DAILY SIGNAL: Is National Conservatism the Future of the Movement?

Conservatism has existed as a philosophy since the founding of the republic. As the country has evolved and grown, so too has the political ideology that has guided America through its toughest trials.

Conservatism again stands at a possible point of evolution. Much has been said about national conservatism, both for and against.

Nate Hochman, a staff writer at National Review, says that national conservatism is both the future of the movement—and its past.

“You can point to any number of issues, whether it’s a more, sort of, assertive social conservatism, immigration restriction, a sort of rethinking of conservatism’s relationship to big business, a kind of ‘two cheers for capitalism’ approach to free markets,” he says. “All of those things have been aspects of conservatism since the modern American conservative movement was founded.”

Hochman joins the show to discuss what national conservatism is, and why he feels it represents the future of the movement.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: My guest today is Nate Hochman, a staff writer at National Review. Nate, welcome to the show.

Nate Hochman: Doug, thanks for having me.

Blair: Of course, always a pleasure to have a fellow Portlander on the show, by the way. So we are here right now at the National Conservatism Conference to hear from the brightest minds in the national conservative movement. I think for a lot of our listeners who maybe aren’t aware of what that actually means, how do you define national conservatism?

Hochman: Yeah, I mean, that is the million-dollar question.

I think one of the things that Peter Thiel was talking about at the first speech of the conference is that there’s an enormous amount of ideological diversity at a conference like this. But I think, essentially, what national conservatism is about is something approximating the kind of policies that Donald Trump ran on in 2016. So immigration restriction, trade hawkishness on China, a more aggressive stance on the culture war. There’s a sort of suite of different policy issues and that’s expanded over time.

But to me, I think national conservatism is very much within the broader American conservative tradition. It’s mostly just about a reformulation of traditional conservative principles to confront the contemporary issues today, whether those are cultural issues, immigration, a rising China, etc.

Blair: You say it fits into the sort of traditional values of conservatism. Is this something that’s not really new, it’s just sort of a reformulation of old values or is this something that’s developed and is different now?

Hochman: No, I think everything that’s being discussed at this conference is squarely within the American conservative tradition. You can point to any number of issues, whether it’s a more sort of assertive social conservatism, immigration restriction, a sort of rethinking of conservatism’s relationship to big business, a kind of “two cheers for capitalism” approach to free markets—all of those things have been aspects of conservatism since the modern American conservative movement was founded.

It’s just that over the course of the last couple of decades, the argument from a lot of the people at the conference here is that conservatives have sort of become complacent and haven’t really developed new policies to confront new problems. And that’s what I see the project of this conference as being all about.

Blair: You mentioned Donald Trump, obviously, as one of the sort of standard bearers maybe of this movement, that a lot of his policies that he ran on are the national conservative policies. Do we see that there are other candidates in the field who are adopting these policies or do we see some pushback to some of them?

Hochman: Oh, well, there’s both. And there’s nothing more quintessentially conservative than fierce disagreements about what conservatism means. So that’s not new either, but [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis spoke last night. He’s obviously someone that I think a lot of people at the conference are big fans of—[Sen.] Josh Hawley, Blake Masters, Peter Thiel obviously is a major figure.

So there’s a lot of conservatives, both actual elected Republicans and Republican candidates, but also conservative intellectuals and standard bearers who are interested in at least aspects of the program. But there are also a lot of Republicans and conservatives who have real concerns. And I think that debate is at least partially what a conference like this is all about.

Blair: What are some of the threats that the national conservative movement sees as some of the biggest ones facing the country right now?

Hochman: Well, to my mind, at least, and I don’t want to speak for all national conservatives, what a lot of this is about is understanding that those primary fundamental challenges to America today are cultural. And they often flow from concentrated private power that the Left exercises, whether it’s through major corporations, foundations, civic activist groups, etc., which are really presenting an existential challenge to the American way of life.

And something like the Paul Ryan-era tax cuts deregulation as the primary goal of Republican party politics just isn’t going to actually be capable of confronting those challenges.

So someone like DeSantis is a model, where you’re actually willing to use public policy to put the culture war and all of those attendant issues at the forefront of your policy agenda and being willing to rethink our relationship to institutions like Big Business, which oftentimes have been captured by activists on the left, and proceed from there accordingly.

Blair: Does national conservatism have any equivalence maybe across the globe? We’ve seen that other countries, specifically in Europe, like Britain and Italy, have moved in a more rightward direction. Do those movements have any similarities to national conservatism here in the U.S.?

Hochman: Absolutely. Look, again, national conservatism, the best understanding of the project is a rethinking of traditional conservative principles to confront new issues. Those issues are often, although there’s sort of variations across geography, they’re consistent across all of the West.

So the Left and the way that it exercises power in its agenda in the United States has a lot of parallels with the Left in the United Kingdom, in France, Germany, Canada, etc. So as a result, I think right-wing parties in all of those places are having very similar conversations, at least in some spheres, to American conservatives here.

