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What I Saw at NatCon
Mary Imparato reports on the elephant in the room at the recent Burke Foundation conference on national conservatism
Mary Imparato is assistant professor and chair of the Politics Department at Belmont Abbey College. She holds a PhD in political science from Rutgers and an AB in government from Harvard. Professor Imparato’s work has focused on religious toleration in the Western tradition and Catholic social thought. She is a mother of three, living outside Charlotte, N.C. You can hear her on Belmont Abbey’s Conversatio podcast.
Reflections on National Conservatism
I recently attended the third iteration of the National Conservatism conference in Miami, Fla., organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation, which is headed by the chief proponent of national conservatism, Yoram Hazony. This year’s was the largest and most successful NatCon since the conferences began in 2019, with nine hundred attendees, and speeches from marquee conservative politicians like Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio. I wanted to experience firsthand how well national conservatism represented the New Right, and inquire after the contours of a “new fusionism” that seems not so unlike the old one. I wanted to know: to what extent does national conservatism adopt the critiques of liberalism popularized by the prominent postliberals represented here at Postliberal Order, and further, is there any room in this big tent for Catholic integralists? Based on my experience at NatCon3, the answer to the former is “somewhat”—but the answer to the latter is that the most coherent Catholic postliberal political thinkers weren’t even there, and their absence tells the whole story.
What follows are some reflections on national conservatism’s self-definition, the place of the postliberal critique and integralism within this movement, the essential shared concerns of the New Right, and a possible path forward for this new coalition.
Where Have All the Neocons Gone?
According to Christopher DeMuth, the chair of the NatCon3 conference committee, the definition of national conservatism or the New Right (synonymous terms for him) goes beyond “anti-woke.” In his opening address, he recounted that the movement began in earnest in 2019 and, though they lost some comrades along the way, they are essentially committed to defending American freedom. DeMuth noted that the movement (which Peter Thiel compared to Star Wars’ “ragtag Rebel Alliance”) is united by a shared perception of the many worrying symptoms in diseased American life, even though the various New Right constituencies may differ as to prescriptions.
In crafting its self-definition, the New Right has very clearly identified the opposition: the neo-Marxist woke Left which seeks to indoctrinate and/or mutilate children, exploit racial divisions, enforce groupthink in universities, the media and throughout the government, control the populace with public health panics, drugs and porn, and which ruthlessly pursues its political opponents unimpeded by the rule of law. Further, the New Right is self-consciously distinct from the Old Right fusionism between social conservatives and the free-market-über-alles libertarians, with their faith in the invisible hand and penchant for creative destruction. The new fusionism appears to be a blend of social conservatism, America First nationalism, and economic populism, with a healthy dose of “biblical Christianity” thrown in.
One does wonder where that leaves the neocons. Sure, there were numerous laments over the seven thousand American lives and trillions of dollars lost in the forever wars of the last twenty years, but no criticism of the neocon hawks for undertaking these foreign misadventures. I cannot recall once hearing the term “neocon” used by any speaker, in either praise or derision. Have the neocons been quietly absorbed into the national conservative fold? If this is the case, it is only a matter of time until their interventionist tendencies find an outlet.
Catholic Integralists In Absentia
Among integralists, many mainstream “conservatives” are often referred to as “right-liberals,” which assumes, of course, that conservatives embrace the political philosophy of liberalism while asking it to slow the pace of its societal alterations. As to whether national conservatives are “right-liberals” in this sense, the answer is mixed.
I was able to ask a panel addressing the “Future of Conservatism” to what extent they saw that future as postliberal. No one attempted a full-throated defense of classical Lockean liberalism, and this seems to be a hopeful sign in the new fusionism. David Azerrad claimed that the founders had a more nuanced view of liberalism than the Lockean individualism Patrick Deneen describes. He said that postliberals and libertarians agree—both define liberalism as essentially atomized and individualistic, yet while postliberals say this is bad, libertarians say this is good. We should conceive of liberalism in its best sense, according to Azerrad, by looking to key contributions like property rights and freedom of religion. Ofir Haivry, on the other hand, sought to distance himself from liberalism by saying that property rights aren’t a liberal idea, and that he “owes to liberalism as much as [he] owes to socialism.” I despaired that the critique of liberalism would yet again be bogged down in a definitional morass.
Enter NatCon founder Yoram Hazony, whose plenary address was, excepting Ron DeSantis’s speech, the most acclaimed of the conference. He provided clarity, defining liberalism as the idea that individuals are free and equal by right, and adding, “If you believe this, then you are a liberal.” While some on the right claim that the poisonous version of liberalism emerged with the Progressives of the early twentieth century, Hazony identifies the deadly strain of liberalism becoming the “public religion” in the postwar period, and remaining thus until unseated by “woke neo-Marxism” as the dominant ideology in 2020. The very liberalism that paved the way for this troubling new ideology cannot be relied upon to stop it. Rather, Hazony—launching into a full jeremiad—implored the audience to face woke-ism with a life of “conservation and repentance,” embracing the things that we’ve lost like God, religion, loyalty, honor, family.
Hazony incisively identified a flawed view of freedom as liberalism’s chief defect. “When you are raised as a liberal,” he said, “and told to do what makes you happy, then freedom becomes everything, and the main thing you are free from is the past. Freed from God, scripture, parents, nation, man and woman.” He called on the tens of millions of “Bible-believing Christians” to bring these things back through repentance and reform of life, making America a Nineveh rather than a Sodom. This message is necessary and powerful, as far as it goes. Communal life, however, is built upon a coming-together, a sharing of ends and, in short, a principle of unity with a strong enough gravitational pull to hold a community together. If liberalism has proven inadequate, can “biblical Christianity” be that force? Given that Christianity—when devoid of its own principle of unity in the form of tradition and authority—has devolved into thousands of denominations, it is a dubious proposition. Nonetheless, a panel of Protestant integralists sought to make the case.
