From National Review to National Conservatism
American conservatism has always engaged in identity politics. We are tribal creatures and a nod to our desire for identity and belonging is part of politics. While primal identities such as race or religion can lead to division, when these are sublimated into party and ideology in an attempt to “launder” such identities, they are neutralized, becoming part of a wider frame that is racially cross-cutting and checks extremism. This is the gist of George Hawley’s fascinating new book, Conservatism in a Divided America: the Right and Identity Politics.
What ideas should form the basis of conservatism? The post-1950s Republican strategy has been to lead with classical liberalism, fiscal conservatism, and military hawkishness while subtly signaling to white and Christian voters that the party is looking out for their group interests—while doing little to advance those interests. This formula succeeded in keeping the GOP in office from Nixon to Reagan to the Bushes, and its establishment continues to get its way even during the Trump era.
Whether the Republicans can continue this balancing act is an open question. The universalist, classical liberal rhetoric of the establishment period is, for Hawley, politically irrelevant in our post-Cold War age. As he acerbically notes, “Calls for individualism built on arguments about natural rights are unlikely to persuade Americans to abandon identitarian concerns.”
Content-lite Republican tribalism, however, may do the trick. The cult-like devotion to Trump and “stop the steal,” despite his limited domestic policy wins and egotism, can look more like the relationship between fans and a pro-wrestler than that of committed idealists assessing whether their leader is delivering for them. And while there are subtle associations between white, male, and Christian identities and the Republican brand, the party has been willing to embrace egalitarian tropes and reinforce progressive taboos like “the Democrats are the real racists” to pump up the tribe and score ephemeral rhetorical points. Yet, for Hawley, this circus act may possess aspects of nobility: it keeps primal identities and emotions from breaking the surface of politics.
Hawley, a young academic with seven books to his credit, is a rising star from the infinitesimally tiny universe of American political scientists who lean culturally conservative. A University of Alabama professor who hails from Sumas, Washington, Hawley has carved out a niche as, to quote an Amazon reviewer, ”An original and idiosyncratic thinker who writes original and idiosyncratic books.” Unwilling to beat the partisan drum or champion a distinctive brand of conservatism, he toggles between the modes of detached observer and engaged moderate conservative. In so doing, he pushes back on progressive left alarmism as well as the right’s pretense that it has transcended identity to ascend the hallowed realm in which toga-clad individualists approach politics from an Archimedean point.
This book does us the service of knitting together the history of postwar American conservative thought—William F. Buckley, James Burnham, Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, and others—with highly contemporary anti-leftist or conservative writers such as Ben Shapiro, Patrick Deneen, Jordan Peterson, Chris Rufo, Christina Hoff Sommers, Oren Cass, Bari Weiss, Yoram Hazony, Rich Lowry, and James Lindsay. Many of these figures, like their Cold War predecessors, unite behind classical liberalism, opposing identity politics and, more recently, wokeness. A garnish of religion or patriotism is occasionally applied, but for many, there is little beyond midcentury individualism. While communitarians such as Deneen, Cass, and Hazony meaningfully diverge, the most prominent conservative voices at CPAC, in Congress, and on Fox News largely recite anti-Democratic boilerplate.
For Hawley, one of the key tensions in American conservatism is how to manage the dissonance between the GOP’s individualist philosophy and the identitarian motivations lying beneath the universalist surface.
Drawing on a range of political science research that shows a correlation between measures of white, Christian, and Republican identification, Hawley argues that the progressive claim that these identities matter for Republican voters contains a large measure of truth. Where he parts company with left-liberal academics is that he believes elite conservatives are sincere in their desire to keep racists and other extremists out, and are attached to classical liberal principles. They leverage identitarian anxieties for electoral purposes without ministering to or espousing them. And while conservative intellectuals have generally opposed progressive initiatives, they have typically adjusted their views to remain respectable, adhering to shifting elite conventions and norms.
The book begins with the National Review circle in the fifties around editor William F. Buckley. These mid-century conservatives were centrally concerned with the Cold War and desperately sought to rescue the economic liberalism of pre-New Deal America. When it came to liberal cultural initiatives, the right was skeptical and instinctively opposed. Even though proportionally more Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, this is not the case when you screen out the Dixiecrats, a largely autonomous entity by this time.
Hawley notes that an early civil rights measure, California’s Proposition 11 in 1946, which would have made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, was soundly defeated, with greater opposition in Republican areas. In a similar vein, Buckley’s 1957 editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail” made the argument that African-Americans were not “advanced” enough to deserve the vote, though in time they could be “enlightened” so as to be able to do so. This said, in the following issue of the magazine, Brent Bozell took the view that if this standard were to be applied it must hold equally for less educated whites. He argued against Buckley that the segregationist position was “dead wrong” and would harm the conservative cause. There was no single editorial line.
As the Civil Rights movement progressed, the conservative stance shifted from ambivalent resistance to the new legislation to the view that desegregation was the right approach for government and public schools, but businesses should remain free to discriminate. Freedom of association and federalism were key constitutional principles that should not be superseded by equality law. More recently, Chris Caldwell argues that the Civil Rights Act, in permitting the principle of equality to override these classical liberal cornerstones of the Constitution, has fundamentally altered the basis of American law and, by extension, culture.
By the mid-60s, the intellectual right had, in Hawley’s estimation, “conceded the moral high ground” on Civil Rights and, in addition, became concerned that perceived American racism could damage the country’s soft power in the fight against communism. Conservatives now viewed the early Civil Rights movement as a just cause that came to be supplanted by Black Power radicalism and affirmative action in the late 60s.
