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What makes a conservative? Avik Roy on the tensions between freedom and nationalism in American conservatism

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Avik Roy, the founder and president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a U.S.-based public policy think tank, about the recently released Freedom Conservative Statement and new ideological tensions with American conservatism.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Avik Roy, who’s the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a U.S.-based think tank, and a prominent conservative policy thinker on a range of topics including health care, poverty, and cryptocurrencies. He’s recently played a leading role in drafting and promoting a major policy manifesto called the “Freedom Conservative Statement,” which counts amongst its signatories figures such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg, and Washington Post columnist George Will. I’m grateful to speak with him about the manifesto, including why he thought it was needed, how it differs from the ideas and priorities put forward by the so-called National Conservatives, and what their debate tells us about the character and state of American conservatism. Avik, thanks so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

AVIK ROY: Sean, thank you. It’s great to be with you. I grew up north of Windsor in suburban Detroit watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC Channel 9. So I have a special affinity for my Canadian neighbours, even the ones who don’t root for my Detroit Red Wings.

SEAN SPEER: I’ve heard that you’re a Wings fan. I’m afraid we won’t get to that subject today. At least, we don’t plan to. We’ll have to have you back on to talk about their prospects for the upcoming season.

AVIK ROY: Well, we lent Team Canada Steve Yzerman for a few Olympics, and hopefully we get some credit for that.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, amen. Let’s start with the statement itself. When did you decide to pursue it? What was the process to draft it? And how did you go about getting people to sign on to its vision?

AVIK ROY: Well, I think the way to explain it is I have to give the National Conservatives some credit. So we’ve had this, you could say, post-World War II conservative consensus in America, or had for a period of time from the 1950s to the rise of Trump, in which there was, as has often been described, the “three-legged stool” of individual freedom, social conservatism, and fighting the communists, particularly the Soviet Union, defeating the Soviet Union. That started to fray as the Cold War ended. So the Berlin Wall comes down and the Soviet Union falls apart, and pretty much immediately, though we didn’t necessarily notice it at the time, that consensus started to fray. People didn’t really know what was the thing that was going to replace the Soviet Union in terms of the foreign policy. What was the conservative foreign policy after the end of the Cold War?

The libertarian, economically oriented people and the social conservatives didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on each other’s—they were topics, but the social conservatives weren’t as attached to free market economics necessarily, and the libertarians weren’t necessarily as attached to social conservatism. So this coalition, which really was glued together through the common enemy of the Soviet Union, they all had reasons to understand that whatever our differences may be, the Soviet Union was a greater threat to all of our priorities, and so we should all stick together, once the Soviet Union expired; at least, in its previous form, that reason for libertarians and social conservatives, and anti-Soviet hawks to collaborate was not as apparent. That period of dissolution and the dissolution of that consensus took a while to really become apparent, but it was sufficiently weak when Donald Trump came down his golden escalator in 2015, that—I mean, he had that insight that this consensus was fragile and decided that he was going to replace it.

At least, he wasn’t exactly an ideological warrior. He had certain instincts, particularly on immigration and trade, where he departed from the conservative consensus of free trade and what we might call on the conservative side, a Canada-style immigration system, where I think the conservative consensus in America prior to Trump was, “Let’s attract the best and brightest from around the world, but we’re not so keen on illegal immigration.” That was the conservative position. Trump took a more hawkish line where he said, “The illegal immigration part, we need to be more aggressive on. The establishment Republicans have been too afraid to fight the Left on that particular issue.” And plenty of people who saw themselves as Trump’s acolytes were even more aggressive on that front.

So Trump becomes president. He does a lot of things to try to secure the border. He launches various trade wars with our neighbours and trade partners. But there’s a lot of still traditional conservatism in the Trump administration. The judges that he appoints, the tax cuts that he enacts, the deregulatory agenda that he puts forth. These are all things that are very much very aligned with what we might think of as a traditional conservative movement. So for all the political noise about Trump—and Trump certainly was catnip for the media which always wanted to talk about his latest provocation—from a purely policy standpoint, his administration was a hybrid—a little bit of nationalism grafted in on trade and immigration—with the more traditional conservative movement on the other fronts that I mentioned. Now, fast forward to today; we’re recording this in 2023, and things look a little different.

There are people who think of themselves as ideological nationalists not attached at all, or at least not inherently, to that old conservative consensus from the second half of the 20th century. To say, “Let’s take Trumpism to its logical conclusion and not only be against free trade and against immigration, but against freedom more broadly.” And say, “Look, the most important thing is national cohesion, cultural cohesion. These things are much more important than freedom. And if we are forced to choose between the two, we need to choose national cohesion over freedom.”

And to their credit, the nationalists start organizing conferences. And there was an elite group of intellectuals who’d been writing in various blogs and forums and housed at certain think tanks that were relatively maybe less prominent at the time but are more prominent now. And they really organized and said, “Hey, let’s have conferences. Let’s network so that we can staff Capitol Hill with our people and staff presidential campaigns with our people, and let’s create an ideology as—” Or, I should say, “recreate or reestablish an ideology that’s prevalent all over the world. Nationalism is a very old idea, but let’s create an American version of nationalism that is compatible with all these global versions of nationalism. And let’s turn that into an ideological centre that discards the old American conservative consensus, which is really about preserving America’s classical liberal tradition.”

