America’s ongoing woke revolution, as many have said, borrows the centrifugal forces of 1790s French Jacobinism, so there’s perhaps never been a worse time for conservatives to quote the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of 1789. And yet one nugget of wisdom in it could well become a guiding principle for an American right in flux. “ The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation,” reads article 3. “No body, no individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from it.”
Conservatives are by now well aware of the two-fold challenge—domestic and external—to American self-government, the principle therein stated that power is to be wielded by the people’s own representatives alone, or by a judicial branch tasked with independently interpreting the laws they pass. At home, opposition to unelected rulemakers to whom no power has been (constitutionally) delegated by Congress and the activist judges who side with them when challenged in court has been a conservative drumbeat as long as progressives have been around to make use of them. Externally, a similarly unaccountable set of transnational institutions vying to supersede national sovereignty in the name of global governance has only more recently earned the right’s distrust, although Trump’s anti-globalist zeal on this score may never leave the GOP once he exits the scene.
But beyond globalism and the administrative state lies a deeper challenge to American sovereignty that they’d be wise to face head-on ahead of November. Self-government is about a rapport between two groups—lawmakers and the people. Keeping the former directly elected and accountable to the latter is only one side of the democratic coin, the how of democracy. Who makes up the people—on whose behalf said elected representatives are meant to make law—is the inescapable other half of the same issue. And just as power transferred to unelected bureaucrats at home and abroad threatens the democratic contract from above, the ongoing fracturing of the American body politic along identitarian lines complicates the democratic experiment from below too, although in ways perhaps less fully understood at the moment.
The demos , or we the people—how as Americans “we define the first-person plural,” in Roger Kimball’s words—requires neat delineation and a sense of shared destiny for a kratos to viably emerge from it. Conservatives have woken up to the weakening of the latter. But as the left keeps waging its war on the body politic through racial identitarianism and general America-bashing, will conservatives find the pluck to warn about the demise of the American nation without sounding alarmist?
To be sure, the “American nation” never had a fully settled meaning in the first place, at least not among the right—and likely won’t for a while longer. Conservatives will continue sorting themselves, for the foreseeable future, among believers in America as a “credal nation” and those who prefer to it a more culturally substantive expression—prizing instead, though not necessarily to the exclusion of the Founders’ creed, the nationally unifying factors of language, history, culture, and even religion.
Both the credal and cultural outlooks, it turns out, are coming simultaneously under assault, so prizing one over the other offers little relief. The former—the distinctively American principles of natural rights and limited government—were first decried as a constitutional roadblock to Teddy Roosevelt’s turn-of-century progressive agenda, but today they’ve earned the open scorn of the wider left, which in the wake of The New York Times ’ 1619 Project is coming around to viewing them as a fig leaf for the perpetuation of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. The latter, cultural idea of the nation—always vulnerable to criticism for its ethnonational connotations—is coming under strain too by the corrosive effect of identitarian politics, the growing conflation of residency with citizenship in a number of liberal states and cities, and the combination of high levels of immigration in tandem with a culture at home that prizes multiculturalism at the expense of assimilation.
If conservatives hope to regain some of the lost ground in the culture, seeing eye-to-eye on what nationhood is to mean will be crucial. Extolling Americans’ shared national identity is perhaps the less well understood track of the multi-faceted realignment on the right, perhaps because it operates at a deeper, less conscious level, while supplying much of the impetus for the other major two tracks—economics and foreign policy. Underpinning the productive populism of Oren Cass and his agenda for re-shoring American jobs is a distinct nationalist disposition on economic policy, one that places the wellbeing of Americans non-negotiably over and above progressive bromides such as free-trade and even economic efficiency. Similarly, Trump’s Jacksonian foreign policy taps into an abiding resentment at the neocon obsession with regime change and democracy promotion across the furthest reaches of the globe at the expense of domestic priorities. Both of these realignments can be conceivably traced back to a re-emphasizing of the American nation as the ultimate locus that public policy is to serve.
As with these other two reshuffling trends, conservatives’ realignment around nationalism is merely in its “opening sallies,” in the words of The New Criterion ’s Roger Kimball, one of its closest watchers. Across each of these three cases, Trump’s election—and to some extent his economic and foreign policy victories since—were a necessary shock to the GOP establishment, but as with any realignment that is to stick, the torch has to be picked up in the realm of ideas-, particularly if he isn’t re-elected and conservatives are left grappling with his legacy in his absence. This is precisely what Kimball’s Encounter Books sets out to do in Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Fate of Freedom in the Twenty-First Century , collaboratively produced with another nucleus of conservative intellectual innovation, Chris Buskirk’s Center for American Greatness, which publishes the namesake magazine. The compendium of essays grew out of a conference the two groups held in Washington a year ago and will be published at the end of October.
