Berny Belvedere

A presentation at the first annual “National Conservatism” conference created a firestorm. Let’s take a closer look.

Yoram Hazony knows that nationalism’s global aspirations, irony aside, cannot be realized apart from a vibrant intellectual culture to draw from. So when his newly-formed Edmund Burke Foundation gathered leading nationalist and nationalist-adjacent minds at the first annual National Conservatism Conference on July 14–16 in Washington, DC, the obvious question to pose to Hazony and the other organizers was: Why did it take this long?

The problem with populism is it does not spring from ideas but from yearnings. The causal order of ideological movements usually goes: ideas first, then the movement; the populist flips that on its head by riding into office on a wave of raw emotive power, and then, sometime later, maybe never, backfilling an intellectual program into place in a post hoc stupor of newfound civic obligation.

But we didn’t need to be in year three of Trump’s reign to realize we are living through the most unyieldingly anti-intellectual presidency to ever hit this country—we didn’t need to be in year one, or even day one. Donald Trump is not a man who reads, or inquires, or learns. The U.S. presidency is not an academic post, that’s fine, but this level of incuriosity required, from sympathetic voices who know better, a prompter response. Why have our high-minded nationalists waited so long to give us some intellectual footing?

An easy answer is that they haven’t. The pivot-to-MAGA undertaken by organizations like the Claremont Institute and publications like First Things, the launch of the journal American Affairs, the publication of Hazony’s own agenda-setting The Virtue of Nationalism—these all happened within two years of Trump’s 2016 November surprise. But that’s precisely the point: in true personality-driven populist form, the presidency was secured first, and only then came the ideas.

For Hazony and others, this is fine. They would be perfectly happy to take the crude beginnings of Trump’s success and build a movement that can go well beyond the banality of our Fox & Friends era. It’s the hope of nationalist intellectuals everywhere that their movement outlasts the self-destructive fury, the mind-numbing vulgarity, of Trump’s presidency. Hazony himself admits he’s looking past Trump—he’s looking to set nationalism on a right path not just for 2020 but for 2024, 2032, 2056, and beyond. He wants “stability,” as he himself put it:

The job of people whose business is ideas [is to be] responsive to the needs of the moment and…draw on responsible traditions that we hope will be able to satisfy these impulses in a way that will end up being stable and decent.

But what happens when the “needs of the moment” far exceed a movement’s capacity to meet them? What happens when an era’s “impulses” are so crude that none of our “responsible traditions” can hope to purify them?

Hazony’s conference offered a variety of voices: from Tucker Carlson to Peter Thiel to John Bolton. But it was a presentation from Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, that grabbed many of the headlines.

Wax argued that, moving forward, America will be “better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.” Knowing that explicitly building race into immigration policy is an obvious non-starter, we’re given a proxy concept, “cultural affinity,” as an operational stand-in. The problem is, even at one remove from race, the vision is still entirely built around racial considerations.

In a series of tweets, Bo Winegard, a professor at Marietta College and Arc contributor, tried to make the case that even if we end up discarding Wax’s arguments we should at least debate them.

She prefers an immigration system that favors cultural affinity. Why is that bad? Is that something we can’t even debate anymore? Instead of chastising her violation of apparent sacred values, why not debate her position one way or the other?

I wish people would just debate the substance of her arguments. I certainly care about cultural cohesion and affinity. I’m not sure when that became an unthinkable thought.

[Even if race and cultural affinity are indeed correlated], should we not care about cultural affinity because it favors white people?

To answer Winegard’s final question: Yes, we should not.

To do so would be to privilege white identity within the American fabric. If we took a correlate of white identity (cultural affinity) and intentionally built that into our national self-conception, to the point where we’re judging immigrant-fitness on the basis of that proxy concept, it would mean privileging whiteness in a way that is inimical to our social contract.

I’m using “social contract” to refer to those identity-defining elements—principles, ideals, institutions—that if the U.S. were to lose it would become an entirely different nation. But let’s back up a second here—we were America even when we had slavery on the books, were we not? We were, but there is a temporal dimension to the contract that is worth appreciating: we could not bring back slavery and retain our identity. Or, to use another example: historically, America has been rapaciously undemocratic — but we could not today ditch democracy and remain the United States of America. Today, when deciding on policy, a process that amounts to a kind of ongoing collective negotiation of who we are and will continue to be, we cannot build into that a privileging of white identity.

When we do that, our most critical, America-defining institutions take on a racial or ethnic character; but, for America to go on being America, these ideals must remain untethered to racial identity layers. Benjamin Franklin hated German immigrants on account of their unwillingness to assimilate to the degree that other groups would. But America wasn’t Franklin’s to define. We see that more clearly now.

So, when Winegard asks:

What if we created a super algorithm that could predict with 99 percent accuracy who the best immigrants would be. It didn’t use race as an input. But, when we ran it, 80 percent of the people it preferred were European. Would that be bad?

…the answer is yes, because an algorithm of this sort would need to be engineered according to specific values, according to criteria that specify what constitutes the “best” immigrant. But if those values, or those criteria, are racial or ethnic in nature, then you are wrapping American identity around a particular racial or ethnic understanding. For us to do that now would be ruinous to our institutions, and fundamentally anti-American.

I am an Argentine-American; my wife is a Cuban-American. Think about what it would mean to us and to others like us (Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc.) for the United States to engineer its policies to reflect its official valuation that Western Europeans make the best Americans. I would be reassured that I’m still looked upon as equal to the races and ethnicities being privileged, but I would know better.

Winegard asks:

Would it be bad that…an algorithm designed to predict the best basketball player would likely favor blacks over whites?

