Earlier this month, prominent names in the conservative movement gathered in Washington, DC, for a conference on “National Conservatism.” Speakers included such luminaries as Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Rich Lowry, Yuval Levin, and Josh Hawley. Representing the academy were F.H. Buckley, Charles Kesler, Amy Wax, and Patrick Deneen. Other conservative writers and thinkers participated in panels. The two figures most associated with national conservatism — Yoram Hazony and R.R. Reno — spoke during the opening plenary.
What is this national conservatism all about?
The succinct answer is the marriage of nationalism to conservatism. The conference organizers defined nationalism as “a commitment to a world of independent nations.” They presented national conservatism as “an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to theories grounded in race.” Their stated aim was “to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics, and an extensive support network across the country.”
Sounds interesting. However, neither national conservatism nor nationalism — whatever the distinctions between them — can take hold in the United States.
The Difference Between a Country and a Nation
Why? Because the United States is not, and has never been, a nation. The founding generation referred to the United States as a plural noun (i.e., “these United States”) because several sovereigns fell under that designation. St. George Tucker called the United States a “federal compact” consisting of “several sovereign and independent states.” If his view seems unrecognizable today, it is because nationalism within the United States is dying or dead—and the United States killed it.
The United States of America in the singular is a country, not a nation. It contains nations within it, but does not itself constitute a nation. Nations involve solidarity among people who share a common culture, language, customs, mores, ethnicity, and history. A country, by contrast, involves political arrangements and governmental territories and boundaries.
From its inception, the United States has been characterized by faction and sectionalism, cultural clashes, and competing narratives — between Indian tribes in what is now Florida and California, Wyoming and Maine, Georgia and Michigan; between the British and French and Spanish and Dutch; between Protestants and Catholics and English Dissenters and nonconformists and splintering denominations; between the Calvinism of Cotton Mather and the Enlightenment rationalism that influenced Franklin and Jefferson. The United States has experienced, as well, numerous separatist movements, including, most notably, the secession of the states that made up the Confederate States of America.
The United States is not a nation.