Widening America’s Conservative Tent
Overcoming our current social crisis requires a more robust traditionalism.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “America is back!” remark in February has resonated like the outburst of a buffoon from the old Blackadder series, inviting—after an awkward pause—a sneering aside from the title character. On the bright side, our president’s poor performance on the world stage thus far offers hope that any attempt to restart the “democratic globalism” of Biden’s pre-Trump predecessors would sink like a lead balloon.
Those of us who never lamented the globalist project, which includes neoconservatism, running out of steam can take heart at the fading—though by no means extinguished—prospect of another Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam. Refusal to deploy Marines to Crimea, assault the Chinese mainland, fight Iran on behalf of the Saudis, or embark on some other folly is a tacit admission of an obvious truth: We cannot remake Eurasia and the Orient in our image, at least not by force.
The unfolding scenario is giving rise to panic among our elites, as it does leave the issue of America’s future international contours unresolved. The anxiety arises over a perceived lack of alternatives between democratic globalism, whereby America’s system of government is boundless and inexorable for all countries, and rigid preoccupation with national sovereignty, whereby America languishes indefinitely in an angst-filled geopolitical vacuum. As usual, though, the truth lies somewhere between the two poles.
When the United States finally, truly abandons the exhausting policy of democratic globalism, American retrenchment will be back into a family that includes Australia, Britain, Canada, and other English-speaking countries. American exceptionalism is no myth, but our national peculiarity rests largely in having emerged from the British Empire, only to remain outside the Commonwealth of Nations. We never belonged to that club, not just because we fought a kinetic war for independence, but because that same war also bolstered a mythology, conceived by revolutionary republicans, featuring overblown depictions of the English Crown as the cruelest tyranny the world had ever seen. Such rhetorical excess sullied the concept of American exceptionalism from the start.
Most of England’s tyrannical inclinations toward America in the late 18th century stemmed, ironically, from the pig-headedness of its national legislature. The Founders had hoped the king would exercise his legal prerogative to override Parliament and exert direct dominion over the Colonies. It was only after they realized George III “wasn’t there” that they opted for a republic.
In a recent incarnation of Parliament’s tyrannical legacy, the House of Commons (backed by a majority in the unelected House of Lords) tried to block the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. This went on for years after 2016’s historic referendum until, finally, an election in 2019 turfed out the “Remoaners” en masse and replaced them with Brexiteers.
Its stick-in-the-mud legislature notwithstanding, England in 1776 was arguably the “freest” of Europe’s imperial powers. By the time we ratified the gem of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the English counterpart (on which ours is modeled) was already a hundred years old. In subsequent centuries, no great power ever attained the closeness to the U.S. that Britain did, not even France, whose republican incarnation was still being admired by Thomas Jefferson when the guillotines in Paris were busiest and the Jacobin bloodlust was most wanton.
The dilemma remains: If the middle ground between the nose-thumbing nationalism personified by Trump and the globalism of suspect oligarchs like George Soros is a bloc with its center of gravity in the north Atlantic, how do we get there from here? No Anglo-American political leaders are openly planning a collective authority that treads a path between world government and isolationism. America’s major parties are locked in a fierce battle over domestic social policies, with Republicans the only near-term hope at the federal level for eliminating the most pernicious influences—critical race theory in schools, transgender bathrooms for kids, uncontrolled immigration, universal vaccine mandates, imprisonment of protesters without due process and other harebrained leftist schemes. Yet the Republican Party, riven and lacking a powerful ideological identity, cannot lead us out of this civilizational crisis.
Nor can the U.S. Constitution, for all its genius, be the anchor of an enduring conservatism in the current social struggle. In a shouting argument overheard in the U.S. Supreme Court last year over whether the justices should hear the case brought by 19 states against four for violation of Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, in the conduct of the general election, the view that the riots taking place around the country should preclude adjudication emerged decisively victorious (six to three). If violent street mobs, looters, and arsonists now influence the nation’s constitutional court more than the Founders’ intent does, the Constitution offers dim hope for genuine conservatism.
Conservatism should connote a firmly grounded force, one incorporating the kind of traditionalism that stresses civilizational ties over both tired neocon attempts to make Iraq resemble Connecticut and contrived efforts at resurrecting pre-WWII isolationism. Our country’s legal foundation is the English Common Law, and any major case—civil or criminal—is subject to precedent that predates the republic. It is still the best legal system in the world, and it is fortunately so deeply rooted that even a globalist activist such as Soros, undermining our heritage by funding an alien legal ethos to the tune of billions of dollars, still operates at a disadvantage.
Madeleine Albright’s globalist aspiration to “indispensable nation” status is a high-handed dream, indifferent to the blight and neglect of American communities, and it should be abandoned. But we should also abandon the shrill and idealized misrepresentation of “1776” because it keeps us captive to a timeworn mythology that feels less and less about freedom. And lest that misinterpretation be identified as exclusively a fetish of a Trumpist right, we should remember that Trump is the only U.S. president in history to have expressed enthusiasm for membership in the Commonwealth.
From its current locus in the minds of both America Firsters and American One-Worlders, American exceptionalism should be brought back into perspective. Barack Obama threw the term around casually during his presidency to fit his globalist political aims at any given time without ever heeding the warnings of the man who coined the term two centuries ago. Alexis De Tocqueville thought that Americans might one day succumb to unreserved individualism, retreating from society and ultimately threatening democracy itself as their sense of common interest evaporated.
The United States forms the biggest and most powerful part of the Anglosphere, and that alone makes us exceptional. America should be strengthening the commonalities within its extended family, perhaps with a “Conservative and Unionist Party” promoting Commonwealth membership as a vehicle toward a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous future, as well as a greater union.
This is not a utopian vision: Anglosphere governments have sold influence to Communist China to an alarming extent, and Australia has compromised its Western democratic credentials with pandemic crackdowns so brutal that Aussie cops have almost made the People’s Armed Police of the PRC’s Ministry of Public Security look benign. Nevertheless, this is America’s cultural and civilizational society. For all its flaws, it’s still the best thing going. The Commonwealth club may only be historical and cultural, but it aspires to the status of exemplar, not exporter, of human rights and democracy. America should aspire to that status too.
Chad Nagle is an attorney and communications consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area.