Progressives often paint with a broad brush, perceiving conservative actions through the Manichaean lens of racism. This is where Hawley, who is outside the left’s echo chamber, offers a more granular perspective. He asks us to imagine an alternative scenario in which conservatives and the Republican Party leaned into an explicit racial appeal, embracing the white superiority of a Wallace or Thurmond. This would have unlocked a flood of southern votes. Instead, the intellectual and political right endorsed civil rights, kept extremists out of the party, only elliptically signaled identitarian appeals, and sought to retain elite respectability. For this, they have received no credit from liberals.
Hawley makes a similar point with regard to Trump and white nationalism. Again, Hawley has done some of the most important work on this topic because, though a critic of the alt-right’s violent and exclusive vision, he does not feel the need to tip his cap to the progressive claim that we are always just one rally away from Hitler’s Germany or Bull Connor’s Alabama. He is thus able to smudge black-white narratives into more fine-grained shades of grey to help the reader grasp the nuanced dynamics of the far right. He nicely parses the distance between the ethnostate extremism of a William Pierce and the still-violent but conventionally patriotic appeal of many January 6 rioters or Proud Boys. The Capitol Riot was neither an insurrection, (that is, ”the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War”) nor ”a normal tourist visit,” but a riot in which a small number of participants possessed insurrectionary fantasies. Much more interesting than this stale debate, observes Hawley, is the fact that the alt-right was virtually absent from the January 6 affray because doxing and lawsuits had successfully neutralized it.
Hawley winds through sections on religious conservatism, national conservatism, the Intellectual Dark Web, and wokeism, culminating in an intellectual humility that is rarely found among academics or journalists: “This book would probably be more successful and controversial if I could offer some kind of plan for conservatives. … Unfortunately, I remain as perplexed as I was at the start of this project.” He grasps the importance of identity for Republican voters, expresses frustration at the emptiness of some of the party’s mantras, yet wonders whether the “noble lie” of colorblind individualistic Americanism may in fact be the least worst option.
I applaud this kind of candor, and the nuanced, empirically-informed analytical frame that Hawley brings to bear on his subject matter. His engaging intellectual and social scientific tour de force helps the reader grasp how the new generation of conservatives and classical liberals is building on the foundations laid by previous generations.
The account focuses on the National Review circle and the post-1950s conservative movement. This is understandable, given its continuing influence on American conservatism. That said, I think the case can be made that the period from the fifties to 2015 may not last. As Hawley notes, most of the National Review clique were Catholic or Jewish, as were the neoconservatives and theocons. This, at a time when, according to the National Election Study, such groups made up only a quarter of the population and 10 percent of 1960 Republican voters. This was a very unusual group, arguably only weakly connected to the traditions of the provincial Protestant majority that supplied the vast bulk of the party’s voters and politicians.
Hawley also neglects virtually the entirety of what I elsewhere term the ”left-conservative” tradition. Prior to the twentieth century, extending into the 1920s, the opposing factions in American politics could better be described as left-conservative versus laissez-faire. Left-conservatism, springing from the post-Civil War agrarian populism of the Grange and Alliance movements and fin-de-siècle Progressivism, could best be described as restrictionist on immigration, anti-urban, and anti-Catholic, “dry” on the alcohol question, interventionist in the economy and society, and supportive of women’s suffrage. Unions like the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor came out squarely in favor of immigration restriction between the late 1880s and 1920s.
A strain of romantic nationalism is also a neglected part of the conservative story, encompassing the Anglo-Saxonism of Founders like Jefferson, nineteenth-century writers such as Emerson, historians like Francis Parkman and Teddy Roosevelt, and artists like those of the Hudson River School. This thread resurfaces with Regionalist (American Scene) art in the 1930s, sponsored by the New Deal and commercially popularized by Time-Life features and Associated American Artists lithographs. The left-modernist avant-garde around Partisan Review consciously attacked the Regionalists as fascists in the late 30s, successfully marginalizing key figures such as Thomas Hart Benton or Frank Lloyd Wright from the New York intellectual elite. Others, like Benton protégé Jackson Pollock, were induced to abandon Regionalism for abstract expressionism. This was a major defeat for this “revolt of the provinces” and its brand of American cultural nationalism.
More recently, a handful of writers—Christopher Lasch, John Judis, Michael Lind, Mickey Kaus, Nathan Glazer—have criticized both capitalism and expressive left-liberalism, defending the nation and calling for reduced immigration. They are the heirs of the Populist-Progressive and Regionalist traditions. To a large extent, the populist backlash against the Republican establishment that produced Buchanan and then Trump came from voters tired of being ignored on immigration and other cultural nationalist concerns while the expressive individualist preferences of urban coastal elites predominated.
The tension between the GOP’s classical liberal elite and its communitarian and tradition-minded base continues. While Trump has reshaped the party, Hawley correctly observes that its policy agenda has remained conventional. Commercial interests and established lobby groups continue to punch above their weight. It may be that Republican voters are only after a cheerleader who can fire up the crowds and provide a communal identity while politicians’ day-to-day business continues to concentrate on tax cuts over cultural conservatism. The identitarian anxieties this book so adeptly highlights may, once again, merely flow towards the partisan reality TV show while power continues to reside with the party’s economic liberals.
Will party politics be sufficient to keep the conservative masses content? Ronald Reagan naively delegated the setting of school history standards to a group of mainly progressive academics who swiftly subverted it. He granted amnesty before seeing any evidence of effective border control. Neither culture nor immigration were priorities in his administration, which focused on a conventional economic and foreign-policy agenda. These problems have metastasized. Large numbers continue to cross the southern border while Critical Race Theory and gender ideology consolidate their grip over schools and institutions, remaking the consciousness of future generations.
The next two years may indicate whether conservatives are genuinely able to alter the direction of American culture and institutions. If they can, it would mark a decisive break from a half-century in which movement conservatism has presided over an accelerating shift to the cultural left.