And so last year, in 2022, the National Conservatives put together a statement of principles and really started to attract a lot of people who said, “Hey, this is now the base and the energy behind the conservative movement in America; if I want to run for president or run for senate, then this is what I’ve got to support.” And I think what you see today is that 13 years ago, when the Tea Party was the new hotness, every Republican politician said, “Well, I got to be like the Tea Party. I got to talk about the Constitution. I got to talk about limited government.” And today, we have this new thing where everyone thinks, “Okay, well, if I’m going to win a primary in the Republican Party, I’ve got to be a nationalist. I’ve got to talk about how much I hate immigration, how much I am concerned about national cohesion. I’ve got to fight the culture wars even more aggressively than conservatives have in the past.” And it’s not like cultural issues have not been front and centre throughout modern American history, but the nationalists feel like that’s one thing they want to fight particularly aggressively. So all this to say that if you are a young person, if you’ve just graduated from college, means you’re 21, 22 years old today, that means you were 14, 15 years old when Trump went down that escalator, right?

And so your entire sentient life in terms of being interested in politics, this is what conservatism is for you. Conservatism is Trump; conservatism is the nationalist intellectuals who’ve been the biggest cheerleaders for Trumpism. And those of us who have that pro-freedom orientation have, I think—I wouldn’t say I put myself in this camp, but I think a lot of people who thought of themselves think of themselves as pro-freedom. I thought, “Well, Trump is a phase. Trump lost in 2020. Maybe he runs again; maybe he doesn’t. But eventually, Trump himself will no longer be a presidential candidate at some point. You can only run twice or be president twice—two terms. So at a certain point, Trump will go away, and things will go back to normal. Or at least, those of us who believe in that traditional consensus or post-World War II consensus can reassert ourselves.” And I think what we’ve seen in the last 12 months in particular, that’s not the case. That if you’re passive as a pro-Freedom Conservative, you’re going to lose that debate because the conservative movement that is growing underneath the table is a nationalist-oriented conservatism.

And that nationalism—I mean, again, for those who aren’t familiar with the political science around what is nationalism, and this may seem like, “What’s a big deal?” If you’re a Canadian or if you’re American, you might think, “Well, what’s wrong with being nationalist? What’s wrong with being pro-Canada? What’s wrong with being pro-America? I mean, I want to be pro-America. What’s wrong with that?” We were just talking about the Canadian Olympic hockey team. I mean, Canadians are incredibly polite, except when it comes to hockey. When it comes to hockey, Bobby Clarke destroys somebody with the stick. That’s okay, right? The inherent nationalist qualities of the Canadians come out when hockey is on the tape.

So nationalism is not merely being in favour of your country’s success. That’s a really important thing to understand. But that confusion is what helps nationalists. Nationalists benefit from the confusion where people say, “Hey, I’m pro-America. That means I’m a nationalist.” Whereas, no, no, that doesn’t make you a nationalist. Nationalism is a specific ideology in which you believe that freedom needs to be suppressed in the service of the nation and that the nation needs to be put above all other possible interests, such as your individual liberty. Whereas the American view has always been the—or at least traditionally has been—the way that America has become the greatest country in the world is because freedom has made us the greatest country in the world. The fact that we attract the best and brightest from around the world, the fact that we have this dynamic, innovative economy where you can start new companies and generate new ideas that change the world—those are the things that make America the greatest country in the world.

There’s a reason why Hungary is not the greatest country in the world. There’s a reason why America surpassed Britain as the greatest country in the world. It’s because we embodied freedom, not merely that we were pro-America. So this debate has become pretty significant, in that if you just sit around and say the nationalists are going to expire because their ideas are obviously wrong, that’s not true. Bad ideas, as we see throughout history, can last a long time. And so I thought, and a number of others thought as well, that it was important for those of us who believed that freedom and the classical liberal tradition of America was essential to what makes America great. To assert that and to reassert that, to create our own statement of principles, so that if you’re a young person graduating from college or getting your start in politics, you have two choices.

If you think of yourself as conservative, you could say, “Okay, maybe I agree with the nationalists, and I really don’t think freedom is that important.” Or, “I do think freedom is important, so I’ll side with the freedom conservatives.” But let’s give them the choice, number one. And number two, let’s make sure that we’re addressing the failings or gaps in the conservative movement of the United States of the late 20th century. Because there are gaps, there are flaws. And the nationalists, to their credit, have identified some of those flaws. In certain ways, they’ve doubled down on some of the flaws of 20th-century American conservatism, in that one of the biggest flaws, in my view, of late-20th-century American conservatism is that it did not reconcile itself to a diversifying America. The conservatism of Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in the South.

And a lot of the National Conservatives, whether they explicitly say so or not, that’s the part of the old conservative consensus that they’re not necessarily exercised about. They see the diversification of America racially and ethnically as a threat to the America that they want to reestablish. And I think for those of us on the other side of this debate, we see America—as many Americans have throughout history—as an idea. The thing that makes America different from every other country in the world historically is that America was not a place of blood and soil; America was a place where, if you believed in America’s principles, we welcomed you from any other place in the world. And one could argue that Canada represents or reflects those principles even more than America does today. But to the degree that America has had this—I mean, the America that I grew up with—that’s what we all thought about.

