This week on High Noon, young conservative writer Nate Hochman of National Review comes on to discuss the future of the increasingly post-religious right. Inez and Nate discuss how decreasing religiosity is changing the contours of the right and its coalitions; the rifts issues like abortion could open up between newly recruited anti-woke factions like “barstool conservatives” and the traditional religious right; and the possibility that a broader secular right focused on culture war issues could actually deliver on moral majority priorities. They also spoke about the deeper roots of the crisis of “national identity, social integrity, and political alienation” that America is experiencing, and why young conservatives are embracing radicalism that shocks some of their elders.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m Inez Stepman, and I’m back after turning over this podcast for the week to Emily Jashinsky and Maddy Kearns last week. I hope you enjoyed that. I know I did. It was fun experience to listen to my own podcast as a listener. But this week we have Nate Hochman who is an ISI Fellow at National Review, a Robert Novak fellow at the Fund for American Studies, and a fellow Claremonster, by which I mean he was a Publius Fellow with the Claremont Institute. So he’s won just about every fellowship that a young up-and-coming conservative intellectual can win.
And he has another one of those jewels in the crown, which is he has been published in the New York Times. He wrote a very interesting essay, which is again, a remarkable achievement, not only because the New York Times still has mainstream purchase, but because they didn’t manage to edit out all the interesting things that you wrote and try to turn them around on conservatives. But at the New York Times, where they like to write hysterical screeds about evangelical dominion. You actually have an essay that essentially tells those readers to be careful what they wish for. Could you lay out your thesis in this essay, which is called “What Comes After the Religious Right”?
Right. Well, thanks for having me, Inez. I think the basic premise of the New York Times essay, which came out last month was that it’s no secret to anyone who’s been paying attention that the decline of religion is an empirical fact in America. We’re seeing by the double digits decline in churchgoing rates and affiliation with any organized religious identity in America. And that’s been going on at least since the 1990s. But one thing that I think hasn’t really been discussed enough is the fact that that is not just occurring on the left.
Certainly, the decline in religion started in the main line, Protestant, liberal denominations, but it’s now moved into the conservative evangelical Protestant and other conservative theologically and politically conservative denominations as well. And what that means is that the so-called religious right, the religious social conservative movement that really became a political force in the 1970s and has been a major player in the Republican party since around then, is in decline in an important way. Just in terms of the fact that there are less bodies, there are less voters who make up that demographic than there used to be.
So that doesn’t mean, of course, that religious conservatives aren’t going to play a major role in Republican politics for the foreseeable future. They still control large swaths of the Bible belt and Republicans, including Donald Trump, feel the need to make appeals to them in order to win elections. But it does mean that there is a more secular strain of conservatism that is increasingly surfacing and making itself known. And that was, in many ways, one of the reasons that Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination was because he actually did better with Republican voters who didn’t go to church in the primary than he did with Republican voters who did go to church. So I was trying to make sense of what this secular conservatism, which is still a cultural conservatism, actually looks like and what it means for the Republican party.
And what I concluded was that there are a variety of culture war issues — education fights, debates over immigration, American identity, critical race theory, and gender ideology in schools, all these things that we’re really familiar with — which certainly old-school, religious conservatives still hold conservative positions on. But you don’t necessarily need to be a religious person to fall with the right in terms of your view of those issues. And what you’re seeing is the rise of millions and millions of voters who are often moving into the Republican coalition because they’re alienated from the cultural left, who aren’t necessarily churchgoers, they’re not necessarily religious, but they are culturally conservative on all these other issues. And the culture war is forming this new cultural conservative coalition, which is not directly informed by religion anymore, but still has the social conservative effect. So I was trying to wrestle with what that means for the future of the conservative movement, for the future of the GOP and ultimately, obviously, for the future of America.
Yeah. You point out that there are plenty of tensions in this coalition, right? And I think the best maybe avatar for the new secular right on these cultural questions might be somebody like Dave Portnoy or the so-called Barstool Conservatism. And I think maybe an analog on across the sex spectrum might be suburban white female voters, college-educated, female voters who handed Glenn Youngkin in the election over education issues. Both of those groups of voters probably really upset about the Dobbs decision, right? Because of this decision, we have abortion thrown back into the political mix. And it’s almost funny to think about because it… Let me ask you this: how do you think the issue of abortion which is sort of this traditional moral majority type issue?
How do you think that issue is going to make waves in this new political coalition where the center of the culture war is not gay marriage or abortion or hasn’t been at least. It’s been what’s being taught in your child’s school. It’s been the Southern border issues as you say, of identity nationhood of education and citizenship. Essentially the reinsertion of a moral majority issue abortion back into the political process? How is that going to affect these different coalitions?
