that aside. DeMuth’s argument suffers fatally from recency bias. I understand the desire to argue that today’s left is worse than ever, and in some cases I’m happy to concede the point (I did write several books on such stuff). But DeMuth needs to make the case that progressive radicalism is not just a difference of degree, but a difference in kind. This categorical transformation of the left is required to justify a categorical transformation of the right. This is why he buys into the “Flight 93” and “American carnage” talk. What was once a justification for Trump becomes a justification of Trumpist nationalism without Trump.

In order to make this plausible, he slaps a gauzy nostalgia on, of all people, Woodrow Wilson, because Wilson was, DeMuth writes approvingly, an “ardent nationalist.”

Wilson was indeed a nationalist of sorts. But his nationalism was firmly rooted in his belief that America should emulate European countries, specifically Bismarck’s Prussia. He was a champion of the administrative state DeMuth decries. He was also a terrible person. 

It’s worth recalling Wilson lamented that the wrong side won the Civil War. He admired Lincoln’s means—wartime autocracy—while lamenting his ends: ending slavery. Wilson also fomented ethnic divisions—see his denunciations of “hyphenated Americans”—and reimposed Jim Crow in the federal government and the District of Columbia. He threw dissidents into prison, unleashed paramilitary goons on protestors, censored the press, and created the first modern propaganda ministry of the 20th century. Even as an educator, Wilson was a radical who believed the purpose of a “university should be to make a son as unlike his father as possible”—something the woke progressives the NatCons are at war with could get behind.

One might think that the specific policies of Wilson’s “ardent nationalism” might cause DeMuth to have second thoughts about embracing nationalism at all rather than seeing it as Wilson’s saving grace.

The progressives of Wilson’s era were also quite radical. “We must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement,” insisted activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, “and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many.” Herbert Croly, the intellectual godfather of progressive nationalism, was a eugenicist, with seething contempt for checks on nationalist fervor. He wanted a president who was a “national reformer … in the guise of St. Michael, armed with a flaming sword and winged for flight,” to heal decadent America from above. He also believed that the ideal of “blind justice”—i.e. the rule of law and the idea of equality before the law—needed to give way to a more modern faith. He celebrated that the “idea of individual justice is being supplemented by the idea of social justice.” He wanted the old symbol of Lady Justice, with her balancing scales and blindfold, to be replaced by something more modern:

Instead of having her eyes blindfolded, she would wear perched upon her nose a most searching and forbidding pair of spectacles, one which combined the vision of a mi- croscope, a telescope, and a photographic camera. Instead of holding scales in her hand, she might perhaps be figured as possessing a much more homely and serviceable set of tools. She would have a hoe with which to cultivate the social garden, a watering-pot with which to refresh it, a barometer with which to measure the pressure of the social air, and the indispensable type- writer and filing cabinet with which to record the behavior of society. . . . [H]aving within her the heart of a mother and the passion for taking sides, she has disliked the inhuman and mechanical task of holding a balance between verbal weights and measures.

I could go on about FDR—another ardent nationalist admired by many NatCons these days—who scaled up Wilson’s administrative state.

But let’s move on to the era that gave birth to the supposedly purely “reformist” conservatism that has outlived its usefulness. Historian George Nash begins that story with the “Revolt of Libertarians” and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. A short while later, William F. Buckley launched National Review (not Transnational Review, I should note) with a declaration about “standing athwart History, yelling ‘Stop.’” It rallied around Barry Goldwater, who offered a “choice, not an echo” and spoke of “rollback, not containment” in international affairs. Shortly before the launch of National Review, Buckley was enticed by McCarthyism and the widespread conservative belief—sometimes warranted—that parts of the left were dedicated to an even more fundamental destruction of American institutions than that contemplated by woke activists today. His friend, Whitaker Chambers, famously believed his move to the right was a move to the losing side.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the neoconservatives joined the ranks of the right, disgusted by the anti-Americanism of the New Left. These were the days when the militant left wasn’t dedicated merely to blowing up binary gender categories with tweeted “truth bombs,” but to blowing up buildings, and occasionally people, with real bombs. During the summer of 1970 alone, there were 20 bombings a week in California. “It’s a wonderful feeling to hit a pig,” Mark Rudd of the Weather Underground mused. “It must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.” Jane Fonda held “F*** the Army” rallies and in 1972 let herself be used by the enemy as a propaganda tool, even posing behind the trigger of a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. The Black Panthers—lionized even by many liberals—made Black Lives Matter seem like a debating society. And as bad as the BLM and Antifa riots of 2020 were—and they were very bad—they pale in comparison to many riots in our past.