Reagan’s last speech as president, he said—I got a letter from one of my constituents, and it said, “The thing that makes America special is you can move to Germany, but you’ll never be a German. You can move to Turkey, but you’ll never be a Turk. You can move to Japan, but you’ll never be Japanese. But anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and become an American.” That was something that Reagan wanted to always remind us of that made America special. But the nationalists don’t believe that. They believe that what makes America special is its Anglo-American and Christian heritage, which then writes off a lot of others.

So I’ve gone on for a long time. But the points I’ve been trying to make is there are these intellectual currents that are much more important than the relative transience of Donald Trump. That the nationalists have done a really great job of building a movement to take advantage of the disruption that Trump brought to the American political system. That those of us who believe in freedom have our own work to do, to not only contrast ourselves with the nationalists where appropriate, but also to remedy the flaws and blind spots of the old American conservative movement and respond to the challenges of today.

SEAN SPEER: A ton of insight there, Avik, and we’ll pursue some of those lines of analysis now. To what extent do the tensions that you’ve just outlined reflect longstanding ones within American conservatism, and to what extent are they new and different? Is this about re-calibrating fusionism as conceived by William F. Buckley Jr. or Frank Meyer, or others? Or do you see the NatCon project as effectively seeking to undo fusionism and advance in a new and different form of American conservatism?

AVIK ROY: Much of your audience may be familiar with what fusionism is, but let’s define the term for those who are not familiar with it. So fusionism was a specific idea that many people attribute to Frank Meyer, who was an American intellectual of the 20th century who tried to take this three-legged stool that we talked about—the pro-freedom, the social conservatism, and the anti-communism—but particularly the pro-freedom and the social conservative part of it, and say, “These don’t have to be two factions who are compromising with each other.” Frank Meyer’s argument was that the two things could be reconciled in a coherent philosophy called fusionism, which I actually don’t think Frank came up with the term, I think somebody else did. But the idea was that if you truly want to be virtuous, you need to live in freedom because it’s the free choice of doing the right thing.

If you’re forced to do the right thing at gunpoint, that’s not really doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is about doing it of your own free will. And in that way, he tried to bring the social conservatives and the pro-freedom groups together. And there’s some power to that.

If you think about the fact that America does not have an established religion today, many people argue that one of the reasons why certain churches are full, the pews are full in America, whereas if you go to Denmark or a Church of England church in the U.K., the pews are empty, it’s because those churches rely on the state subsidy and the state sanction to promote themselves as the established religion. Whereas in America, you’re actually forced—you don’t have those crutches. You’re forced to market yourself and appeal to people. That has created a strength and a robustness and a vitality religion in the United States that doesn’t exist in places that have established religions. So that’s a way of, at least, in a concrete way, describing what fusionism is.

But just to be clear, not everyone who they would describe themselves as freedom conservative is technically a fusionist. That there are people who are libertarians, not fusionists, that they’re not really social conservatives at all who subscribe to the freedom conservatism. There are fusionists who do, and there are social conservatives who do say, for just the reasons we’ve described, that you can be a social conservative who says, “Part of what I’m trying to conserve is that liberal tradition because if we don’t have a classical liberalism, then the government can suppress my religious liberty. And the only way to protect my religious liberty is for there to be limits to government power.”

We’ve seen that in Canada, where—and I’ve watched those horrifying videos of the police coming into churches and trying to prohibit people from worshipping in churches during the pandemic. So all this to say that there are reasons for social conservatives to be pro-freedom, there are reasons for libertarians to be pro-religion, and there are reasons for fusionists to try to hybridize all these philosophies. Now, having gone off on a tangent, I’ve forgotten your question, so please repeat it.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it gets to a deeper point in a way that you outlined in your first answer. Let me set it up for you this way, Avik, and then you can respond. One thing that strikes me about the debate is it seems to be fundamentally about what conservatives are conserving. I’ve seen this debate play out a bit in Canada, at least online. I broadly subscribe to Hayek’s argument in his essay, “Why I’m Not a Conservative,” in which he makes the case that in North America, conservatives are essentially conserving liberalism. That is to say, the ideas, institutions, and values are liberal ones. So to be a conservative in North America is to conserve that liberal inheritance. And, as you said earlier, my sense is there are a lot of NatCons, or at least those drawn to their statement, who would challenge that idea. In fact, they might even argue it’s one of the reasons that conservatives are losing. Talk a bit about that. At its core is the FreeCon versus NatCon debate about whether North American conservatism is small “l” liberal?

AVIK ROY: The thing you hear a number of the NatCons say is that those of us who believe in classical liberals of limited government, individual liberty, that we don’t know “what time it is”—that the Left has taken over so many of the institutions in society that simply pleading for a level playing field, a Robert’s Rules of Order, or a House of Commons style parliamentary procedure, is not good enough because the Left doesn’t believe in that. And if they’re advocating authoritarianism of the Left and we are arguing for Marquess of Queensberry Rules or Robert’s Rules of Order, then it’s an inherently unbalanced fight, and we’re going to lose that fight. That’s their argument that—

SEAN SPEER: I’ve heard it say that “liberalism is for losers” as a shorthand.