Well, that really is the ultimate question, right? I mean, I think one of the things that I was talking about, especially towards the end of the piece is that overturning Roe — this was written after Dobbs had leaked, but before Roe was officially overturned — could really heighten the contradictions for this coalition. And I think we already are seeing the beginnings of that. For people who are on Twitter, they might have come across Dave Portnoy’s temper tantrum that he threw after Roe is officially overturned, where he said, despite the fact that he hates the woke left, he’s going to vote Democrat now because Republicans are trying to ban abortion. There are certainly plenty of voters who probably share that general disposition, particularly the secular so-called barstool conservatives named after Dave Portnoy who are really anti-woke, but are definitely not Christian sexual libertine, probably pro-choice. Some of them might drift back into the Democratic party coalition.
But I think that… I don’t think that’s the end of this coalition of voters, because a lot of these voters, A, they just might not care about abortion very much, right? I mean, for a lot of voters, it’s just not a particularly high priority, or they might find that they are put off more by left-wing cultural ideology and the increasingly aggressive radical edge of it than they are by the Republican party’s stance on abortion. Or they might actually be alienated by the left’s abortion radicalism. I mean, remember, most Americans fall between the two parties when it comes to abortion. They’re not with the full pro-lifers in that they generally are supportive of first-term abortions and maybe some exceptions in the second term, but they’re really, really uncomfortable with, as you progress through the pregnancy, the late-term abortions which is something that the Democratic party is behind.
So, everything’s in flux right now. I think anyone who pretends to know exactly what’s going to happen is probably overly confident because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But what I think both parties are going to have to articulate positions that are actually probably unpopular with the vast majority of voters and the broad mass of voters who are probably moderately pro-choice are going to choose which party they’re less put off by. And for a lot of voters, that’ll be the GOP. And I think probably for some voters, it’ll be moving back into the Democratic coalition.
Secular figures like Trump, right? And I really do think Trump is perhaps the… And I noticed this during the 2016 primaries, Trump was the first Republican candidate who did not have to make an apology for his aggressively libertine lifestyle, right? For example, his sexual morality. And it’s not that we hadn’t had nominees on the right and famously Reagan and Newt Gingrich who got pretty far in the political process, right, who has been married three times — Reagan was married twice; but not only was Trump on the far edge of personal licentiousness — I noticed this in 2016 — he did not have to make an apology like a come-to-Jesus moment. “I’ve made mistakes in my past, but now I’m living on the straight and narrow.” He never actually had to make that apology in order to appeal to Republican voters.
And he really, as you say, he attracted a more secularizing component of the GOP. And yet it’s been Trump that delivered in many ways this Dobbs decision, right? Through his Supreme Court appointments. It’s Trump that probably had the biggest victories even before this in terms of the pro-life issue. I mean, is that the shape of things to come? Because you seem to be suggesting that, that in fact, even though rhetorically or in terms of priorities, the religious right may have to make more compromises and acknowledge that the reality that they are no longer the political force that they once were. At the same time is secularizing post-religious coalition has potentially the ability to deliver them hard victories on issues that they’ve been losing for decades.
Right. And that was exactly the point that I was making in the Times piece. This is, I guess, the optimistic reading, but I think there’s a legitimate point to it, which is that, because this more secularized version of conservatism is appealing to millions more voters who might have been put off by the old religious right, it has the capacity to dramatically expand the Republican party tent. And by doing that, it has the capacity to send Republicans into power who actually can pass some religious right priorities. Remember, Trump, certainly an avatar of this more secular conservatism, was the person who delivered the number one religious right priority since the inception of the religious right, right? Since the 1970s. And I think in many ways, while religious voters might not be particularly excited about having to ally with people who do not for any number of reasons share their theological and moral commitments, it is an alliance that can bear real fruit for traditional social conservatives because it has the capacity to win.
So obviously in politics, all coalition building requires compromises and concessions. And the religious right is going to have to make concessions if they want to remain electorally viable. But I think that they can use the emergence of this coalition to their advantage to do a lot of things that they might not have been able to do on their own. And I think that’s the way that traditional religious and social conservatives should think about this. You don’t have to sacrifice your own personal principles to be part of a coalition, but you do have to be willing to work as a coalition partner to advance shared ends. And I think the end of Roe is just a perfect example of how that can be successful if different coalition members work together.
One of the more interesting pieces of this essay is where you write about the moderating influence of Christianity, that Christianity has actually had an enormous moderating influence, the way that the American right thinks about, for example, patriotism versus nationalism or a hard nationalism or ethnic nationalism versus a more inclusive universal American patriotism, nationalism, whatever you want to call it. You cite some white nationalists in service of this point, certainly not new that white nationalists despise Christianity. Hitler thought that it had weakened the traditional pagan German people, right? Because it has themes of forgiveness of universality that the elimination, for example, of the difference between Jew and Greek, right?
