American Mind

FreeCons vs NatCons

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
Ronald Reagan shaking his supporters hand after he gave a televised speech on the eve of an election in 1964. (Bettman via Getty Images)

What time is it? Are we living in normal times or revolutionary times? Is the greatest threat to American conservatism today a Walter Mondale-style big-government liberalism? Or is it a woke revolutionary progressivism that seeks to utterly transform the American way of life—our politics, culture, economy, law, education, morality, manners, and mores? A recently-issued Statement of Principles, co-signed by a group of advocates for Freedom Conservatism, assumes we are living in the world of the former: the world of Reagan vs. Mondale.

To be sure, the FreeCon statement is benign. Friends with whom I agree on 95 percent of all issues have signed the document. It affirms the principles of individual liberty, the pursuit of happiness, private enterprise, the free market, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, secure borders, and a “rational immigration policy.” That is the text. What’s not to like? There is, however, a subtext, explained by Avik Roy (the main organizer of the statement) in a National Review essay. 

Roy makes it clear that the purpose of the document is to repudiate the National Conservatism Statement of Principles (issued last year), of which I was a signatory, along with the tenets of National Conservatism and the New Right more broadly. And so, as Roy suggested, let us examine the significant differences between what is being touted as Freedom Conservatism (or what in Europe and Canada would be liberal conservatism) vs. National Conservatism.

Neither the FreeCon statement nor Roy’s essay evinces any awareness of the powerful adversary that American conservatives and “Americanists” more generally face in the summer of 2023. By “Americanists” I mean those conservatives and patriotic liberals who advocate the affirmation, improvement, and perpetuation of the American way of life. The opposite of an Americanist would be a Transformationist, one who seeks to fundamentally transform the United States of America.  

The FreeCon statement refers vaguely to “authoritarianism” on the “rise” at “home and abroad” and those on the “left and right” who “reject” the “distinctive [American] creed.” But who exactly are these adversaries? The FreeCons offer us no sense of the moment in which we are living in—no sense of the threat to (and enmity for) historic America emanating from the powerful woke progressive revolutionary regime that has “marched through the institutions” and conquered the administrative state, the media, universities, public schools, foundations, transnational corporations, weaponized security agencies, and the Democratic Party.  

On the contrary, National conservatives—both in their statement of principles and in the commentary of prominent signatories (Christopher Rufo, Rusty Reno, Victor Davis Hanson, Yoram Hazony, Josh Hammer, Roger Kimball, Michael Anton, John O’Sullivan, and others)—have repeatedly spelled out the nature of the existential threat to American (and Western) civilization from a new adversary, a 21st-century form of revolutionary Jacobinism and cultural Marxism. This means the so-called “culture war” is much more fundamental to our way of life than it is portrayed by our media (including Fox News). Indeed, we are in a full-blown civilizational and regime conflict.

Examining agreements and disagreements, Avik Roy notes that “NatCons and FreeCons are both gravely concerned about Critical Race Theory and radical gender ideology in elementary schools.” Roy grudgingly admits that “NatCons have pushed—successfully in some cases—for states to pass laws” that counter woke progressive ideology in education.

“Such policies,” he suggests, “may have their utility, but FreeCons have advanced a more durable approach: enacting universal education-savings accounts, so that every parent gains the freedom to educate their children the right way.” Education-savings accounts are a good idea, but we are not confronted by a binary choice. “May have their utility”? Why does Roy belittle the efforts of democratically elected conservative governors and state legislators like Ron DeSantis in Florida, Bill Lee in Tennessee, and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia to combat and restrict the advance of woke ideology in taxpayer-funded public education?

Roy talks about “eliminat[ing] DEI excesses” in private and public spheres. “Excesses”? What would be an appropriate level of DEI? There is none: DEI is a pernicious anti-American ideology based on a cultural Marxist characterization of our nation as the story of perpetual (racial-ethnic-gender) conflict between “oppressors” and “oppressed.” By its nature, it cannot be moderated or reformed. It must be annihilated root and branch from all corners of American life.   

The Legacy of the Sharon Statement

Freedom Conservatism claims the legacy of the Sharon Statement, adopted by the Young Americans for Freedom at William F. Buckley’s home in Sharon, Connecticut in September of 1960. Yet, major Sharon principles are missing in the July 2023 document.

