In a provocative essay for the New Criterion titled, “American Conservatism and the Problem of Populism,” conservative historian George Nash sees this moment in American politics as being profoundly different from anything he’s witnessed in the last half century. Noting early in his piece that “Perhaps the most important fact to assimilate about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, monolithic. It is a coalition – a coalition built on ideas – with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile,” Nash goes on to outline the different philosophical factions, which combined over decades to create an enduring political movement.
Importantly, in describing the interplay between conservative intellectuals and politicians, Nash makes an essential point: before there were coalitions, there were “ideas.” Whether it was the Neo-Cons or the libertarian economists, or the moral traditionalists, each one of these groups had their own intellectual defenders, grassroots political supporters, and media outlets.
Towards the end of his essay, Nash concludes, “In short, Trumpist populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post-1945 conservative coalition described in this essay.” From this dire conclusion, Nash asks, “But conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices, arguments as well as sound bites, and civility as well as indignation. In this season of discontent, it might be useful for conservatives of all persuasions to step back from the fray for a moment and ask themselves a simple question: What do conservatives want? What should they want? Perhaps by getting back, very deliberately to basics, conservative intellectuals can begin to restore some clarity and direction to the debate.”
The transformation of American politics will start with new ideas leading to new coalitions solving tomorrow’s challenges. Part of America’s political re-balancing will start with the renewal of conservatism. What we are proposing here, then, is creating that space for the nation’s leading conservative intellectuals (scholars and pundits) to “step back from the fray for a moment” to consider in smaller group deliberations the future of American conservatism and its political expression through the lenses of major policy issues, which have been both sent reeling and disconnected from political expression by the Donald Trump candidacy and this populist era.
This is more than an intellectual exercise, but a high stakes initiative – responding to the possible loss of meaningfully engaging on the defining ideals and values of the American Project. Any hopes for finding a national political balance in the wake of this year’s presidential election, must be founded on a renewal of the conservative intellectual tradition capable of addressing both the issues of the moment and speaking to the timeless ideals of The American Project.