What does that moderating influence disappearing say about maybe any potential dangers to the rise of the post-religious right? Because this essay is descriptive, right? It’s not normative. You really don’t take a position about whether or not this is a good or bad thing. You’re just saying this is happening. And this may shape our politics in these potential ways going forward. Do you have any worries about where the post-religious right could end up or do you think that the American right is inherently, for example, less ethnonationalist than say perhaps the French writer, the right in a lot of European countries?
Well, I do think that the American right is inherently less. It’s a less blood and soil conservatism just necessarily because of what America is and always has been. I think that’s pretty clear, but there are obviously dangerous places that any version of this could go. And I was citing some really, really interesting opinion polling that showed that the old Christian conservatives actually had much more moderate views on issues like immigration, for example, than less religious conservatives. Less religious Republican voters were much more likely to favor something like Trump’s Muslim ban, that’s the colloquial version for it. Much more likely to support reductions in legal immigration rates. There’s a much more hard-edged disposition to a lot of these new cultural issues or resurgent cultural issues on the more secular right than there is in many ways in the old Christian conservative end of the conservative spectrum.
For me, as someone who deplores racism but is also really concerned about something like immigration, I actually think there could be a salutary version of this, which is that the GOP gets serious about something like the border. Whereas the old Christian conservatives were maybe less interested for a variety of reasons and actually championing a serious border-hawkish position. But it’s also true, as you said, there’s a reason that white supremacists wanted to do away with Christianity, which is that it’s very hard to take Christianity seriously and be a racist because of what Christianity actually says about the brotherhood of man. And in any of these developments, if you do do away with a humanizing Christian ethic, it can go dangerous at places. So, I’m someone who is skeptical of a lot of the hysteria that you hear in the mainstream media about the racism of the contemporary Republican coalition.
I don’t actually think that championing something like immigration restriction makes you a racist. I’m not a racist, and I tend to think that immigration restriction is a good policy for the country right now. So insofar as this shift, does shift the GOP towards a more aggressive culture war strategy. I think that’s a good thing, but we always have to be vigilant, obviously, about where this could go. And that was an attempt to outline the darkest place that one of these developments could go. Even if that’s not something that I think is happening right now.
Yeah. I mean, I tend to agree with you. I don’t think that that part of the political spectrum has any real power, any real either political or institutional power. So I’m not particularly worried about it, but to the… I’ll say this, to the extent that I’m worried about it. It’s not because there’s some kids who like to troll on Twitter and shock people that… I don’t take that very seriously. I think that there’s always an instinct in this. I do think is a aspect of being young.
There is always an instinct to shock your elders, right? And to puncture whatever shibboleths are particularly shocking. And now that our society’s biggest taboos are around race and sex. I think it was inevitable that there would be the equivalent of the kids scrolling on the locker, right? And I think a lot of that is that, but I do think that one of the reasons America has been able to be a multi-ethnic republic in a way that is very different. And it is as you say, our history is so different from most European countries.
I think one of the reasons has been that they’ve had a soft Christian establishment, not a legal one, but a soft Protestant Christian ethos in the country that has actually bound people together across racial lines in a way that our raw tribalism would make difficult with at in its absence. And I wonder what happens when that glue starts to disappear. And of course, it’s disappearing at the same time as the other glues, like the civic religion, right, that existed about around the American founding. That becomes explicitly political and polarized combining those two things, the declining religiosity and the decline of the American civic religion. There is a part of me that starts to worry whether America will become more explicitly ethnically tribalist in the future.
Right. And I think, look, that you can see the version of this happening in the inverse on the left, which has its own ethnic tribalism which it’s much more explicit about, actually, than the right when it comes to categorizing people by race and conceiving of American politics in explicitly racialized terms. To me, that’s clearly a negative development and a departure from what America traditionally has been. One of the reasons that I was descriptive and not normative, you’re right to point that out, it was this strategic approach on my part because I really am very confused about what I think about this phenomenon in many ways. I am incredibly concerned about the decline of institutionalized religion in America. I share the basic conservative view that religion is crucially important for civic harmony, and that alongside the decline of this basic shared commitment to the sense that America’s a good country and a positive patriotic sense of shared citizenship, those are existential issues for the country.
And they are things that I think Americans are going to be reckoning with, at least for my lifetime. So the future is uncertain. I think, in many ways, the good aspects of this development insofar as it is advantageous, politically and electorally for conservatives, is that it will lead to a politics that allows us to fight the negative trends in American life, whether it be this militant secularism that hates religion or this militant anti-Americanism that hates our shared civic public religion. So, that’s what I want to see conservatives focus on. And I want to see them be able to reach as many voters as possible to be able to do that without sacrificing core principles.