AVIK ROY: Yeah. So their argument is that you need an authoritarianism of the Right to fight the authoritarianism of the Left. I think that’s profoundly wrong on a number of levels because, in fact, most Americans and most Canadians actually have a live-and-live philosophy. If you spend all your time on Twitter or social media, or you spend most of your life on a college campus or a crazy left-wing high school, you may not have that insight. But for those of us who live in the real world and have actual neighbours that we talk to and actual colleagues and counterparts who live in the real world and are trying to raise families and make a living, and pay their bills, that normal person very much wants a world in which he or she is able to live his or her own life and respects the will, the desire of others to live their own way.

So there’s been a massive distortion or a mis-assessment of where our societies actually are, because the far-Left and the far-Right are so politically engaged, and they spend all their time watching cable news and all their time on social media, and they fight each other, and they think those are the only two tribes that exist. In fact, there’s this 80 percent of the country that says, “You know what? I want everyone in America to have a fair shot at success. I want every American to live their lives according to their values. That’s okay with me. As long as they’re not telling me what to do and we all try to help each other where we can, that’s the spirit of what has made America great.”

And so that’s—one of the things that—there’s an essay I wrote for National Review a few weeks ago, or maybe it’s a few months ago now, where I talk about this so that the—it’s what’s really important to understand is if your readers were to take the Freedom Conservatism statement of principles and take the National Conservative statement of principles and compare them side to side, they might say, “Well, 80 percent of these two statements seem pretty similar. Why is everyone fighting about this? Why is this getting all this coverage? It doesn’t seem like they’re that different.” Even my wife said that when I showed her all this stuff, she said, “What is this all about?” Like, “What’s the big deal here?”

I think what’s important to understand, particularly on the nationalist side, is that the Nationalist Conservative statement of principles and ours had different purposes. Their statement of principles, in my view, and, of course, not everyone has to agree with me, but in my view, their statement of principles was designed to sanitize the darker elements of their movement.

The energy in nationalism around the world, and certainly in the United States, is driven by, in particular, immigration. And again, I think most of us on the Right—almost all of us—say, “We don’t like illegal immigration. We want immigration. We are a sovereign country that has the right to determine who enters and who exits this country.” But within that stipulation, there’s a range of views as to how much immigration or what kind of immigration is appropriate. And there are those who are really animated by the concern that if people who look different or come from different cultures than what we think of as traditionally American, if they come here, then America’s not going to be the same anymore. The comment you often hear is, “Well, I walk down the street, and I don’t recognize my country anymore.”

Well, it’s not because the sidewalk looks different. It’s not because the font on the road signs is different. It’s because the people they’re walking by on the street look different when they say that. And, to me, I get that on a certain level as a human instinct. But again, the thing that has made America special, the thing that has made America exceptional, it’s not that America is a Christian country. There are lots of countries that have the Christian cross on their flags. The United States does not have the Christian cross on its flag. America does not have an established religion, let alone a Christian-established religion. So we are not a country that was founded on Christianity the way that, say, Denmark, or England, or France, or pre-revolution France, let’s say. We are a country where there’s been this creed of if you believe in the American creed, you’re an American.

And so, the National Conservative statement was a way of saying like, we know that there are a lot of people who are out-and-out racists who call themselves nationalists. There are people who are out and out anti-Semite who call themselves nationalists. We want to push them aside and say, “No, nationalism is really this honourable tradition of just being for your country and putting that above freedom, but basically being pro-your country.” It’s not as toxic as the German version of nationalism in the 1930s. The statement of principles was very much one of sanitation of trying to marginalize those who give nationalism a bad name from their point of view.

Whereas, for us, the Freedom Conservatives, we wanted to first of all reassert that freedom is actually the thing that unifies us. It defines what makes America great. But I think in my personal case, again, speaking purely for myself, not for anyone else who’s a signatory of the document, I think that the resurgence of this blood and soil racialist conservatism is incredibly dangerous. Not merely dangerous on its own right, but for those of us who actually believe in conservatism who want to conserve the American tradition.

If we are to say that the conservative tradition in America is only for those who have Anglo-Saxon last names or who come from European countries, then we’re guaranteed to lose. You mentioned before, you said, “Well, the liberals are the losers.” I would say it’s the complete opposite. If you want to win, if you want to have a country in which the vast majority of Americans are voting for the principles we normally and traditionally think of as American, you absolutely have to have an inclusive understanding of what it means to be an American. If you don’t, then you are guaranteed to lose because you’re writing off all the people who look like me who aren’t going to subscribe to that.