It wouldn’t be bad, but that’s because the NBA and the United States are importantly disanalogous. The NBA is a competitive market, with agreed-upon success conditions (team success generates higher revenue), whereas the U.S. is a liberal society, which in addition to success conditions (economic growth, international educational rank, etc.) has institutional constraints to abide by and philosophical ideals to strive for.

Let me give an example. Even if doing so is not “efficient,” we should strive to provide members of different races equal access to police security. If it takes a white person, on average, 7 minutes to receive a police response to an emergency call, but for blacks it’s 30 minutes, then we need to address this inequity even if doing so should turn out to negatively affect an area’s economic performance. Or here’s another example: Even if someone’s immigrant grandmother or aunt is not going to disrupt an industry with a breakthrough app, it is good that she is able to come. Because we care about familial bonds independent of that value’s capacity to aid us in our quest for ever-increasing productivity. These constraints and ideals are important to a nation in a way that they are not to a professional basketball team.

You can build an algorithm engineered around the value of basketball skill and it will overwhelmingly select for black athletes. That’s not controversial because the only thing you want this algorithm to give you is the best basketball performers. The algorithm is tied to the nature of the institution.

But building an algorithm centered on the value of “cultural affinity,” which, again, Wax offered as a conceptual proxy for white identity, is controversial, and rightly so, because it would unjustifiably privilege white identity — a move incompatible with the liberal institutional design of the United States moving forward.

The job of an NBA team is to win games. This is what brings in money. The “job” of a nation is significantly more complex. It must balance its pursuit of domestic and international outcomes with the political-philosophical value constraints that define what it is and what it strives to be.

But where does this leave nationalism? I have been characterizing America’s liberal institutional design in a way that may seem incompatible with a robust nationalism.

But that’s not necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only really engaged with one particular proposal: Wax’s vision for an American nationalism oriented around its valuation that Western European whites make the best immigrants from the perspective of American interests. But of course there are many other nationalisms. And then there is the question of what nationalism per se requires.

Recently, two liberal columnists—Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and The New York Times’ David Leonhardt—each gave their understanding of nationalism, and it’s worth exploring a key difference between them.

In a piece that is otherwise solid, Beauchamp manages to mischaracterize nationalism in a worrisome way. He repeatedly makes the point that a high-minded nationalism always mutates, when it gets activated at the political level, into rank racism and ethnohierarchism—for example, the sort of views Trump displayed in his recent tweets targeting the four progressive congresswomen. Beauchamp writes:

The airy theory of conservative nationalist intellectuals, when applied to real-world politics, always ends up looking like Trump’s assault on “the Squad.”

But Beauchamp’s done nothing to establish that nationalism is intrinsically racist — certainly not in the way Trump’s tweets were. We can imagine a nationalism that doesn’t, when devolved into the political sphere, produce anything like Trump’s tweets against the congresswomen.

Here’s the version of Beauchamp’s argument that is correct: every political philosophy, existing in the rarefied air of intellectual contemplation, gets vulgarized the moment it’s adopted by politicians just out to win elections. They will inevitably use the ideas carelessly. They will inevitably take crucial nuances and smother them in slop.

But here’s the thing about Beauchamp’s critique: You can’t backfit a criticism, working in reverse from application (Trump’s tweets) to theory (nationalism), unless you can give a case for why the application will always be flawed, always turn out the way you say it will. Otherwise it may be that what we have here is a flawed implementation of nationalism, not a defect within nationalism itself. Beauchamp must explain what it is about nationalism per se that makes it inevitably and necessarily degenerate into Trump-style ethnoboorishness. There’s nothing about nationalism’s inner conceptual shape that requires its endgame be someone like Trump.

Later in the piece, Beauchamp tries to provide an argument for why nationalism per se is problematic. But it’s not much of one. He says:

An inclusive “national conservatism” in the United States, or perhaps any other Western country, is an oxymoron. The conservative sacralization of Western culture and Christian heritage inevitably results in the denigration and exclusion of those who do not share it.

So Beauchamp says “conservative sacralization” of Western culture and Christian heritage will inexorably produce bad views. But you don’t need Humean doubts about induction to see that future versions of nationalism don’t need to be like whatever historical episodes he has in mind.

Maybe the reason it’s appearing in this form is because we have, at this time, (a) lots of voters willing to electorally support white identitarianism, and (b) a politician willing to reflect their values back onto them. But why think these elements must be present each and every time nationalism is?

That’s why I preferred the framing offered by David Leonhardt in his recent newsletter entry for The New York Times. Leonhardt asserts that immigration-restrictionism — the central plank of any robust nationalist regime — isn’t necessarily racist or xenophobic. He writes:

Immigration restrictions are not inherently racist. Nor is border security. All countries have borders and restrictions. They have to, because they have to make decisions about who can enter their country and who can be a citizen. Nations can’t function without such basic laws.

But the fact remains that the pro-restriction side in American politics has historically revolved around racism and still does today. That’s important to acknowledge for anyone who wants to make a case — a non-racist case — for less immigration.

Leonhardt says the current hardline position on the right certainly is, and that prior historical manifestations of it in the U.S. have also been, but nationalism per se, with its borders and immigration controls — features that are necessarily exclusionary — need not be racist or xenophobic.

Beauchamp’s take is that it is impossible for nationalism to ward off being deployed, by the major parties and movements deploying it, in a xenophobic direction. Leonhardt’s take is that nationalism’s central focus — immigration-restrictionism — can withstand being utilized this way, but we must admit that in the past and even now this is exactly how it’s been used.

If Trump and Wax get to define nationalism, then we’re in trouble. Perhaps Hazony can do a better job next year to give us a nationalism harmonizable with the American idea.

Berny Belvedere is editor in chief of Arc Digital. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, National Review, The Independent, and more. Follow him on Twitter @bernybelvedere.

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