So, I’m going to try to make the defense. And in many ways, I am part of what you’re describing, the phenomenon you’re describing. I’m not a religious person. I don’t have any institutional religious ties, but let’s give the moral majority their due here. Because you wrote, “It’s hard to imagine today’s culture warriors taking any interest in the 1950s push for a Christian amendment to the Constitution, for example. Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce, and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity, and political alienation.” So, to what extent did abandonment of those earlier religious issues or losses on those cultural issues, right, or perhaps religion itself declining. To what extent did, though, that actually precipitate a lot of the cultural problems that do seem so pressing now that necessitate that focus on national identity, social integrity, and political alienation, right?
Because, for example, just the sexual revolution’s insistence that men and women live essentially interchangeable sexual lives. That’s clearly — and I see not only for the abortion debates, but also for the transgenderism. That is part of the key secular culture wars today. So how much of this is just to use the favorite phrase now is downstream of conservative losses during the moral majority era? Like, how much are these two things connected to the fact that they did lose a lot of those key moral battles in the culture to the extent now that even 55% of Republicans or something like that agree with gay marriage? To what extent are these things connected rather than two separate issue sets?
Oh, I think they’re absolutely connected. I mean, look, I am a traditional social conservative in many ways. And I agree with the religious right on most of the issues that they were fighting about. So, I mourned those losses, and I think that overall the religious right’s failure to stem the tide of cultural liberalism is what has gotten us to this place, right? You cannot have the transgender moment without first having the gay marriage moment, right? That just, it would not work if you did not first dismantle the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman before you can even get to the question of whether or not men and women exist at all. It’s pretty obvious to me that that progression has been leftwards in the culture and social conservatives and cultural conservatives are fighting a rear-guard action in many ways. For me, the question now is it’s okay to mourn those losses, but you have to actually at some point figure out how to engage with reality on the ground as it is today and how best to fight those battles.
And I think what I was trying to outline was a way forward for both social and cultural conservatives, regardless of your religious commitments to actually fight those battles. So, the culture war today and the fierceness of the issues and the radicalism of the left that were fighting. That’s all the results of the fact that conservatives were unable to stop the leftwards lurch of the culture in the 1980s and the 1990s and the 2000s. That’s all true. I think the other aspect of that story that might complicate everything a little bit is that religious conservatives were also quite narrow in the way that they conceived of the culture war, right? It was really about public religion, abortion, same-sex marriage, rights of homosexuality in general. They were not conceiving of the culture war as broadly as I think that they should have … and in terms of engaging with how debates over American history are taught or how to talk about national identity, immigration, all these new issues that have entered into our political discourse over the course of the last few years. Those were important issues too, and I think that religious conservatives weren’t engaging on them as much as they should. So that’s the salutary aspect of this development now, which is that I think conservatives actually have a much more holistic view of the culture war and are engaging in terms that actually understand that the culture war permeates all of our other issues rather than siloing specific social issues like abortion off from other political issues. So, I think the right, right now, is better situated to aggressively fight the culture war than it has been for a long time. And that’s something that I’m excited to see, but it’s also true that one of the reasons that we’re in the position we’re in is because we have sustained enormous losses over the last few decades in the cultural sphere. And that’s a reason for serious concern. Absolutely.
Yeah. You pointed out something before we went live with this podcast, which is both the left and the right are convinced they’re losing, right? Why are they wrong and we’re right? But why is it that a large part of the left — because this is consistent over time, at least as long as I’ve been in politics — is that the left also feels that it’s losing, and I actually cannot comprehend why they think that, except maybe to split off the Radical/Marxist dirtbag left off from the mainstream neoliberal left. But it seems to me culturally, that this is the…. Dobbs is the first time that they’ve actually experienced a setback as opposed to a slowdown in probably 50 to 70 years.
And so why is it that they are also convinced that they’re losing?
Well, this is obviously an unsatisfactory answer from the left-wing perspective, because I think they think that they’re losing because they see this neofascist, right? That’s on the verge of dismantling American democracy and controlling everything, which to me is absurd and ridiculous and completely removed from reality. I think the most obvious answer is that the left has become accustomed to controlling everything and they still do control most institutions in American life. And any serious challenge to their control of any institution is seen as an unconscionable loss because they have been raised in an era where there is a sense that they deserve to control all of our institutions. So when the right actually does mount a serious counteroffensive, it feels existential to them, because it is in many ways a challenge to their monopoly over everything. So the reason I think that you’re seeing a hysterical meltdown, for example, over the most recent Supreme Court term is because, to your point, this is the first time that the right has actually dismantled left-wing control of an institution.
The left does not control the Supreme Court anymore. Now, does that mean that conservative Supreme Court justices are always going to rule the right way on every issue? No, of course not. And that you’ve already seen Republican appointees rule badly on a variety of important issues, but it is not a left-wing institution anymore. And it has been a left-wing institution since Roe at least. And it’s been an institution that the left was used to looking to as a bulwark against conservative counteroffensives. And now that it isn’t, that’s a huge problem for a side of the political spectrum, a political project that was used to basically operating and controlling everything. And so that feels like a major loss. I mean, it’s a little cheeky, but there’s the campus left-wing line that you see at protests occasionally, which is that when you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression, right?