This was the insight of Jason Kenny and Stephen Harper in Canada that your listeners, of course, are acutely familiar with. Something I’ve tried to express and share with my American colleagues. I remember actually, prior to the pandemic, I actually spent some time with Pierre Poilievre when he was at that time, merely a backbencher in Parliament. And I asked him about these things because I was saying, “Hey, I want to learn about what we can do to learn from all the things that you all are doing right. All the things that conservatives in Canada have figured out about understanding.” The immigrants to Canada are actually more culturally conservative than the English and French Canadians in many ways. And why is that? What is it about the Canadian conservatives that they figured this out, the American conservatives happen? We can get into that, but I find that to be a very interesting topic. The short answer is you can’t simply—the two countries are very different, and you don’t have that legacy of slavery and segregation like in the United States, which complicates so much of our racial politics. There are a bunch of other things about Canada and America that are different enough that conservatives in Canada understand things and are able to adapt to things that we yet have not been able to do. But I hope we will be able to do, and I think the Freedom Conservatives in America are striving to do.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll move on from a conceptual discussion about the similarities and differences between the FreeCons and the NatCons in a moment. But let me just say in parentheses that one of the parts of the National Conservative manifesto that I find so hard to get my head around is the rejection of viewpoint neutrality and the abandonment of liberalism as the basic foundation of American society, and I would argue Canadian society. Setting aside the normative reasons for why that’s a bad idea, it just seems, practically speaking, so many involved in the NatCon movement belong to political minorities and so abandoning liberalism just seems to me to be something of a political suicide mission, but that’s maybe a subject we can talk about another time.

AVIK ROY: Well, let me stop you there before you get to that question because there’s a—I think it’s really important to understand it’s not just about the electoral element; the electoral element is important. But it’s not just the electoral element; you might hear a NatCon say, “Well, who cares about electoral victory? This is about principle.” Like, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul to compromise his values?” That’s what you might hear a NatCon retort to purely a politically pragmatic argument. That, “The political pragmatists have sold your people down the river. And so we can’t tolerate that. We’ve got to fight for our people.”

The thing that’s really important to understand as well is that if the NatCon agenda, the NatCon program, is to say, “Well, we’re going to control the commanding heights of government education and the media, that’s the thing that the establishment conservatives have not done.” How many divisions do the NatCons have? Do you really have enough people in your movement to man the deep state, to teach all the children in K–12 education, to write for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune? Are you developing that army of journalists, and educators, and bureaucrats? No, you’re not. You don’t have enough people in your movement to even represent a majority of the Republican Party, let alone of all these cultural and intellectual institutions. So if you’re going to give more power to those institutions on the premise that you are going to control those institutions and therefore win, that’s delusional. That’s even more delusional than the electoral scenario that they envision.

SEAN SPEER: I want to ask you a question that I asked a FreeCon signatory a couple of weeks ago. If I asked you to be introspective, what parts of the NatCon critique of, say, Reaganism, to use the shorthand, would you agree with? That is to say, in hindsight, where did the FreeCons get it wrong?

AVIK ROY: Well, I would say that Reagan specifically did—first of all, it’s really important to emphasize, Reagan did a lot of things right that NatCons have no chance of replicating. Reagan won 49 states when he ran for re-election in 1984. I’ll remind the listeners. There are 50 states in the United States. He won 49. The only state he lost was Walter Mondale’s native Minnesota. And of course, he lost the District of Columbia, which isn’t technically a state. He won 60 percent of the popular vote. Trump did not win the popular vote. George W. Bush didn’t either in 2000, but basically Republican Party hasn’t won the popular vote except once: George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. So since Reagan and George W. Bush are running around. So there’s been a lot of unpopularity of Republicanism and conservatism since the Reagan years, when conservatism was very popular.

So that’s a really important thing to understand is that Reaganism actually succeeded in many ways. Where did Reaganism fail, or where has it yet to succeed? Certainly, I think one thing that Reagan himself would agree he failed at was he did not succeed completely at shrinking the size of government. He was able to deregulate a lot of the government. He was able to cut taxes and drive economic growth and stabilize the U.S. dollar, which led to a lot of economic growth. He tamed inflation, which was very important to the prosperity of Americans But the size of the government in terms of government spending continued to increase under Reagan and after Reagan. So that’s one area where Reagan didn’t succeed.

Another area that Reagan didn’t succeed at where the NatCons would criticize him for is that the cultural Left continued to ascend and gain and win a lot of victories. Where the conservatives won a lot of victories on economics, but the Left won a lot of victories in terms of the culture. The culture has moved Left since the 1980s, since the 1990s, since the 2000s. And so the NatCons would say, “Well, this whole ideology of freedom has not succeeded at turning the tide against cultural leftism. And that’s why we need a different approach.” That’s one thing they would say.

There are other critiques. One would be that conservatives didn’t sufficiently stem the tide of illegal immigration. And here, we’re starting to get into the things where I’d say—I’ll get into—I have a different diagnosis of why conservatives failed on that topic, why conservatives failed on cultural leftism. Another thing that some national conservatives say, not all, is that the freedom conservatives or the Reaganite conservatives have not sufficiently looked out for the working class. That the working class has been hollowed out by free trade, the steel plants have closed and the jobs have been shipped to China and Mexico, and other places. While elites who are college-educated and who work in finance in Silicon Valley have done very well in America, those ordinary salt-of-the-earth Americans who work with their hands, they have not done as well. That’s one argument you hear.

So those are some of the critiques. And by the way, there are critiques from the Left of Reaganism that are related to all this too. So this is where I’m glad you guessed that question because some of these areas where I personally feel and I think the signatories of our freedom conservatism statement principles share this view— there were gaps, there were failings of the 20th-century conservative movement. How do we address those? How do we adapt freedom conservatism to the areas where freedom conservatism has not succeeded? Let’s first talk about the working class, or working Americans, blue-collar Americans, people who don’t make the six-figure salaries and don’t work in the big cities.