On the issue of American nationhood, the book’s essayists take unequivocally the cultural-nationalist view, most recently popularized by Rich Lowry in The Case for Nationalism (2019). It turns out that a similar weariness vis-à-vis reducing American identity to its liberal-credal expression had long ago been expressed by Lowry’s predecessor as editor of National Review , John O’Sullivan, in the magazine’s special issue of February 1994 on Demystifying Multiculturalism . Quite curiously for a Brit—or perhaps being all too aware of the failures of multiculturalism in his native United Kingdom—O’Sullivan, who calls himself a “nationalist for America,” warns that reducing American identity to credal adherence to liberty opens the floodgates to multiculturalism and its atomizing effect on the body politic. “The credal nation,” O’Sullivan writes presciently in his essay, “becomes over time a multicultural patchwork quilt.”
But the argument in fact far predates O’Sullivan himself—James Piereson’s essay in this new book provides the historical background to America’s emergence in the latter half of the 19th century and the 20th as a culturally distinct and unified nation, which is necessary context to grasp the ways in which that same national compact is unraveling in the 21st. “A nation is a creation of time and events,” Piereson writes, “and cannot be ordered in place at once,” which at least partly explains the wisdom of the Founders when they refrained from affirming the largely Protestant, English-descending cultural mainstream that prevailed in their midst. Piereson credits Lincoln—more popularly celebrated for saving the union by reasserting the principles of the Founding against the seceded Confederacy—with opening a period of cultural nation-forming that would see the American people gradually cohere around a culturally substantive expression of nationhood all the way until 1945. At just the time of the Civil War, Lincoln in fact began replacing in his speeches the term union —connoting a loose association of states with little in the way of a national bloodstream—with the term nation .
Just what exactly drove this period of nation-forming is perhaps more open to dispute. Piereson’s emphasis on wars points to their undoubtable memory-shaping effect through the shared pain of loss and the common thrill of victory. This was certainly the case in America’s victory over inter-European aggression, fascism and communism through two World Wars, to the extent they were experienced as truly national endeavors both in the war front and back home. But a range of other common attributes—from language to collective worship to mass culture a national character of grit and self-reliance—have also played an indisputable role in cementing American national identity. Be that as it may, the notion of a culturally unified American public was never much in question, until the undermining of that national cohesiveness by a series of policies and dogmas unleashed from today’s left made fretting about the demise of the American nation sound no longer wackily alarmist.
This is precisely the alarm Kimball’s book sounds, beginning with David Azerrad’s masterful takedown of identity politics and the contradictions at its core. Once the logic of atoning for past racial inequities through affirmative action outgrew itself into a constant quest for repentance, white guilt and greater diversity per se —which in many practical instances has meant discriminating against those born into the wrong race—a Rubicon was crossed in the left’s social agenda that makes any talk of American unity coming out of its ranks sound hollower by the day.
In his essay on “pre and post-citizens,” California resident Victor Davis Hanson describes the growing conflation of mere residency with American citizenship in Democrat-run cities and states, which is another stealthy way of undermining the American demos that necessarily forms the basis for self-government. Driving licenses for illegal aliens may seem innocuous, but the prospect of a sizable chunk of the undocumented population getting to decide on the presidency on par with American citizens when they get ballots wrongly sent to them is a different matter.
It’s also one that Trump is right to raise the alarm about ahead of November, if only symbolically. By celebrating racial differences at the expense of race-blind Americanism, by over-stretching the privilege of citizenship and by ceding power to the administrative state and to global institutions, the Democrats have become the party of a post-national, post-democratic America. Hidden in the book’s argument is counsel for Trump to adopt one narrative ahead of November— Democrats want to end the American nation and its sovereignty as we know it . It sure doesn’t mean that a vote for Trump will magically reunite an increasingly tribalized and racialized nation, but it does mean resisting our present trend towards these gloomy scenarios. In Piereson’s brilliant summation of all these problems, America is “evolving into a multi-national, multi-cultural, multilingual state lacking the cultural underpinnings of a common culture, language, religion or nationality that we commonly associate with the nation-state.” Have conservatives realized that November is about stopping that?