Which is, I think, in the way that they’re using it is, often it’s illegitimate, but in this context, it’s true. When you are used to enjoying unchallenged power everywhere, any challenge to your power or any actual fair fight feels like an existential threat, and it feels like you’re actually losing ground. So, I would like to see in America in which the left was actually right that they were losing. I don’t think that we’re there yet, but something like our takeover of the Supreme Court certainly is the first step in actually writing the scales a little bit.
So, you talk about a fair fight. That’s really my question, because I agree with you in the central thesis. Not only the descriptive thesis that we are secularizing, but that this coalition that you’re pointing to is probably the core of a new majority that will be quite enduring that may fracture around the issue of abortion or a couple other issues. And actually, I think will probably be quite diverse when it comes to economic questions, right? My husband and I wrote an essay for the American mind a while back, basically trying to describe the Trump ascendancy and the ascendancy of the Trump coalition, trying to point out that actually the economic stuff while the economic heterodoxy of Trump while interesting, and probably indicative of a number of important developments within the Republican party and within conservatism away from, let’s say a free market really fundamentalism that doesn’t acknowledge any dissent in any way, for example, on trade.
But reminding people that actually, that’s not the core of this either, that the core of what all these people agree on. Because in Texas and Arizona, the Sun Belt, right? The mountain west actually has done very well under Reaganism in NAFTA. And the Rust Belt has done very poorly. So why is it that’s the political coalition that’s building between the Rust Belt that has been screwed under the global economic order and the Sun Belt that has done extremely well? I think the core of that political coalition has to be these culture war issues. And so, I completely agree with you that this has the potential to be a fractured but powerful political force. My great question in reading this was, will this coalition that’s coming together be allowed to wield power?
And this goes to the fairness, the fair play point you just made, and that the fact that the left is so unused to losing any battle. If this coalition starts to actually threaten hegemonic leftist power within institutions or the power of those institutions themselves, given what has happened with the Trump presidency. And for example, the bureaucracy is stepping completely out of line, whether that’s leaking stuff or actively trying to contravene presidential policy, not reporting critical foreign policy developments to the president so that he can make a decision. Those kinds of anti-democratic or illegitimate unfair moves on the chess board of politics, will this coalition actually be allowed to make a number of substantial wins of the order of Dobbs or before it actually gets any ability to do that? Will the systems themselves… Essentially will the empire strike back here? Will they change the Rubik’s Cube or like the gameplay so that these democratic majorities cannot actually put into action any of these cultural victories that they agree on?
Well, I think the answer to that question very much determines, or is determined by how prepared the conservative movement in the Republican party is to engage with a reality in which the empire is going to strike back, right? Which is that even as I think the Republican party is beginning to wrap its head around the situation and just what they’re up against. I mean, you can look to someone like Ron DeSantis in Florida, who’s really engaging with politics with the understanding that he’s not just up against the Democratic party in the political arena, he’s up against an array of public private institutions that are going to be working to undermine everything that he tries to do. But you see, again, the left talking themselves into the idea that the right taking power in any arena is an existential threat to democracy. And that everything is required to stop that from happening.
So you are, especially, as the right continues to log victories, which I think they will in the short to medium term, you are going to see the left regroup and respond aggressively. And I don’t even think we really know what that’s exactly going to look like yet. But right now, Dobbs took Democrats in the left by surprise. I mean, there’s a lot of hysterical hand waving, but they actually don’t have a plan really to confront it because they are not used to losing. So right now, the entire left-wing institutional sphere is on the back foot because they don’t really have a game plan for what to do when the right actually wields power effectively and actually takes ground. But I don’t think that’s going to last forever. They are going to regroup, and they are going to develop a game plan and they are going to strike back.
And the right has to be ready for that. Right now in this window of opportunity we have, when they’re on the back foot, I think we need to push as hard as we can because this is an unprecedented window where we actually can make serious strides. But 3, 4, 5, 10 years down the line, we are going to be contending with a constellation of incredibly powerful institutions that are going to be committed to working together in a coordinated fashion to undermine any attempt to actually pass conservative policy or actually take power for conservatives.
So, conservatives have to think in those terms. Whether or not they’re going to be able to remains to be seen. I think they can. I mean, the genius of our constitutional system, even in the state that it’s in right now, is that there’s still tools and mechanisms for us to fight back, whether it’s at the state level or with the Supreme Court. But we are going to be up against an array of incredibly powerful institutions that are going to be trying to undermine anything conservatives try to do. And conservatives need to understand that’s the reality of the situation and engage in those terms.