The Sharon Statement affirms “certain eternal truths…. That foremost among the transcendent values  is the individual’s use of his God-given free will…” (emphasis added). Unlike in both the Sharon Statement and the National Conservatism Statement of Principles, “transcendent values” and “God” are nowhere to be found in the Freedom Conservatism Statement, which reads:

Among Americans’ most fundamental rights is the right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force: a right that in turn derives from the inseparability of free will from what it means to be human (emphasis added). 

Also missing from the FreeCon document is Frank Meyer’s original fusionist conception of the symbiotic relationship between the two fundamental principles of freedom and virtue. There is no mention of virtue (neither Christian, nor Hebraic, nor Greco-Roman) in the FreeCon statement. Nor, incredibly, is there any reference to patriotism as one of the ten fundamental principles of American conservatism!

In the 1980s and 1990s, conservatives touted the political fusionist coalition of the “three-legged stool”: economic conservatism, national security conservatism, and social conservatism. In the new July 2023 definition, one of the legs has atrophied. The core concerns of social conservatism (as Jay Richards admits) are clearly missing. On the contrary, the National Conservatism Statement puts nation, religion, culture, virtue, and patriotism front and center.


Roy draws a clear distinction with National Conservatism on immigration. “Freedom conservatives,” he proudly announces, “embrace legal immigration.” As the statement itself puts it, “immigration is a principal driver of American prosperity and achievement.”

The FreeCon document declares rather vaguely that we should “design a rational immigration policy” while also somehow securing our borders. This, of course, tells us nothing about what the actual policy should look like. On the other hand, the NatCon statement does not obfuscate but is forthright: “Western nations have benefitted from both liberal and restrictive immigration policies at various times. We call for much more restrictive policies until these countries summon the wit to establish more balanced, productive, and assimilationist policies.”   

Evidently, the FreeCon statement authors sought to stake out a position on immigration that would not deter those worried about the current effects of American immigration policy, while at the same time remaining loose enough to reassure the supporters of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” (basically, mass amnesty plus a continuing and expanding supply of cheap labor). It is no accident that Grover Norquist, Jeb Bush, and mass immigration enthusiasts associated with Koch-funded organizations such as the Niskanen Center and The Bulwark readily signed on to the FreeCon statement.

Civil Rights

On civil rights, Roy maintains that “while FreeCons and NatCons agree on the importance of opposing racial discrimination…FreeCons go further, by recognizing the persistent inequality of opportunity for descendants of the victims of slavery and segregation.” The FreeCon statement “commit[s] to expanding opportunity” for “victims of this system [who] now face economic and personal hurdles that are the direct result of this legacy” (i.e., the system of slavery and segregation “[p]rior to 1964.”) What does this mean, and how is this different from some form of affirmative action, which the FreeCon document explicitly rejects?

For answers we must look to Roy’s previous comments on civil rights. In January 2021 Roy stated that “conservatism’s low point” was the Goldwater candidacy and the movement’s “absence” from the civil rights initiatives of the 1960s.

He writes: “Just as an unfaithful spouse can save a marriage only through honest atonement, conservatives will regain the trust of right-leaning African Americans only by frankly and forcefully acknowledging our movement’s past mistakes.”

Several years earlier, in the fall of 2016, ”over a mug of skim-milk cappuccino,” Roy told left-wing journalist Molly Ball, “If we aren’t going to confront that history [i.e., Goldwater in 1964] as conservatives and Republicans, we don’t deserve minority votes.” Roy further told Ball, “Trump showed me that white identity politics was the dominant force driving the Republican grass roots.”

In another interview in 2016 with Vox journalist Zach Beauchamp, Roy stated, “Until the conservative movement can stand up and live by that principle [i.e., racial equality], it will not have the moral authority to lead the country.” Roy told Beauchamp that “conservatism has become, and has been for some time, much more about white identity politics than it has been about conservative political philosophy.”

Instead of a focus on limited government and economic conservatism, Roy declared, “In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

In February 2021, in American Greatness, Ethics and Public Policy scholar Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a polite yet devastating critique of Roy’s January essay. Gobry notes, “Roy would like conservatives to apologize for the 1960s and embrace liberal pieties on race.” He adds that “this sort of racial self-flagellating is a play for the approval of discourse-gate keeper elites, not of actual voters.” Instead of “acquiescing” to “the fraudulent racial narrative pushed by woke elites,” Gobry retorts, conservatives should denounce this narrative on both “substantive” and “political grounds.”