First thing to say is that the working class is not merely white, right? The working class is Americans of all ethnicities and faiths. And so let’s make sure we’re fighting for all Americans who work for a living, not merely those who are white. The second thing I would say is that yes, the cost of living has increased in America in certain ways, not in all ways. Free trade has made the food you eat and the clothes you put on your back much less expensive, much more affordable than they were before. But there are certain aspects of American life that are way more expensive than they were before. Health care is way more expensive than it used to be. Child care is way more expensive than it used to be. A college degree or a vocational degree, or a certificate—these things are way more expensive than they used to be. Why are those things more expensive than they used to be?

Not because free markets have made health care and education and child care more expensive. It’s because of regulations and subsidies in the tax code. Government intervention has made those things more expensive. Where free markets and competition and innovation have been allowed to work in all those areas, life is more affordable and of higher quality than it used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago. But it’s in these other areas where the government has intervened, where life has become less affordable. So that’s an important point. And one of the things we talk about in our statement is that we commit to deploying the principles of individual liberty and free enterprise to solving the challenges that Americans making $40, 50, 60,000 a year face when it comes to the rising cost of living. So that’s a really important point to make.

Another gap in the 20th-century conservative movement, one that the national conservatives do not identify or complain about but one that the Left would certainly complain about, is that, as I mentioned before, the conservative movement of Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater was on the wrong side of the civil rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s. And that is why, to the degree we’ve lost the culture war, we’ve lost the culture war. You can’t credibly fight the radical left-wing woke nonsense if you yourself don’t have the credibility to talk about your bona fides on racial equality. And this is an area where the national conservatives fail. So many of them, and I won’t say all, but so many of them, and certainly many who attract a lot of attention for their views, are explicitly against racial equality. Don’t believe that people who come to America from non-European countries should have the same rights or dignity or opportunities that European immigrants or people with European ancestory do. They can’t then say, “No, no, no. Look, I’m against the crazy left-wing woke stuff. I’m for racial equality,” because they’re not.

And the average liberal-minded person won’t take them seriously when they say they’re for racial equality because, actually, many of them have not been. And so if you want to fight the woke Left, if you want to win the culture war on things like toleration and dignity and religious liberty, you actually have to be for those things. You have to be okay with the fact that people have different religious views than you. You have to genuinely believe that someone can come to America from South America or India or Japan and be just as American as you or me. So these are the things where the national conservatives argue that the reason the Reaganites have failed is because we were too nice to the Left.

And I would make the exact opposite argument is that the Reaganites, the Bill Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan conservative movement, they grudgingly accepted racial equality but didn’t embrace it. And to this day, the conservative movement has still some work to do to recognize the lasting effects of slavery and segregation on equality of opportunity. I think most of us recognize, if you actually just look at the data, it’s pretty clear that immigrants to America manage to do pretty well. Certain ethnic groups do better than others, if you look at the stats, but in general, immigrants in this country do well. The persistent inequality of outcomes and opportunity really comes from those who descended from the system of slavery and segregation. That’s the one group that just isn’t statistically as a group doing as well as everyone else.

Now, the Left’s view is: Let’s racially discriminate in the other direction. Let’s just basically say, “If you’re Black, we’re going to give you these opportunities to discriminate against everybody else.” They give you those opportunities. The Right says, “We’re okay with just being indifferent to the persistent inequality of opportunity. We don’t have to do anything about it. We just need to oppose you, the Left.” The Freedom Conservatives are making the argument—and one of the things we say in our statement is that we recognize we’re totally adamantly against discrimination on the basis of race for or against any group of people. But we also recognize that those who descend from the victims of slavery and segregation have inequality of opportunity. And we commit to deploying the principles of freedom and liberty to address those problems. So one question we often get is, “Well, what does that mean? You say that you’re against discrimination for or against anybody. So that’s good from a conservative point of view, but you also say you want to resolve these persistent inequalities. Doesn’t that mean that you’re really just another woke person?”

We get that question a lot, which is actually unfortunate because the conservative movement in America is full of ideas of how to solve these problems. Take the question of education. So traditionally, in America, education has been funded at the local level. And that’s great if you’re a segregationist, right? Because you shunt all the Black people over here. You don’t let them have the economic opportunities under the segregationist era. And then you say, “Hey, they’re responsible for putting their own school. And if that school is poor, well, tough beans.” And that’s a system we still have today in America. A system that the Left, ironically, is trying to keep in place, and some people on the Right. Whereas we, the Freedom Conservatives, say, “You know what? We’re going to give everybody an education savings account where you can go to the school of your choice. Or, if you actually don’t believe any schools serve you well, hire tutors, use YouTube, use Khan Academy. Figure out ways to teach your kids in a way that is consistent with your values and the outcomes you want.” And that’s a way to equalize the opportunities that have historically been denied those who were subject to the system of slavery and segregation.

So all that to say, you can have a system that’s racially neutral, that is not discriminating against anyone on the basis of race, but whose outcomes do a lot to address these historical inequities. That’s what the conservative movement of the 21st century needs to dedicate itself to. And if you do that, you can defeat wokeness, because for that liberal-minded person who wants there to be racial equality is uncomfortable with wokeness but sees on the other side an indifference to inequality, if those are the only two choices they have, they might choose the wokeness, or they certainly won’t have the courage to stand up to the wokeness. And we give people the courage to stand up to the wokeness because they can point to what we stand for and say, “I stand for racial quality. I stand for these reforms that will give us a fairer and freer society.”