Protestant panelists argued for a postliberal politics which is self-consciously distinct from Catholic attempts at the same. Brad Littlejohn lamented the fact that, thus far, postliberalism has been dominated by Roman Catholics who, with a “tendentious” history, blame the Reformation for the rise of liberalism. He argued for a postliberalism, rooted in the writings of the earliest Protestant leaders, that seeks to restrain wickedness and promote virtue. When articulating what this postliberal order might entail, Littlejohn, whose recommendation was admittedly “thin,” espoused a symbolic politics whereby politicians lead by example, as when Teddy Roosevelt modeled the solid American family to help renew that institution in American life. Timon Cline, too, acknowledged that Protestants have been “late to the party,” but unlike Catholic postliberals who reference nineteenth-century papal encyclicals and look to eastern Europe, Protestants can look to our seventeenth-century colonial “founders” who came to establish a social, political and religious order in their image.
As an aside, Cline remarked that he wanted to remind Catholics that Viktor Orbán is a self-professed Calvinist, adding that he’s “not sure why they keep going over there.” That comment—apart from being needlessly hostile—is also rather ignorant, as the Hungarian religious population is 4:1 Catholic to Protestant, Orbán’s wife and daughters are Catholic, and the prime minister himself has called Hungary a Catholic nation. Cline went on to argue the postliberal point that politics cannot be predicated on difference, but must foster unity to provide a basis for common action. I would note that Protestantism, marked by its ever-burgeoning number of splits into various denominations, hardly seems like a strong foundation on which to build this desired unity. If, as Hazony claims, liberalism is marked by a freedom from the past, what can be more liberal than declaring oneself free from tradition? The problem of authority will forever plague Protestant postliberals.
In this regard, Aaron Renn’s talk embracing liberalism as Protestant was refreshing. He acknowledged that the Christian wing of the conservative movement has been Catholic-normative, observing, “There’s something about conservatism that’s highly resonant with a Catholic register.” To attract more Protestants to the movement, he argued conservatives must start acknowledging that “our political tradition is liberal,” warning that integralism is a “nonstarter” in America. He called for a more Protestant and evangelical conservatism (“We can’t keep outsourcing intellectual tasks to the Catholics”) and noted that prominent liberalism critic Patrick Deneen is “very anti-Protestant.” National Conservatism’s answer to my question about whether the future of conservatism is postliberal is decidedly: it depends on who you ask.
While Protestant postliberals (and liberals) were given a platform within the National Conservatism conference, one might ask how the Catholic postliberal panel went. Had it existed, it would have been outstanding. Why this omission when Catholic postliberals have some of the most innovative ideas for industrial and family policy? Certainly, we can find more robust ideas there than a suggestion that politicians should be role models. What became evident throughout was that Protestant postliberalism (a contradiction in terms) is utterly toothless, while a Catholic one ois not.
This is not to say that there were no Catholics present at NatCon. Judging by the cheers during Hazony’s speech when he called on Catholics to combat woke-ism, they made up possibly 40 percent of attendees. Several Catholics who spoke, however, made a point to countersignal integralism. In his plenary address, Heritage president Kevin Roberts said integralists’ zeal had led them into the error of seeking a fusion of church and state. Roberts, a self-described West Coast Straussian (but we’ll leave discussion of that error for another day), claimed that integralist positions undermine free will, which is essential on our path of salvation. He did extend an olive branch however, requesting that these conversations continue as among family members and not as among enemies. Daniel Burns took an alternate approach to integralism, arguing from what he claimed was a realist standpoint. Because the American voting public is largely Protestant or ex-Protestant, for religion to have any impact on public life, he said that religion would have to be some version of the Christianity that Alexis de Tocqueville saw: “low-church Protestant and reconciled to Mammon.” While eschewing secularism, Burns said that we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the United States is now and “in some sense ought to remain” Protestant. This defeatist tone stands in sharp contrast to the rousing call to arms issued by Hazony in which he urged the movement to trust a God who gives unlikely victories.
While I’ve focused on the relationship of national conservatism to postliberalism, the conference addressed many more topics, on most of which postliberals and conservatives can find common ground. Everyone agrees that the nation is a political common good, a majority believes that the administrative state power can be wielded by conservatives to advance their political ends, and all agree that the nation is in a spiral of national decline reflected in everything from the collapse of marriage, birth rates, gender ideology, the decimation of the working class, and our attempts to self-medicate against all the despair.
National conservatives and Catholic postliberals bring different approaches to the battle. National conservatives focus on tactics in waging the present war against woke-ism, but they lack any coherent vision at which they are aiming. While a practical approach is needed, we ought also to imagine what an ideal arrangement might be, looking to a polestar while navigating the waves. The jamboree of a new fusionism may be unavoidable, but can it succeed without facing, rather than dismissing, the most pressing structural problems of order raised by the most thoroughgoing critics of liberalism?
The final address of the conference was subtitled, “The Dangerous Illusion of a ‘Secular’ State.” Yet the absence of Catholic integralists at the conference prompted me to ask: Why not phrase this statement the other way around? Who is bold enough to argue for “The Salutary Vision of a Religious State”? Catholic integralists possess this vision in a more coherent form than any I heard at NatCon3.