Published November 9, 2021
Last week’s National Conservatism Conference was the place to be for conservatives interested in an open debate about the movement’s future. Whether those debates unify the right’s collection of warring tribes or spin off into political irrelevance will largely turn on how this nascent grouping defines the American nationalism it seeks to conserve.
Defining the essence of American nationalism is deceptively simple — until one tries to do it. We might “know it when [we] see it,” as Justice Potter Stewart famously said when trying to define hard-core pornography, but as with that salacious category, it is hard to pin down which elements combine to create the whole.
Academics have attempted to define American identity from the nation’s history, but political actors can succeed only when they propound an identity that is both accurate and unites a majority of Americans around a single banner. That means political movements must choose from elements that derive energy from the protection and ennoblement of a national ideal. Choose correctly, and you win; choose wrongly, and you will be swept aside.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.