National conservatism is the fulfillment of David Brooks’ 1997 call to restoration, though the writer now finds it terrifying.
Even a month after its conclusion, the second National Conservatism Conference continues to fuel debate and much gnashing of teeth.
The criticism from the left was predictable and rote. What’s been more surprising has been the vehemence of the criticism from the center. These observers fear an illiberal wind is blowing. And they’re absolutely right. But the prevailing wind is blowing from the left. In attacking national conservatism they are blaming the weatherman.
While far from alone, David Brooks best exemplifies this complaint. In his November 18 Atlantic article, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right,” and in a November 30 appearance on Morning Joe, Brooks gave full vent to his fears.
Brooks focused on a speech by CPI Policy Director Rachel Bovard as representative of the general terror unleashed in Orlando. Among other scary incantations, Bovard noted that “Woke elites—increasingly the mainstream left of this country—do not want what we want. What they want is to destroy us.”
This is a statement of fact. It is neither remarkable nor provocative. Honest liberals are sounding the alarm over the very same developments. The only thing terrifying here is that someone as smart as David Brooks refuses to acknowledge it.
Like Brooks, I remember better, less partisan days. I too long for a time when, in Brooks’ words, “liberals and conservatives both want what’s best for America, disagreeing only on how to get there.” But conservatives aren’t the ones who cancelled this world. We lack both the inclination and the means to do so.
Far from demonizing the other side, the National Conservatism Conference invited prominent liberals to share the spotlight. An evening plenary, for example, featured a respectful and thoughtful dialogue between an Orthodox Jew (Yoram Hazony), an orthodox Catholic (Sohrab Ahmari) and two openly gay liberals (Dave Rubin and Douglas Murray). I don’t recall so much as a “boo” when these new friends dissented from popular conservative views.
What’s most troubling about Brooks’ criticism is that it is coming from someone who used to be an intellectual hero to many of us. In fact, it was David Brooks who inspired me to become a national conservative well before the movement even had a name.
Back in the ’90s, there was little in the conservative movement to inspire those of us who dreamt of American greatness. This was the era of small government, balanced budgets, and low taxes. To the extent the movement had a grand vision, it was Grover Norquist’s dream of a government so small we could drown it in the bathtub.
And then I read David Brooks’ 1997 Weekly Standard essay, “A Return to National Greatness.” Finally, someone was suggesting the possibility of a more ambitious conservatism. Brooks invoked the building of the Library of Congress and the digging of the Panama Canal as examples of national projects that helped make America great. And he called upon conservatives to use energetic government to once again unite and inspire Americans behind an ambitious national mission.
Equally as important, Brooks recognized the emerging threats to restored national greatness. He bemoaned the fact that in our culture “America is assigned no special role as the vanguard of civilization.” He mourned the fact that “the civil rights era turned into the affirmative action era.”
In the years since 1997, these obstacles to renewed national greatness have risen exponentially higher. Our critics now assign us a role as the vanguard of oppression. The CRT era makes us miss the affirmative action era. It’s hard to imagine how Brooks could see those early saplings but now misses this dense forest.
Yet as much as I loved Brooks’ vision, I always had one complaint. Brooks concluded his 1997 essay by stating “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The task government sets for itself matters a great deal. It cannot be something as superficial as constructing a great building or a grand canal. It’s never been about the stuff.
Survey the American landscape and our purpose stands in stark relief. Behold the shuttered factories and collapsed communities. See the hundreds of thousands of fresh graves dug for our fellow citizens who died trying to numb the pain of decline and dislocation. Our great national project must be the restoration of these communities and their citizens. We must do so not because we’re humanitarians, although we strive to be. We must do so because we’re Americans and we stand by our brothers’ blood.
As I listened to the speeches at NatCon II, I heard conservatives discuss and debate the ways in which we can use our government to accomplish this ambitious mission. And yes, at times their frustration crossed into indignation. But indignation isn’t always terrifying. Sometimes, it’s righteous.
David Brog is president of the Edmund Burke Foundation.