“National Greatness” Is Not the Appropriate Response to “Wokeism”

Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right after a Generation of Decay
Edited by Arthur Milikh
Encounter Books, 2023; 328 pp.

The contributors to Up from Conservatism, most of whom are associated with the Claremont Institute, think that “movement” conservatism has failed, in large part through acceptance of the premises of the Left. The Right needs to carry the battle to the enemy, aiming at its destruction and its replacement by a sounder regime. The contributors include Michael Anton, David P. Goldman, Scott Yenor, and, much in the news of late, Richard Hanania, and their essays make many useful points; but the book suffers from a fatal flaw.

On the one hand, it protests against the tyranny of the state; but on the other, it calls for the expansion of that very state to bring about its own favored goals. A leftist “woke” state is bad; not so a “national greatness” state. The contributors differ among themselves, and it would be wrong to impute the statist proclivities of some of them to the others, but this is a book divided against itself.

Many of the contributors find disturbing the “woke” movement, which holds that because of past oppression of “protected” groups, members of these groups must receive preferential treatment today. Those who dissent from this view are ruthlessly suppressed, and the inquisitorial powers of the state are deployed against them. According to Joshua Mitchell and Aaron Renn, the “woke” movement has become a religion, and unbelievers must be cast out from society. They write:

Identity politics, . . . now upon us, immanentizes the scapegoat, a Christian heresy, while at the same time affirming that a scapegoat is necessary to take way the sins of the world—an article of Christian faith. . . . Man’s stain is still the consuming issue. But moral cleanliness and purity are not purchased through Christ; instead they are purchased by scapegoating another person or group said to be responsible for the sins of the world. “Not all of mankind is unclean,” declare our identity politics priests, “just the white race”. . . . The unclean must be purged from our midst. . . . In the New Awakening that is identity politics, cathartic rage is directed toward whiteness and all that it has supposedly wrought. (emphasis in original)

As Robert Delahunty notes, the FBI and other national security agencies have become a “deep state,” able to spy on those who incur the displeasure of the government and to harass them:

There is a growing risk that the vast and intrusive state security apparatus created during the War on Terror might now be turned against legitimate political opposition within the country, and that manufactured fears of domestic extremism might be used to justify repressive measures. . . . the actual practice of the Justice Department and FBI under Biden strongly suggests that the focus of “domestic security” investigations will be political conservatives exercising their constitutional rights, such as parents of school children objecting to mask mandates, pro-life activists and licensed gun owners. . . . For the Biden administration and the intelligence community that services it, violent left-wing domestic extremism seems invisible.

One would think that the lesson from this abuse of power is to curtail the powers of these nefarious agencies, and Delahunty deserves great credit for considering their outright abolition. He says:

Proposals not merely to reform but to abolish the FBI have been raised over many years on both the civil libertarian Left and the antistatist Right. The FBI’s proclivity to illegal and unethical conduct seems inscribed in its DNA and its recent shameful attempt to undermine a democratically elected president have [sic] taken its wrongdoing to a new level. The difficulty, however, is that a successor agency, even If populated by an entirely new staff, would likely return to the current agency’s patterns and practices if it were to possess the same powers and responsibilities.

Evidently, he does not fully grasp that under the libertarian proposal, there would be no successor agency at all.

I regret that some of the contributors react to the abuses of “wokeism” by saying, in effect, “If only we can come to power, we will turn the instruments of the state against our enemies. We will destroy those who tried to destroy us.” Matthew Peterson says:

As those engaged in current legal battles have pointed out, whether it be free speech, antitrust, or common carrier laws and regulations, there are plenty of avenues already available to protect consumers and attack the corporations now wielding their power against employees, customers, and competition to further a political agenda. What we lack is the will to deploy them. If we . . . engage in the full-scale economic war that corporations are already waging against us, we will unleash the talent and creativity of politicians, policy-makers, and lawyers at a much greater scale and with much greater effectiveness than we’ve seen thus far. The Left successfully carried out such a program over the past decades.

Peterson is certainly right that government subventions to corporations must end, but to act in the way he suggests would be to ignore all that history has taught us about the state, that “coldest of all cold monsters.”

Many of the contributors call for protective tariffs and the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States.

As the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton, in his Report on Manufactures, urged a policy of promoting American manufacturing. According to Hamilton, national “independence and security” are objectives of all governments, which require America to “possess within itself all the essentials of national supply,” including “the means of subsistence, habitation, clothing, and defense.” (emphasis in original)

Carson Holloway is right that this was Hamilton’s view, but why should we accept it as correct? How does impeding American trade promote our security? We are owed some argument but do not get it: the fact that one of the Founders favored this view is enough.

A policy of high tariffs would require the state to pick winners and losers, and this is even more true of the massive partnership between business and the state that David Goldman advocates to promote research and development. Whether this is the path to American “greatness” must be left for others to determine. Certainly it is not the path to liberty.

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