SEAN SPEER: To stay on the subject of policy, talk a bit about how a FreeCon versus NatCon politics might produce different policy outcomes with respect to China. How do the FreeCon and NatCons approach a new strategy to China differently? Or do you think there’s actually a commonality on this issue?

AVIK ROY: I think there’s overlap, is what I’d say. I think there are people like myself who are pretty hawkish on China and think that China is an adversary. I mean, if you actually take what the Chinese leaders say to each other, they’re preparing for war with the United States and with the West, and that’s—you can’t just sit by passively and ignore that view among the Chinese. There’s a book written by a guy named Michael Pillsbury called The Hundred-Year Marathon, which is about this literally millennial ambition of the Chinese to surpass the United States on the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of communist China. And so I think that’s something we need to take very seriously, and it’s, in a sense, a new Cold War. People could make fun of someone like me for saying that, but I think that’s the reality is that China is a nationalist authoritarian power that wants to defeat the liberal West.

Now, there are people on the FreeCon side who would see themselves as hardcore libertarians, as free traders for whom they think—there are some in our movement who believe we go too far if we’re trying to restrict trade with China. But I think the overwhelming majority of our signatory, at least from the ones I’ve talked to, recognize that threat. And that’s why we don’t say in the Freedom Conservatism statement of principles that we’re just free trade absolutists. We say we believe in free trade with free people, because free trade only works if both sides are engaging in free trade. If one side is an authoritarian dictatorship that’s stealing your intellectual property, engaging in slave labour, and trying to cheat on trade agreements, then that’s not free trade.

And so there is important room for us to talk about the importance of free trade with our allies. What sometimes gets called “friendshoring.” Free trade is economically indisputably a net benefit to Americans, to the world, but bad-faith actors in the global markets have to be looked at with clear eyes. Having said that, there are people on the nationalist side who go further than what I’ve described as a moderate or reasonable common-sense approach to the China problem. For example, Donald Trump recently proposed a global 10 percent tariff on all goods imported into the United States, which would crush the American economy, increase the cost of living for ordinary Americans, drive inflation, and lead to retaliatory tariffs from our friends and allies like Canada, which would also affect economic growth and increase the cost of living.

That’s an idea that Robert Lighthizer, who was Trump’s trade representative and a senior scholar at American Compass, a prominent nationalist think tank, have been advocating for years now. So that goes well beyond just taking on specific bad actors like China. That’s about saying Canada, and the U.K., and Germany should also be—we should treat every country the same in terms of whether they’re a friend or foe in terms of the way we treat the goods and services they sell to America. And that defies common sense. But that is a serious view that’s being advocated by the leading nominee for president and the Republican Party. So it’s absolutely a deadly, serious debate.

SEAN SPEER: I want to come back to something you raised earlier, and that is the role of young conservatives. When I was a young person, libertarianism, or freedom conservatism, was an obvious entry point into the broader world of conservatism. But I get a sense these days that a lot of younger people are entering conservatism through, for lack of better term, NatCon issues. Part of it is the rise of identity politics or political correctness. Talk a bit about the debate and how it’s playing out with younger conservatives themselves.

AVIK ROY: What I observe is, there are two things. One is we’ve talked about earlier: the National Conservatives have been much more organized in the sense that they’ve developed a new consensus. I would emphasize though that’s not a consensus at all. But they’ve argued that the old, late-20th-century Buckley, Reagan, and Reaganite consensus is dead, and they’ve created the new vanguard consensus, which again is really actually an old consensus. What nationalists are trying to revive is the conservatism of the 1930s, which has been around again for a long time. It’s not actually that new. But that’s part of it.

The other part of it is that if you are the person who wants to engage in the battle of ideas, you’re typically somebody who went to college. One-third of Americans go to college, but among people who are politically oriented, it’s disproportionately a college-educated group. Certainly, in the intellectual side of things, the ideas side of things.

If you’ve gone to college since 2015 in particular, that was really the year where things started to change in the United States. You have been just inundated with the nonsense, the craziness of the radical Left. And it radicalizes a lot of people. If you believe there are two genders and you believe that, as a white person, you shouldn’t live the rest of your life flagellating yourself because you happen to be white, it’s understandable that someone who comes out to that environment is going to say that “This is the most important thing to fight. I have to fight the battle of whether or not as a white person I have the same dignity as anybody else. Whether I can raise kids who actually could be raised the way I want them to be raised instead of being administered puberty blockers without my consent.”

So I can see why, if you come out of that environment, you’re going to feel much more that the culture war is everything and that the nationalists are the only people fighting the culture war. Both those things are wrong. That’s where the Freedom Conservatives come in. The Freedom Conservatives say, “Hey, we also think you should have the freedom to raise your children the way you want. We also think that racial discrimination or against any person or group of people is wrong.” In that sense, there’s no difference between us and the nationalists.

The difference is on the nationalist side, they go beyond that. Well, some nationalists go beyond that and say, “If you’re from—” Some of the euphemisms or things like, “Well, if you’re an old stock American or if you are a European American, then you’re somehow more virtuous than these who come here and don’t believe in America the way the old stock Americans do.” Which is actually not empirically true. A lot of times, it’s the immigrants who understand and believe in America more passionately because they know what it’s like to live somewhere else. They don’t take for granted what America stands for and what America has offered them, or Canada, for that matter.

