The Ambivalent Politics of National Conservatism

Yoram Hazony is perhaps the most enterprising intellectual today, and, surprisingly, he is a conservative whose importance rests on his mission to restore the legitimacy of the national state in Europe and America. Last summer, he organized the first National Conservatism Conference in Washington, DC and there will be another one there this summer. This week, Hazony held one in Europe as well, in Rome, February 3-4, which was attended by important intellectuals like Rod Dreher, Ryszard Legutko, Douglas Murray, and Hazony himself, and politicians from various countries, above all, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

But Europe is not America and politics is not the same as what intellectuals do, so the surprising variety of speakers, by country, party, and political viewpoint, is as pleasing to see as it is thought-provoking, since it’s not obvious what they all have in common. The conference participants were all for Brexit, the celebrated event which gave confidence to all Europeans who want Brussels humbled. All were, as well, united in admiration of the late Sir Roger Scruton, whose name came up several times, to well-merited applause. And they are mostly for Trump, since his election showed that political change in the direction of nationalism is thinkable—if not practically plausible—in all democracies nowadays.

Beyond that, disagreements abounded but were just barely visible on the surface. There were about 100 guests in attendance, 30 press representatives—most, I’d guess, themselves active in conservative politics—and 20 speakers and panelists. The consensus view at the conference was that national conservatism, not the EU, is the legitimate heir of the Cold War victory achieved by Reagan and Pope John Paul II. The intellectuals wanted to draw lessons, if not predictions of the EU’s coming collapse from populist political movements, whereas the politicians themselves resisted the tendency, and pointed instead to the need for the EU, which remains too powerful to challenge. It seems, therefore, that even consensus on whether the EU is legitimate was lacking, which makes the practical politics of national conservatism hard to understand. It might already offer a theoretical alternative, or it might just be a correction to EU overreach.

The Man of the Hour

It’s best to start with the most important man, and the only event at the conference which elicited intense attention, Viktor Orbán’s interview with Christopher DeMuth. Orbán outlined the position of Hungary and modestly suggested what the EU looks like from that vantage point. He told the audience that small countries like his need the support of large countries and therefore of the EU, so it’s unlikely that there will be more exiting from the union. Moreover, larger EU countries need to stand up to Brussels, however fervently Western intellectuals might look eastward to Hungary instead for leadership. Finally, he argued that a Europe of stronger nations is desirable. Orbán suggested that if there is any lesson to be learned from the populist movements in Europe, it’s the need for good government. This is especially true in countries without a strong institutional state to rule when governments cannot be formed after elections. He said countries with a strong historical state have institutions already built that people use and rely on which are absent in many countries in the East. Government cannot be had without stronger nations, as recent failures of electoral systems to even lead to stable governments suggest.

Compared with the speech of Mr. Hazony, about the biblical justification of nations and the importance of honor and loyalty to our lives, despite liberalism’s attempt to reduce all politics to consent, Orbán was very limited in ambition. However, his very presence suggested he wants such conferences to become influential in order to make elite and EU attacks on populism less dangerous to smaller nations. From this political point of view, intellectuals are supposed to fulfill a negative, defensive role: To protect reasonable politics from the attacks of elite institutions, especially in Brussels, but it’s not obvious whether intellectuals who want to discredit the EU as such and transform Europe could retain the necessary enthusiasm and urgency playing for what might seem like low stakes. They certainly don’t seem to have a future in government, where, Orbán stressed, the economy comes first.

This leaves intellectuals with one possible role in the new politics of national conservatism: Orbán suggested that national identity is now in crisis in many countries, and the question about who we are requires answering. This would seem to call for arts rather than arguments, poets rather than intellectuals—but even so, it’s reasonable to fight with the army you have. This was the most sober speech of the day, both subtle and direct when necessary, and in keeping with a man whose political success is unique in Europe.

Intellectual Enthusiasms and Rhetorical Success

Every other speech was to some degree enthusiastic, perhaps because of the recent victories of populist movements, the defeats incurred by the Left and liberal institutional elites. All of them share the hope that great changes are now possible. Precious little was said about how the next steps might be taken, however. Most speeches followed the polemic bent of intellectuals, criticizing the many mistakes and sins of liberal elites still in power. These speakers presented a view of national identity understood negatively. Every moment of anger hinted at some unstated piety—and we may justly ask what faith, if any, unites them.

This tension between political prudence and intellectual enthusiasm is not itself surprising, of course, but it makes it difficult to say what the consequences of the conference will be. Intellectuals are now activists, that’s one conclusion—they’re taking stands for politicians and parties, committing to relationships and partnerships that will become far more influential than the small numbers of intellectuals involved might indicate. This is the beginning of something we cannot describe adequately, for lack of a way of thinking about the Europe of Nations.