Yeah. I mean, look, I’m very heartened by the way that DeSantis is acting, which does reveal that he thinks about it in those terms, right? That one, he understands that he’s not just fighting within the boundaries of the political arena, that he’s fighting institutions, as you say, both public and private that are going to use their power in a coordinated way. I mean, there’s the question though of legitimate or illegitimate exercise of power, right? So, if this new coalition takes power within the legitimate political institutions, which is to say they win the House and the Senate, and they actually start and I’m very pessimistic as to whether or not they’ll actually start passing actually important anti-institutional legislation, but let’s say they did that, right? That we win the House, the Senate, and eventually the presidency they start passing… Let’s say they decide to gut the universities and they decide to gut all the federal money out of the university system. They say, “This system is hostile to everything we believe in. There’s no reason why we should be subsidizing our enemies. No more money for you.” Right?
I guess, my question is what illegitimate methods are these institutions going to use to try to make that exercise of political power, which is well within the bounds of every constitutional and small ill liberal space to make it illegitimate in the same way that they made Trump and his election illegitimate for four years? And that really scares me. And I don’t mean to go all super blackbill on this, but the way that… For example, the bureaucracies and the intelligence services of the United States acted during the four years of the Trump presidency really do… It frightens me for any situation, especially because Trump was ineffectual. If we had somebody who was more effectual at actually hitting the left where it actually hurt. I struggle to see what will prevent them from completely jettisoning any norms, any small ill liberal norms, which anyway they’ve declared bigoted and racist for the actual exercise of properly democratically elected power.
Right. Well, I mean, I think in many ways, they already have jettisoned those norms. All the talk of norms from Democrats is very selective, right? When Republicans are actually doing things, it’s a violation of norms. When Democrats are violating norms, of course, it’s just defending our democracy. But this is why, to my mind, it’s so important that in many ways Republicans do think in anti-institutional terms, right? I do want to see the Republican party go to war with the universities and the education bureaucracy. I do want to see the Republican party go to war with Silicon Valley. I want to see the Republican party go to war with big business and the corporate bureaucracies that wield big business often against conservatives. But thinking in those terms is not something that institutionalist conservatives and mainstream Republicans are really used to doing.
They’re used to thinking of powerful institutions as their friends, which in many ways is a holdover from a previous era that does not exist in American life anymore. And I think Republican voters are actually much further along in understanding the reality of the situation than most Republican party elites are, which is a good thing because it means that there are pressures on the Republican party to move the right way, but it is going to be a slow and painful process. And we’re going to sustain plenty of losses on the way. In terms of whether or not I’m optimistic or pessimistic, I think all conservatism to a certain extent is pessimism. It’s political pessimism enacted. We have a very low regard for human nature in general, but I do think that… Like I said, I think the right is actually in a better place today to confront these issues than it has been in a long time, because it’s just beginning to grasp the reality of the situation.
The Republican party, I think, hasn’t quite cut up yet and you’re going to see a lot of resistance and a lot of things that I’m frustrated with, even if we have majorities in both chambers of Congress and the White House. But it is exponentially better in terms of the situation than it was just a few years ago. Are we going to see a Republican Congress defund Harvard? Probably not, at least in the next five years or so. But are we going to see a lot more Republicans talking in and thinking in those terms? I think so. And that to me is material we can work with. So in general, we need to be thinking in terms of weakening these institutions that are controlled by our enemies. Silicon Valley should be weaker than it is. The university system should be weaker than it is because, to your point, insofar as we allowed them to maintain power, they’re just going to use it to undermine us.
But that is a long-term project. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of it with people like DeSantis in Florida, and there’s an appetite for it in the Republican base. So Republican vote politicians who don’t fail to act in those terms are going to be punished by their voters eventually. So to me, that’s the reason for some modest restrained optimism about the situation, which is that those of us who are in elite conservative institutions but share the Republican voters’ appetite for a more aggressive approach have a lot of resources to work with. Most Republican voters are on our side. We just need to enact to those principles by actually pushing conservative elites and Republican elites to act accordingly.
Yeah, it strikes me that anti-institutionalism the way you describe that, right? That may or may not be compatible — maybe not compatible with a small-c conservatism, right? You’ve been described as radical by The New Republic. Radical doesn’t seem like a descriptor that squares with the institutional conservatism of conservative intellectual heroes like Kirk. What makes you embrace this idea of anti-institutional radicalism and why do you think actually… It seems like the younger a conservative is, the more likely he or she is to be this kind of radical, meaning there are a lot of institutions that are unsalvageable. We need to, in some way, completely destroy them, deplete their power, replace them in some way. Why do you think younger conservatives do tend towards radicalism perhaps in comparison to younger conservatives even 20 years ago?