The primary point of this detour down memory lane is to illustrate that DeMuth’s version of American history is drenched in nostalgia for a past that never was. But it’s also to note that it colors his view of the present. By his own account, national conservatism is required to deal with a wholly new threat that traditional American conservatism is not equipped to deal with.

This not only leads him to rehabilitate the left of the past, it requires denigrating or minimizing the success of the right. His tale of conservatives being little more than speed bumps and reformist brakes on progressive excess mirrors Sam Tanenhaus’ version of conservative history. But that’s not how conservatives themselves saw it. Indeed, DeMuth himself was a vital warrior in what he himself called the “Reagan Revolution,” not the Reagan Piecemeal Reform Movement.

Demuth ends by noting that “the originalist in me notes that the president is not only CEO of the executive bureaucracies but also, and primarily, head of state, responsible for the nation’s success and all of its citizens’ welfare.” Reading in a favorable light, this is defensible enough. But one of the things I learned from DeMuth himself is that the economy is too complex, America too diverse—both in the modern sense but also in the Madisonian sense—to be managed by any president or by Washington itself. Our most nationalist presidents—Wilson, the Roosevelts, even LBJ—rejected this view, and understandably so. There is no limiting principle within generic nationalism. Turning presidents into nationalist tribunes of “the people” responsible for all of the nation’s successes and the peoples’ welfare, by its own logic means denigrating restraints on his power. I don’t want a St. Michael in the White House with an R or D after his name.

When Irving Kristol said neoconservatives were liberals mugged by reality, he had in mind the realization that the unconstrained vision of progressivism led to folly. The laws of unintended consequences, the limits of reform, and what Friedrich Hayek called “the knowledge problem” were too powerful to overcome (at least predictably and reliably) with even the most well-intentioned planning from above. This is why he considered the American Revolution a “successful revolution”—because it took human nature into account.  

DeMuth makes it sound like conservatives embraced market-based policies only because the left wasn’t all that bad. But that’s not how it worked. They embraced market-based policies partly out of principled conviction, but also because they thought the left’s approach, based in technocratic arrogance and the blunt use of political force, was both wrong and dangerous (particularly in the context of the Cold War). In short, they were realists. DeMuth’s “mugging” inverts Kristol’s. The “NatCon” realists are now mugged by nationalism, and fantasies of total and permanent victories for the “highest good” defined entirely on their terms. They forget that Hayek’s warnings against planning were universal in application. Conservative planners don’t skirt the knowledge problem because their intentions are “better.”

Maybe the left is worse than ever in some ways, but I think in other ways it’s almost certainly not. Things are complicated. But what is obvious to me is that the threat to the country is not lessened when conservatives think the answer to that threat is to emulate progressive tactics and categories of thought. To his credit, DeMuth doesn’t embrace some of the more sectarian and identitarian ideas swirling around national conservatism, but he ignores the fact that the nationalist populism fueling this movement is itself a form of identity politics. “We” must defeat “them” is its defining ethos, and if classically liberal or constitutional rules get in the way, they must be circumvented. As Donald Trump put it in 2016, “the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”

The threats to constitutionalism and American exceptionalism are only new if you cut yourself off from the past. In reality they’re the same threats they’ve always been, just in different garb and with new buzz phrases. The political answers to those threats will change in some ways with the changes in partisan fashion. But the more fundamental problems—and answers—are the same as they have always been, because human nature does not change. As Ronald Reagan said in 1967, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”