Claremont Review of Books

Review of Charles Kesler's “National Conservatism and Its Discontents”

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
The sun sets behind an American flag flying at the Tear Drop 9/11 Memorial on May 12, 2024, in Bayonne, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
American flag flying at a 9/11 Memorial on May 12, 2024, in Bayonne, New Jersey. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Charles Kesler did not sign the National Conservatism Statement of Principles “not so much because of what it said but because of a certain unease over what it did not say.” The Statement mentions the Constitution, but not the Declaration of Independence. Nor does it mention natural law, natural rights, the social contract, or that America is exceptional because, unlike most other nations that developed organically, it was founded. Kesler believes that with these omissions, national conservatism could “risk supplanting” American conservatism.

Yet many of us who signed the Statement agree with him that our founding principles rooted in natural rights are central to American nationalism. Those signatories include the Claremont Institute’s president, chairman of the board, and eight other employees or fellows. The Statement is a political, not a philosophical, document. It is a broad declaration of democratic nationalism’s general principles, specifics of which will obviously differ from nation to nation. The Statement reflects the thinking of American and Western conservatives alarmed at the undermining of democratic sovereignty, patriotism, religion, and the traditional family by powerful globalist elites in America and Europe. We believe the mainstream conservative response to this progressive revolutionary assault on our civilization has been inadequate, to say the least. We are not in a mere policy dispute but a regime struggle, and the Statement’s political purpose is to rally a counterinsurgency against the global woke revolution.

National Conservatism represents a political-intellectual coalition that includes West Coast Straussians and paleoconservatives, realists, traditionalists—students of Harry Jaffa and adherents of Willmoore Kendall, united at last. Signatories disagree on the historical role of John Locke and natural rights, but, as noted, they are united on patriotism, religion, family, and democratic sovereignty. Is there tension and disagreement on some issues? Of course. Such is the nature of coalition documents; different signatories are inevitably going to place different emphases on different parts of the document. The old conservative fusionist coalition contained philosophical divisions, but it achieved political success in the struggle against world Communism. Kesler refers in his essay to Aristotle’s distinction between theoretical reason and practical reason. The Statement is an example of practical reason and wisdom, in the sense that it represents a prudent political response to today’s revolutionary global challenge. Kesler’s oeuvre, his explication of the achievement of the American Founding, is an example of both theoretical and practical reason.

Kesler expends considerable ink defending Buckley-Reagan conservatism against what he perceives as unfair Natcon criticism. Nevertheless, in February 2020 the National Conservatives held a conference in Rome entitled “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations,” signaling a continuity with Buckley-Reagan conservativism. Indeed, the main Natcon criticism is of conservatism “since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” as the Statement says—that is, the mainstream conservatism of the ’90s and 2000s rather than the Buckley-Reagan years.

Kesler objects, too, to the formulation “Anglo-American political tradition,” citing Americans’ rejection of monarchy, aristocracy, and a national church. He’s right, the two nationalisms, British and American, are different: subjectship versus citizenship, organic development versus founding. At the same time, Americans inherited English law, literature, ideas, institutions, representative assemblies, and religious organizations. An analogy can be drawn with the term “Judeo-Christian.” Judaism and Christianity are two different religions, but hold enough in common to make the concept of “Judeo-Christian” intelligible and valid.

Kesler is also troubled by the Natcons’ “idea of the nation” which, instead of recognizing the ways in which the American regime (e.g., its form of government) founded and shaped the nation, emphasizes the nation shaping the regime. But the “idea of the nation” the Statement of Principles affirms prefers a “world of independent nations” and “oppose[s] transferring the authority of elected governments to transnational or supranational bodies—a trend that pretends to high moral legitimacy even as it weakens representative government.” In short, there is plenty of room for the West Coast Straussian interpretation of the American Founding within National Conservatism’s general principles.

Nearly a decade ago, in another CRB cover essay (“The Crisis of American National Identity,” Fall 2005), Charles Kesler wrote, “The American Creed is the keystone of American national identity, but it requires a culture to sustain it.” Our “task,” he declared, is “to recognize the Creed’s primacy” and “the culture’s indispensability.” As an American National Conservative I agree, and I believe many other signatories do as well. National Conservatism is, as the Statement puts it, “an essential, if neglected, part of the Anglo-American conservative tradition.” Don’t worry, Charles: it will not supplant “Americans’ actual political inheritance with a faux inheritance.”

Read the full review at Claremont Review of Books.