Right. It’s an important question. Obviously, radical is a charged term, but I mean, if you actually look at what radical means in terms of its Latin root, what it means is getting to the root of something and uprooting it, which I think is the way that conservatives need to think today. On the one hand, obviously, radicalism and conservatism are often discussed as opposing polls. But it’s worth recognizing that the first generation of conservatives, when they were young, explicitly understood their project in radical terms. People forget now in the mission statement of National Review, where I work, William F. Buckley described himself as a radical conservative. And he described himself as a revolutionary against the liberal order at various other junctures. He called Goldwater’s campaign a counter-revolution, right?
So they were really thinking in those terms. And I think as conservatism became institutionalized and became more associated with institutional, it lost some of its radical edge. But in many ways, I see the conservatism that is more popular, particularly in my generation of young conservatives as a return to how conservatives initially understood their project, which is it is a certain radicalism and that it’s seeking to overthrow an institutional order, but it’s doing it in order to conserve a shared way of life which I think is what conservatives should be fighting for.
We’re trying to defend America, understanding that the institutions that we’re trying to weaken or overthrow are a threat to the things that we want to conserve. So it might seem contradictory on its face, but I actually see the two as necessarily linked. And I think young conservatives are more partial to this just because they have much more direct experience with the radicalism of these institutions and a lot of our older counterparts. If you spend time on a college campus today and you see how radical the ideology is that predominates in the classroom, and you hear students speaking in those terms, and then you see that ideology seep out into all of our other institutions from the New York Times to big business to Silicon Valley, you understand firsthand what kind of threat that is and how much it cannot be allowed to spread if we are going to fight to protect a shared American way of life.
So in many ways, I think the reason that a lot of young conservative intellectuals and elites and politicians are interested in a much more aggressive politics, it’s just experiential. It’s just their encounter firsthand with a much more hard-edged left. And their understanding that that left capture of our institutions really is at odds with everything that conservatives care about. And that’s why I think young conservatives are…. There’s probably more of an appetite in the up-and-coming generation of conservatives, for lack of a better word, probably could be described as a radicalism.
Yeah, I’ll say this from a personal perspective. Kind of Kirkian conservatism was always deeply unsatisfying to me. I encountered it probably the same way that maybe you did. Going through the comforting embrace of conservative ink. You read all the same essays, you read all the same books. And I always found it devoid of pretending that conservatism is devoid of actual content to be out of keeping with American history and out of keeping and certainly with how I felt about my own intellectual views, right? Or my own ideological commitments. Like, I actually always felt that I do have ideological commitments, not just a natural instinctive “Don’t tear down the fence until you know why it’s there.” Yes. That’s part of conservatism and that thumb on the scale for prudence and the respect for tradition.
But it seems like you actually need a reason to say that your tradition is good. And that was always inherently dissatisfying to me that the pluralism verging almost into moral relativism where all civilizations are wise. Well, not all civilizations are equally good. So I always had this objection, but I think this moment is really pulling apart those polls of conservatism between the people who do believe that there is content to preserving, as you say, the American way of life and people who believe that conservatism is a disposition. Because if you believe that conservatism is a disposition and that you believe that slow change is the only way forward that massive or radical change is dangerous, which I actually do believe is dangerous. But that now, not only says makes conservatives the new conservators of the new deal, which it has for all of movement conservatism. It now makes us the conservators of essentially wokeness, right? And to that extent, there really is a lot of merit to the critique that conservatism for the last several decades has been progressivism driving the speed limit.
Right. And I wrote my senior thesis in college on this British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who was exactly the conservative you’re describing. He hated politics, and he described conservatism as a disposition. And it’s a very beautiful literary articulation of a particular disposition. And what I would say in its defense is that it makes some amount of sense at a time when our institutions are not controlled by radicals, right? In a different time, in a different moment, in a different context that study as she goes, conservatism is very useful and important. And it can help us identify what we’re fighting for and what we should be trying to preserve. But I don’t think it’s enough in terms of giving us a political philosophy that actually allows us to fight to defend things. Because if your sense of small-c conservatism is just that you are fighting to preserve something approximating the status quo or you’re just opposed to radical change, you are going to basically be acquiescing to driving the country into a ditch because that approach to politics is just basically, like you said, the speed limit version of progressivism. That’s not what we need right now. We need an actual, some radical course correction because the way the country is going is unsustainable. And for those of us who love this country and see something noble and redeeming in its traditions and its history and its people, it’s unacceptable to just accept that as what conservatism is. We need something that is actually willing to affect a radical course correction, which requires something more aggressive than basically being opposed to radical change.
There’s plenty of resources for that in the American conservative tradition. Like I said, a lot of the early conservative thinkers were a kind of radical, but the kind of conservatism that someone like Kirk was articulating was a defense of a bygone era that does not exist anymore. And in that sense, as beautiful as Kirk’s writing is, and as much as it helps us understand what is good about America and what is worth defending, it doesn’t give us the resources to defend or to respond to the contemporary moment in the way that I think that we need to.