And there’s a National Conservatism Conference in Europe as well, because I think there’s an attempt to take the intellectual resources from conservative parties and thinkers across Europe, not just the Anglosphere, but France and Germany and Belgium as well, and to share those conversations and how different conservative parties are thinking about that.

Blair: Sure. Well, we’ve had you on the show before to talk about the Canadian trucker protests, the freedom rallies, and I guess my question is, that sort of protesting, is that style of standing up to authoritative government, is that a strain of national conservatism or is that more of a populist strain of conservatism?

Hochman: Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive all the time. Obviously, it’s tough too when you have something as unruly as mass outpouring at protests, it’s not always easy to assign a coherent ideological framework to what’s going on.

So when I was on the ground in Canada, I talked to people, vastly different ideological substrates. There were Christian groups, there were populist-minded truckers who were probably the Canadian equivalent of the Trump base here, there were people who just didn’t like vaccine mask mandates and wanted to go back to normal life.

So … all of those people had a shared goal. And I think national conservatives and right wingers in general would do well to harness movements that spontaneously arise like that and share our goals.

But mass political movements aren’t always intellectually coherent. So national conservatives and conservatives in general should be looking at grassroots energy and trying to direct it toward the ends that they want, but that kind of populist uprising isn’t always exactly easy to pinpoint in terms of their subscription to national conservative principles.

Blair: Sure. Well, on that note, it actually makes me think about how that coalition formed. Power seems to derive when you can form a coalition to keep it. Are we seeing that national conservatism is drawing in partners that maybe haven’t been part of the conservative coalition before?

Hochman: Well, I think on the political electoral level, that’s clearly true. So if you talk about something like the Hispanic realignment in places like South Texas and Florida where we are, clearly, a lot of non-white, non-college-educated voters are moving into the conservative coalition. And I think that a lot of that has to do with the cultural issues that we’re talking about.

So insofar as national conservatism counsels an effort to put these cultural issues at the front and center of the conservative understanding, you are going to win a lot of folks who might have tended toward the Democratic Party in a different era and national conservatism is also counseling a move away from sort of fundamentalist free market libertarianism, which is also where you’re going to get a lot more working-class voters who might have been put off by Republican Party that ran primarily on cutting Social Security or something like that.

So all of those things are bringing these sort of socially conservative, economically moderate working-class voters into the Republican Party. And that to me seems like the clear future of the Republican coalition and of conservatism at large.

Blair: So we are seeing that those gains stick? I know a lot of people following the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and then watching his vote share in 2020 were unsure of whether or not that was going to stick, if the party was going to be able to keep those gains. Are we seeing that that’s happening?

Hochman: Well, hopefully, of course, we’ll see in 2022 whether they return, but from 2016 to 2020, you saw massive shifts in places like the Rio Grande Valley, sometimes to the tune of 50 points from 2016 to 2020 in these sort of 90-plus percent Hispanic areas.

So that realignment, it’ll be interesting to see how it looks in 2022 and 2024, but as it stands today, it certainly looks like that’s where the trending is moving and public opinion polling, while often not entirely reliable, has also showed that realignment continuing to happen since 2020.

Blair: One of the things that I find very interesting about the conversation about national conservatism, at least with some of the people that I’ve spoken to, is the role of religion. Specifically many national conservatives I’ve spoken with view the church, and in certain contexts, the traditional Catholicism, as essential to the national conservative movement. Is that something that you find accurate or is that maybe a misunderstanding of how the movement works?

Hochman: It’s obviously incredibly important, right? Again, if you’re looking at a sort of conservatism that is primarily focused on social issues, or at least organized around social and cultural issues, you can’t have that conversation without discussing religion.

Religion plays a fundamental role in our cultural debates and will continue to. So you don’t have to be, I think, devoutly religious to be a national conservative, but you do have to affirm to a certain extent the importance of religion in civil society. And you can hear that if you listen to any number of panelists at this conference.

Blair: Sure. One of those panelists we’ve spoken to is Yoram Hazony, who has a view on religion as being essential. You cannot untie those two principles, otherwise, it’s not conservatism. One of the questions I always have for people who do believe that is, where does that extent go in terms of foreign religions? Does that apply to Hinduism? Does that apply to Buddhism? Does that apply to Shintoism, for example?

Hochman: Well, it’s a good question. I don’t know exactly how something like Buddhism plays in the American political context, just because I don’t know. I don’t think the Buddhist voting block is significant. There is some really funny polling about the fact that something like 20% of Buddhists in America are Republicans. I would love to meet the Buddhist Republican voter. I haven’t met any here necessarily.

But obviously, the preeminent religion in the United States traditionally has been Christianity. You also have a lot of devout Jews at conferences like this. So the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the sort of political and philosophical tradition that flowed from it are the foundation of the West and of the United States.

And insofar as national conservatives are trying to preserve and defend our cultural heritage, that’s fundamentally what they’re defending, but that doesn’t mean that other religions which share our political goals, and I certainly think that there are plenty of people who belong to other religions that do, aren’t welcome in national conservatism and don’t have something to contribute.