Citing Christopher Caldwell’s thesis in The Age of Entitlement, that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s led to the creation of a rival constitution in direct conflict with the traditional American Constitution of 1789 to the mid-1960s, Gobry argues (correctly) that “by now conservatives should be unashamed to say openly that civil rights-era legislation” and related court decisions “have been, to say the least, a mixed blessing.”

With the Freedom Conservatism project Roy hopes to create a winning political coalition that updates the Reagan coalition. Yet, revealing open contempt for conservative voters as “white nationalists” and seeking to evoke guilt over conservatism’s history, while calling for “atonement” from conservative leaders and the grassroots, seems an unlikely formula for ideological and political success.

Reagan’s True Legacy

Avik Roy is optimistic that the FreeCons can achieve ideological hegemony over their intra-conservative rivals, the NatCons. He tells us, “national conservatives know that they will never represent anything more than a cantankerous minority faction”—“a faction of cranks.” But FreeCon booster Matthew Continetti is more pessimistic. He laments, “candidates who reflect National Conservative views command 78 percent [i.e., DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Donald Trump] of the National GOP primary vote. That is a sign of a party transformed. And the transformation may well accelerate. A lot of the energy behind National Conservatism comes from young people.”

Roy clings fervently to what he purports to be Reagan’s legacy, but his FreeCon vision is more of a return to Paul Ryanism than to Reaganism. Paul Ryan could never be described as a culture warrior, nationalist, or populist. But Ronald Reagan could.

For many, the election of 1980 was a victory for traditional American cultural values and a repudiation of the antinomian ’60s Left. Certainly, in facing down the New Left student radicals at Berkley as Governor of California, Reagan acted as a proto-culture warrior. Running against President Ford in the Republican primary on the issue of relinquishing American control of the Panama Canal, he sounded not simply like an “America is an idea” patriot, but a defiant “don’t tread on me” Jacksonian nationalist: “we bought it, we paid for it, it’s ours, and we should tell Torrijos and company that we are going to keep it.”

Unlike their errant sons decades later, the founding fathers of neoconservatism in the 1970s and early 1980s characterized Reagan as a nationalist.

Norman Podhoretz called Reagan’s election in 1980 a triumph for a “new nationalism.” Irving Kristol described Reagan as coming “‘out of the West,’ riding a horse, not a golf cart, speaking in the kind of nationalist-populist tonalities not heard since Teddy Roosevelt, appealing to large sections of the working class.”

Reagan negotiated a free trade agreement with Canada, and his rhetoric extolled the benefits of free trade. But he also used tariffs and exerted pressure on foreign importers when he believed protectionist policies best served the American people. William Niskanen, a free trade economist who served on Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in his book Reaganomics: An Insider’s Account of the Policies and the People that “the [Reagan] administration imposed more new restraints on trade than any administration since Hoover.”

Niskanen continued, “While his messaging was often contradictory, Reagan’s actions proved him to be an assertive protectionist for most of his term…. [Reagan] also placed punitive tariffs on Japanese electronics and motorcycles [this was the famous rescue of Harley-Davidson]. He invoked a variety of laws to restrict trade in industries such as steel, footwear, lumber, and sugar.” Overall, the share of American imports covered by trade restrictions increased under Reagan from 8 percent in 1975 to 21 percent by 1984.

In short, Reagan’s conception of freedom and, for that matter, the definition of conservatism from early powerhouse intellectuals including James Burnham, Harry Jaffa, and Willmoore Kendall is at odds with the 2023 FreeCon version and the liberal conservatism it represents.

Roy ends his essay with an attempt at verbal jujitsu aimed at the NatCons and New Right: “When FreeCons win this debate, and NatCons ask us what time it is, we’ll have a simple answer: Once again, it’s morning in America.” 

Unfortunately, America has changed politically, economically, culturally, legally, demographically, temperamentally, morally, religiously, and spiritually since 1984. Our common adversary’s revolutionary campaign against the America for which we share a love requires a sophisticated counter-revolutionary response, not a repetition of the talking points from the Republican platforms of the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts. 

Read in American Mind.