Could there soon be an American counterpart to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, a right-wing populist who in 2018 declared, “We must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy: It is called Christian democracy. And we must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite”?
Liberal democracy, Orban continued,
Or could there soon be an American counterpart to Giorgia Meloni, another right-wing populist and admirer of Orban, now on course to become the next prime minister of Italy?
Donald Trump’s entrenched refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election and his deepening embrace of conspiracy theory, particularly its QAnon strain; the widespread belief among Republican voters that the election was stolen; and, as The Times reported on Sept. 18, the fact that “six Trump-backed Republican nominees for governor and the Senate in midterm battlegrounds would not commit to accepting this year’s election results, with another six Republicans ignoring or declining to answer a question about embracing the November outcome” — all suggest, to say the least, that all is not well with democracy in America.
There are many other signals pointing to the vulnerability of the liberal state.
A 2020 study, “Global Satisfaction With Democracy” by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, found that dissatisfaction with democracy has grown rapidly in developed nations since the recession of 2008, and that one of the sharpest increases in discontent has been in the United States:
Along similar lines, Joshua Tait — a contributor to the volume “Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy” — argued in a Q. and A. posted at George Washington University’s Illiberalism Studies Program that “we face potentially massive disruptions over the coming decades as we feel the impacts of climate change, aging populations, and automation.”
Tait went on:
In an email response to my follow-up inquiry, Tait wrote:
The end of the Cold War, Tait contended, prompted the right to shift from an international focus to domestic issues:
Many leaders of the social and cultural right in this country are treating Trump’s presidency and his continuing hold on a majority of Republican voters as an opportunity to further mobilize conservatives.
The National Conservatism project, created in 2019 by the Edmund Burke Foundation, has taken up this challenge, joining together an array of scholars and writers associated with such institutions, magazines and think tanks as the Claremont Institute, Hillsdale College, the Hoover Institution, the Federalist, First Things, the Manhattan Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and National Review.
On June 22, 75 supporters of the National Conservatism project issued a 10-part statement of principles. The signatories include Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative; Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina and a former president of the Heritage Foundation; Mark Meadows, a former chief of staff to President Trump; Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and the venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
The principles include a strong commitment to the infusion of religion into the operation of government: “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition.” Thus the “Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities, and as the rightful inheritance of believers and nonbelievers alike.”
Perhaps most strikingly, the principles declare that:
The principles argue for a restoration of traditional family values combined with a rejection of the sexual revolution and of feminist calls for self-actualization in defiance of family obligation:
Their authors warn that
I asked Yoram Hazony, the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, to expand on this phrase in the statement in the principles: “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision.”
Hazony replied by email that the statement is intended
In her March 2022 paper, “Illiberalism: a conceptual introduction,” Marlene Laruelle, a professor of international affairs and the director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, provides a four-part definition of the term:
Laruelle argues that there are significant differences between illiberalism and conservatism as it has been traditionally understood:
In a 2021 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Why America Needs National Conservatism,” Christopher DeMuth, president from 1986 through 2008 of the mainstream Republican American Enterprise Institute and now chairman of the National Conservative Conference, reinforces Laruelle’s point: “When the American left was liberal and reformist, conservatives played our customary role as moderators of change. We too breathed the air of liberalism, and there are always things that could stand a little reforming.” But, DeMuth continued, “today’s woke progressivism isn’t reformist. It seeks not to build on the past but to promote instability, to turn the world upside-down.”
The doctrines of progressivism have resulted, DeMuth argues, in
How deep is the reservoir of support that national conservatism can tap into? The striking pattern in polling data shows that over the years from 2017 to the present, Trump, despite all his liabilities, has retained a consistent favorability rating, ranging from 41 to 46 percent of the electorate, a base that appears virtually immovable.
Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at Berkeley and the author of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” has been interviewing voters in Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachia since 2018, exploring the reasons behind this unwavering loyalty.
I asked her about the prospects of illiberalism in this country and she replied by email: “We should keep a close eye on the sense of grievance stored up almost as a springboard within the word ‘stolen.’ ” The background to this, Hochschild argued,
The story does not end there. Hochschild continued:
Still, national conservatism faces significant hurdles. For example, Hochschild pointed out, this country recently saw a dramatic change in the Kansas electorate: “In the days after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision leaked, Kansans turned out in record numbers in the primary and delivered a victory for abortion rights, a win fueled by Democrats out registering Republicans by 9 points since the Dobbs decision was announced, with a staggering 70 percent of all new registrants being women.”
How dangerous, then, is America’s current right populist movement?
Tait, the historian of conservatism, is cautious in addressing this question, noting that national conservatism seems to “represent something new in that it seems to explicitly depart from liberalism instead of reproducing it in a compromised, conservative way.” He described the Edmund Burke Foundation’s Statement of Principles as
Damon Linker, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, sees a strong parallel between trends in the United States and the illiberal developments in Europe. Referring to the recent election in Italy, Linker posted “What just happened in Italy?” on his Sept. 26 substack, Eyes on the Right, arguing that
If that sounds familiar, Linker continued,
William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, points out in an essay, “What Is National Conservatism? The movement could be the future of the American right,” that “Two of illiberalism’s most important intellectuals, political theorists Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, have mounted a frontal attack on the entire individualist, rights-based liberal political tradition that they trace back to John Locke.” In Eastern Europe, this critique resonates, Galston continued, but “it does create a problem for the United States where, historians inspired by Louis Hartz have argued, political liberalism is our tradition.”
National conservatives, Galston argued,
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