Blair: Sure. Let’s speak about the response to national conservatism from possibly our enemies on the left. How does the Left perceive this movement and how have they moved to counter it?

Hochman: Well, it depends exactly what sort of leftist you’re talking about, but there’s been an enormous amount of somewhat hysterical coverage of national conservatism as basically sort of latent fascism, semi-fascism, to use the president’s turn of phrase.

Obviously, I don’t think that’s true. I’m not a fascist, I’m a national conservative, but I think the Left correctly perceives that the ideas on offer here and the kind of Republican policy agenda that’s being formulated here is a bigger threat to their cultural hegemony because it’s actually focused on targeting their cultural hegemony is one of the primary goals.

That is understandably concerning to them. I think they should be concerned. It doesn’t mean that anything being discussed here is illegitimate. I think the policy priorities are the correct ones, but it is a much more threatening kind of conservatism to left-wing hegemony than the one that primarily counsels tax cuts and occupational licensing.

Blair: Do we see any particular arenas of the culture where the conservative movement, at least in the national conservative space, is winning, where we’re starting to see shifts from that overarching power of the Left, maybe moving either toward the middle or toward the right?

Hochman: Oh, certainly. I think one of the biggest political and cultural stories of the last two years is the parent-led grassroots uprising at school boards over critical race theory and also gender ideology. Subsequently, the slate of anti-critical race theory laws that were passed in most red state legislatures at this point and laws restricting transgender athletes in women’s sports and obviously Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization], which is the culmination of basically what social conservatism as a political movement was founded on.

So I think a lot of what national conservatives have been talking about for the last few years, since the conference began in 2019, have begun to turn into material policy wins. And the momentum to me is a vindication of the argument for national conservatism. If we actually focus on these cultural issues, we can win, but we can use public policy to advance conservative ends and we should continue to do so because it’s crucially important.

Blair: Sure. One of the maxims I tend to live by is the Breitbart maxim, which is, politics is downstream of culture. And I almost see some of these discussions that we’re having right now, specifically surrounding Dobbs, as we won this victory at the Supreme Court. However, it is entirely possible that the federal government will then pass a law that allows for abortion across the states. With that being said, how do conservatives counter that sort of prevailing cultural narrative while still attaining victories at something like the Supreme Court?

Hochman: Well, I think part of it is understanding that I actually am not convinced that, strictly speaking, politics is downstream of culture. Obviously, sometimes it is, it would be naïve to say that politics exist in a vacuum and isn’t affected by culture. But culture is also downstream of politics sometimes.

If you look at any number of major Supreme Court cases, Roe v. Wade, for example, it’s impossible to deny that Roe v. Wade had a profound effect on American culture. Same thing with major laws that were passed, every major policy decision. The Iraq War had a profound effect on American culture. American culture would not be the same if it weren’t for something like the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

So public policy and American culture do not exist in mutually exclusive spheres from one another. They’re constantly in conversation with one another. And that doesn’t mean that you can completely engineer culture through sort of central planning and via top-down government or something. But it does mean that you have to think of public policy as intertwined with culture.

I mean, it comes to something like education, I think Ron DeSantis has been a really good model of understanding that and not just focusing on banning poisonous ideologies like critical race theory, but also really focusing on a positive vision of renewed civics education, where we’re actually teaching about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Again, we’re teaching that America’s a good country and explaining to students why all of that stuff is public policy.

That has a profound effect on the cultural understanding of the next generation. And that’s what conservatives need to be focusing on.

Blair: Absolutely. As a final note, who are some of the people that our listeners might be able to look into or who might be able to research and say, “OK, I have a good understanding of what national conservatives believe and what their plan of action is”?

Hochman: Well, … obviously the speaker roster for National Conservatism is a good place to start. So on the political level you’ve got people like Ron DeSantis who’s a leader, you have candidates like Blake Masters and J.D. Vance. You have elected Republicans like Josh Hawley and then in the House, you’ve got folks like Jim Banks. Those are all people who have really been tuned into a lot of national conservative priorities. In terms of the intellectual sphere, it’s impossible to compile a comprehensive list. I won’t bore your listeners.

But my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review is someone who’s worth listening to. Obviously, all the folks at the Claremont Institute have been really involved in this. Yoram Hazony, who’s the organizer. I would suggest that all of these people are worth listening to.

But if you want to see the actual policy agenda in action, there’s a number of Republicans and I think there will be even more after 2022 who are at least national conservative-friendly.

Blair: I guess just as a quick aside, are we seeing any Democrats who are maybe moving more toward that movement or has the Democratic Party been entirely taken over by the Left?

Hochman: Well, I don’t see any Democrats who I think national conservatives would identify as their friends for the most part.

There are Democrats who will work with Republicans on some priorities that national conservatives like. So something like family policy is an area where national conservatives are interested in something like a child tax credit. That’s something that you can get a lot of progressives on board with. But the cultural agenda, I think Democrats are pretty much uniformly opposed to what national conservatives believe in.

Blair: That was Nate Hochman, a staff writer with National Review. Nate, always appreciate you coming on.

Hochman: Thanks, Doug.

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