So that perception is wrong. And the other piece that I’d mentioned is that culture is not the only thing that matters. Culture does matter quite a bit, for sure, but the deficit matters too. The unemployment rate matters; the opportunity that people have to work and feed their families, and put a roof over their heads, that matters too. And if you only talk about gender warfare and transgender politics and you’re indifferent to whether or not people can actually feed their families and pay their bills, that’s elitist too. One thing that my friend, Oren Cass, is fond of saying when he talks about his antipathy to free trade is he says, “Americans have to get over their addiction to cheap stuff.”

I would respond that it’s elitist. The nationals call themselves populist, but what is more elitist than being somebody who makes a six-figure salary with a lot of job security saying that those ordinary Americans, the plebeians, have to get over their addiction to cheap stuff as if they’ve got spare money under the couch cushion that they can spend on goods and services that are more expensive than things they need every day? They don’t have that money lying around. They don’t have even a couple hundred dollars in the bank. And so the idea that we’re going to be indifferent to the cost of living, that we’re going to be indifferent to economic growth, that we’re going to be indifferent to how the debt and deficit lead to the degradation of the dollar and the decreased purchasing power that ordinary people have—that’s a profound mistake. And this is where I think one of the ways in which nationalist movement is really failing is that they think that more government intervention in the left-wing sense will cure the ills of the working class. They’ll only make those ills even worse than they are today.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking on September 12th, 2023. All things being equal, it looks like Donald Trump may indeed be the Republican nominee once again, and to the extent that you contribute ideas to him, I guess they’d be roughly NatCon. Is that a sign that the FreeCons are losing the debate? And if so, what can you and others, Avik, do to restore the Freedom Conservatives’ standing in the modern American conservative movement?

AVIK ROY: I think it’s important to emphasize, and we talked about this a little earlier, that Donald Trump was not a pure nationalist; he was nationalist in some areas. Again, particularly when it comes to free trade. He is very, very hostile to illegal immigration, but he’s not actually hostile to legal immigration. And he was not hostile to tax cuts or deregulation or to constitutionalist Supreme Court justices, at least in his first term. Now, in his second term, it’s possible that he governs differently than in his first term. It could be that because the nationalist movement is more organized and because a lot of people who served in his administration last time would not serve again for him, maybe things would be different in a second term. Also, because he wouldn’t run for reelection, all kinds of things could be different. It’s hard to predict.

But if we go by how Trump governed in his first term, he did not govern as an ideological nationalist. There’s a—I wrote a different piece for National Review where I talked about Asian Americans in the Republican Party, in which I actually talk a lot about Jason Kenny and Stephen Harper. I mentioned in this piece that one of the things that makes Donald Trump different from a hardcore nationalist along the lines of Steve Bannon is that Donald Trump is for skilled immigration. He complained—prior to running for president, he was on Steve Bannon’s talk show. He said to Steve Bannon, “It’s so stupid that we bring these brilliant people from all around the world to American universities, the greatest universities in the world, and we train them in engineering, and then we don’t let them stay here. We force them to go back to India and China, and Japan. Like, why do we do that? We should keep them here. Why don’t we want to keep our talented people here in America?”

And Steve Bannon’s like, “Well, sir, I don’t see why you feel that way. I think there are too many South Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley.” And Trump’s like, “What are you talking about? This is stupid. We need to keep all these people here so that they can make America great.” And he, true to his word, a few years later, when he was president, actually rolled out an immigration reform plan, whose goal was to basically make the American immigration system look more like Canada’s. We cracked down on illegal immigration, but we used a points-based system to move from the legal immigration system we have now where, it’s basically if you’re related to somebody who’s an immigrant and already in America or related to a citizen, you can come here. But if you’re actually a super genius electrical engineer, computer scientist, or whatever you’re not, you’re not allowed to come here, basically. We sent all those people to Canada. Justin Trudeau actually a couple weeks ago to this thing where he said, “Basically, all the high school immigrants that can’t stay in the United States, we’ll take them to Canada.” Which was not only just a brilliant trolling exercise but an effective economic policy.

SEAN SPEER: And oversubscribed, I would add.

AVIK ROY: And oversubscribed. It sold out in 48 hours. And so that’s an example, the kind of thing. Actually, Trump wants to fix that, and Freedom Conservatives will be for that.

So, I say all that to say that I think there are a lot of things that are potentially dangerous about a second Trump term, especially after January 6th, especially after he made clear that he does not take the peaceful transfer of power for granted. I think that’s the thing about a second Trump term that concerns me. But in terms of economic policy, if you go by how he governed in his first term, I don’t think it’s purely a nationalist victory. If he were to win. Now again, things could be very different the second time around. We just don’t know.

SEAN SPEER: There’s a ton of insight that answer, Avik, as there’s been throughout this conversation. I’m grateful for the time to help understand these debates within American conservatism and the potential for them to manifest themselves here in Canada.

I’ve been speaking to Avik Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

AVIK ROY: Thanks, Sean. And I wish Canadians the best of luck in navigating these new times.