Yeah. I’ve found myself wondering recently if conservative is really the right word to describe the American right anymore. And I guess, it is conservative in that there is what we are conserving is a way of life, but I guess, I agree with what you just laid out. I think the necessary application of political power will increasingly be unconservative if we don’t want to sacrifice the actual content of what we’re defending completely, that what is going to be necessary is a conservative or anti-conservative application of political power.
But within that, what frustrates me about this debate I think is that the very people who are… Let’s say, the moderate liberal left, and let’s say a kind of establishment small-c conservatism. That’s very wary of these big changes is that… I agree that some of these radical changes actually could end up very badly, but I don’t see any alternative. And furthermore, I see the longer this goes on, the more radical solutions will be required to stop it, right? And actually to me, the small-c conservative instinct is the choices are not between a quiet decline and a dangerous radical reactionary movement that brings us to a halt, but rather that all of these options, the longer this goes on, it’s going to engender the backlash that truly is, has some elements of not just radicalism, but ferocity and anti-liberalism that…. I don’t know. I’m being inarticulate right now, but I’m thinking more about the pre-revolution, pre-fascist Spain, right? Where you have a moderate party that increasingly turns a blind eye, that tries to play in the lines and turns a blind eye to a left that is essentially using illegitimate political tactics to gain power.
And in the end, it’s not like they won by sticking to their small-c moderation. What happened is the movement that rose up to replace them was fascist.
And similarly disregarding of any boundaries of legitimate political power versus illegitimate. And so that’s, I think, what frustrates me about this is that the folks who are sitting back and saying, “Well, both sides are potentially playing with fire here.” Like, the safe bet is the small-c conservative way will make small changes. Maybe we’ll do a little occupational licensing reform and some tax cuts and hope for the best and trust in the inherent moderation of the American people. My worry is that it’s not like that vacuum will be filled by something. And I hope it’s filled by what you wrote in your New York Times essay in terms of the new right actually being more muscular and robust on these cultural issues in a way that actually does stem future true radicalism. But I don’t know, what’s your prediction, do you think…
Well, I agree with you. I mean, like to put it much more simply, things are going to get crazier, right? Things are going to get much crazier, even if the right is prepared to confront the monumental issues that I think they need to, before things get better, they’re going to get crazier. And we need a conservatism to your point that does more than stand up to our history yelling, “Please go a little slower and maybe with lower taxes,” right? We need something that’s actually going to stop the decline of America. Not just because, to your point, the decline of America is bad because we love America. But because that decline is not going to be slow and steady, it’s going to be increasingly unmoored. It’s going to be increasingly crazy. It’s going to be increasingly polarized. And it’s obviously perished the thought, but it’s not impossible to imagine a situation in which it descends into real chaos and violence.
To me, that’s one of the reasons I would still call myself a conservative is, A, because I actually am fighting to conserve something. I’m not one of these radicals who thinks that the founding was a mistake, that America was poisoned from the start. I genuinely love this country, and I want to defend and fight for it. But also because I think actually in some ways the more muscular or aggressive or radical conservatism is the way to restore the center. It is the way to bring the temperature down long term. And the moderate steady as she goes, conservatism is actually going to lead to more craziness in the future. Because the other side is not taking their foot off the gas pedal. I think if the past five years have taught us anything, it’s clearly that. If you give them an inch, they will continue to take a mile and they will not abide any calls for moderation or norms.
That’s just not something they’re interested in. They’ve told us what their plan is for the country, and it’s a disaster. And I want to do everything that we can to stop it. Again, the reason I would call myself as a conservative is because one of the other things besides just conserving things about the country is that conservatism does counsel certain permanent insights about human nature and politics and the use of government and all those things.
And I still take all those things seriously. I think we have to be prudential in the way that we pursue a much more aggressive agenda. I’m not someone who thinks just burn it all down for burn it all down sake’s is a good is a good thing. There are plenty of ways that this could go too far. I mean, to be careful about that we need to have those discussions and debates, but we have to be willing to think in anti-institutionalist terms and think in terms of actually weakening the institutions that are trying to undermine, not just us, but the country. If we’re actually going to restore anything, approximating the way of life that most Americans have lived for most our history.
So again, to me, in a weird way, that’s the true moderate position in terms of trying to restore the center and bring the temperature down long term. The people who posture as moderates are actually the ones who are going to lead to more radical outcomes in the future.
I couldn’t agree more with that. No slow European decline for America, I think. That option is not on the table. Nate Hochman, thank you so much for joining High Noon. People can find your work at National Review. You have essays coming out in a variety of publications, both conservative and mainstream continue. I encourage everybody to continue to keep an eye on Nate’s work going forward. So thank you so much for joining me today.
Yeah. Thanks, Inez. That was fun.
And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman as a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave. And we’ll see you next time on High Noon.