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The National Conservative Movement: A Dangerous Threat to Liberty
The truth about the rise of authoritarianism on the right.
Authoritarianism isn’t just for folks on the left. It has a home on the right as well, even among many who would call themselves conservatives. Unfortunately, folks who value liberty-focused principles have been mostly fixated on how the left seeks to expand the government and make it more intrusive in our lives.
There is good reason for this. The so-called progressive movement is highly statist and is intent on making the populace as dependent on the state as possible. However, they are not the only political force in America attempting to do so.
Currently, there is an authoritarian movement on the right that has been gradually gaining traction over the past few years. It would not be a surprise if you saw some of its influence on the broader conservative movement, especially when it comes the rise of the anti-establishment populist faction in the Republican Party. You might have noticed some high-profile influencers and politicians publicly supporting the idea that conservatives should be less afraid of using the power of the government to push a right-leaning agenda.
It is called the National Conservative movement, and chances are, many of the popular right-leaning influencers you follow are a part of it. According to its website, this is “a movement of public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.”
The national conservative movement is a relatively new political ideology that has emerged in recent years as a response to what its proponents see as the failures of both traditional conservatism and liberalism. The movement emphasizes the importance of national identity, traditional values, and economic nationalism, and has gained momentum in the United States and other Western countries in the wake of globalization and increasing cultural and political polarization.
This is a distinctly nationalist movement. But it is more than that. Its adherents have embraced an approach to the application of conservative principles that does not jibe with the limited government values that are typically associated with the ideology. Indeed, those who support the movement, especially the influencers who have spoken at its conferences, are more comfortable with using the power of the state to achieve its ends.
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While these individuals are a minority within the conservative movement, their ideas have gained traction among young conservative lawyers and law students. They have had a series of conferences where prominent conservatives have taken the stage to address the crowd. Some of these individuals include Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, Human Events editor-in-chief Will Chamberlain, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), author Sohrab Ahmari, Newsweek’s Josh Hammer, and many more.
One of the movement’s principles is a legal theory called “common-good constitutionalism,” which is a marked departure from the originalist approach championed by conservatives and classical liberals. This concept comes from a legal scholar named Adrian Vermeule.
The common-good constitutionalist theory challenges the principles of the conservative legal movement, arguing that the Constitution empowers the government to pursue conservative political ends, even if they conflict with individual rights. Proponents of the theory advocate for a more radical and assertive approach to achieve conservative goals. They seek a more muscular judiciary and an approach that rejects originalism as currently practiced.
Vermeule wrote a 2020 article for The Atlantic in which he laid out the salient points of the ideology. He covers the evolution and limitations of originalism as a constitutional theory and argues for the adoption of a new approach. Originalism, which holds that the Constitution's meaning was fixed at the time of its enactment, has been embraced by American legal conservatives but, as Vermeule argues, has now become an obstacle to developing a substantive conservative approach to constitutional law. He writes:
But originalism has now outlived its utility, and has become an obstacle to the development of a robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation. Such an approach—one might call it “common-good constitutionalism”—should be based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate.
The author suggests that common-good constitutionalism should be based on the principles of directing government toward the common good and strong rule in the interest of attaining this common good. This approach is seen as necessary in times of crises, such as the global pandemic like COVID-19, to ensure the government has the power to address public health and well-being effectively.
Vermeule also emphatically stresses that “[c]ommon-good constitutionalism is also not legal liberalism or libertarianism” and that its prime objective is “not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power,” but only to “ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.”
The author leaves no ambiguity on his feelings toward the idea of liberty when he insists that “the central aim of the constitutional order is to promote good rule, not to ‘protect liberty’ as an end in itself.”
As if that wasn’t horrific enough, Vermeule contends that his theory views the law as “parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits.”
“Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway,” he writes.
The author even makes the claim that subjects would “come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourages subjects to “form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.”
Vermeule’s ultimate point is that the general structure of the constitutional order and the nature and purposes of government provide ample space for substantive moral readings that promote principles such as peace, justice, abundance, health, and safety. Proponents of the theory say constitutional law should afford broad scope for rulers to promote the common good and should emphasize authority, hierarchy, solidarity, and subsidiarity.
At its core, the national conservative movement seeks to promote a sense of national unity and pride, and to preserve the cultural and social traditions of the country. This often includes an emphasis on traditional values such as family, community, and faith, and a rejection of what is seen as the excessive individualism and moral relativism of modern liberalism. Proponents of the movement argue that a strong sense of national identity is necessary for a healthy and cohesive society, and that preserving traditional values and cultural heritage is essential for maintaining that identity.
The national conservative movement has gained momentum in recent years, particularly in the United States and other Western countries. Proponents of the movement argue that it provides a viable alternative to traditional conservatism and liberalism, which they view as failing to address the needs and concerns of working-class Americans. Critics, however, argue that the movement is rooted in nationalist and protectionist policies that can lead to isolationism and division.
During my time traveling in Republican circles, I have noticed that folks calling themselves conservatives are becoming more amenable to the idea that they should be willing to wield the government as a weapon to dictate people’s behavior. In his book “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds,” Michael Knowles argued that conservatives must "not only articulate a moral and political vision," but also “suppress ideologies and organizations that would subvert that vision."
When he gave a speech at Turning Point USA’s “AmericaFest” in 2022, he advocated for imposing blasphemy laws. He said:
“Even until about a decade ago, many states in our country had laws against blasphemy. Some states, in fact, still have those laws and we were better off for it, as far as I'm concerned. John Locke, the father of liberalism, in his letter concerning toleration, declared that free speech did not, for instance, cover atheists who, Locke argued, had no right even to be included in society. A little harsh from the father of liberalism, but that's what he said.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see where such ideas would lead, does it? We have already seen this in action when Gov. DeSantis used the government to strip Walt Disney Corporation of its tax status for criticizing the Parental Rights in Education Act, which he was championing at the time. Before this feud, he had never spoken of taking such an action against the company, which provided funding for his past political campaigns.
DeSantis’ actions were met with a digital standing ovation on the airwaves and interwebs. Conservatives relished the idea that one of its politicians would use the government to punish a private company for engaging in speech.
Others, like myself, did not have a problem with Disney losing its status as it should not enjoy privileges that other companies do not. However, the fact that it was clearly meant to discourage Disney and other corporations from criticizing the governor’s favored legislation was disturbing. It wasn’t what DeSantis did that was the issue. It was why he did it.
I predict that this movement will continue to grow on the right. As conservatives become more and more frustrated with the authoritarian left looking for new and innovative ways to make the government stronger and more intrusive, many will become more willing to use the state as a weapon as well. However, the danger of this is that it will only lead to a federal government that is even more bloated and corrupt. This is yet another reason why focusing on spreading liberty is so important at this moment.
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