A second very well received speech was Douglas Murray’s, who is neither a conservative nor much of a nationalist. He’s famously for Brexit and even more well-known for his stand against bureaucratic-institutional tyranny over soul and speech, so he was received with admiration that suggested politics is less glamorous than culture in our times. For his part, he offered two cheers for national conservatism, and reminded the audience of an uncomfortable fact: Trump supporters seem all to be for Brexit, but Brexit supporters do not return that warm affection. There may be far less love between populists and conservatives than some now hope.

Murray’s was also the only speech one could call properly oratorical, created with the care of an author for his favorite actor, with deep moral concern for the passions and the trust of the audience. One needn’t have agreed with anything he said in order to admire it. Its uniqueness needs stating, because if that sort of speech will be necessary in future to such organizations and movements as populists now contemplate, intellectuals will have to take a back seat to artists.

We can say two important things, meanwhile, about what national conservatism fears and what it cannot become. First, the primary fear animating conservatives on the Continent is the slow-building but seemingly inexorable population collapse of Europe, coupled with the already obvious population explosion of Muslims and sub-Saharan Africans. This was until recently an unmentionable problem in Europe. Even if America faces no exact parallel to this threat, Trump has shown eloquently that many Americans themselves become indignant faced with immigrant caravans. In Europe, the problem could become much more serious. After all, France and Germany already face significant difficulty in governing—and even policing—segments of their immigrant population. This situation could grow worse, since it’s not obvious that elites in the EU are willing to defend the rule of law and take citizenship at the various national levels seriously.

Yet, for a conference concerned with the future of European politics, this issue of youth—of giving birth to the next generation, of creating families—was hardly mentioned. It’s not an intellectual argument or a big cultural issue, nor is it obviously the responsibility of academics and activists. But it should be of paramount importance to national conservatives, for whom historical continuity plays the part ideology does for the Left. History wasn’t much mentioned either, a necessary sacrifice once one crosses national borders. These things, if you allow me to prophesy, will come back to haunt us, if we ignore them. A political science or art capable of addressing the natural or pre-political requirements of politics is necessary, but obviously missing at the moment. To speak bluntly about an embarrassed silence: Birth rates are the most obvious signal of a national will to continue in existence, or the absence of that desire.

Immigration is not by chance the core conflict between all populists and the EU, however accidental Merkel’s 2015 immigrant crisis might seem. Liberalism abstracts from the difference between citizen and alien, familiar and stranger, but conservatism cannot do that. So, if necessity forces politics to deal with demographic change on the order of invasion, it could put an end to liberalism. We will see in the next generation.

A National Conservatism for the Young?

Finally, the most beautiful speech of the day was given by the most beautiful speaker, the young and lovely Marion Maréchal, the queen in waiting of the French right, and a visionary who came to offer the prospect of a Latin empire to national conservatives. She suggested an impossible, but alluring alliance between the Latin South of the EU and the Slav East against the German North. Everyone listened and was charmed, people took photos, the press followed her around for interviews, but in all seriousness, no one can unite the Latin countries she said total 167 million citizens—that is double Germany’s population—precisely because they are different nations and she is not Napoleon in heels.

Now, the beauty of her speech highlights two different matters: firstly, that she alone spoke for the young and to their ecological concerns, and secondly that what she calls a new humanism—Christianity in disguise—itself challenges national concerns with a higher concern. This struggle, she said, against trans-humanism, eugenics, attacks on male-female biology and legal standing must unite all conservatives. She insisted more than anyone else on the unfolding demographic crisis and offered the only concrete, if wildly implausible answer, which I dubbed Latin empire. National politics could solve border problems through diplomacy, but will not offer a future of rebirth in her terms. Maréchal articulated a spiritual vision uniting anthropology and ecology, one that seems closer to religion than politics

There is much more to say about a long conference with many speakers, but this was the consensus at the event about what was most attractive and persuasive, and I have stated the real conflicts facing such a movement, as embodied in the speakers themselves. Whether the EU is fatal or needful to the Europe of Nations is unclear. Whether Western intellectuals need Eastern politicians to stir trouble in the EU, or the other way around, is therefore also unclear. Finally, it’s unclear what the character of the hoped for rebirth is, and whether its agent would be political, cultural, religious, or something else entirely. Politicians are likely to be canny, but in need of intellectuals given to enthusiasm to defend nationalism publicly against elite attacks. Further, nationalism itself encloses a secret hope of rebirth which would, properly thought through, go beyond politics. This makes the conference fertile in ideas, precisely because these disagreements are likely to lead to many different enterprises. All the ideas of national conservatism guiding them may soon become respectable, but I do not know whether they will be successful in transforming politics.