Earlier this week, Federal Philosopher explained why she, as a conservative, is not chummy with the so-called alt-right. In the comments section, others called the alt-right an enemy to conservatism. I watched the discussion that ensued with great interest, as I had never even heard of the alt-right before Trump’s nomination, and I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is. In this piece, I hope to make some headway with respect to this question.
I’ll begin with the core principle that Ben Shapiro attributes to the alt-right, quoted by Federal Philosopher in her piece: “Western civilization isn’t rooted in creed, but in nationalism and European ethnicity.” I’m not sure what this means. Here is a suggestion of what it might mean: Western civilization is not formed by commitment to certain propositions; rather it is formed by nationalism and European ethnicity.
Shapiro’s definition seems to get two things wrong. First, it attributes a false view to the non-alt-right, then it attributes a false view to the alt-right. Consider the non-alt-right view first. Shapiro seems to hold that Western civilization is formed by commitment to certain propositions. Surely, that is false. The formation of any civilization is extremely complicated, and involves many other factors, such as location of the people forming the society, or shared language. So, to say that Western civilization is formed just by commitment to certain propositions is too simplistic. These are things that I’m confident Shapiro understands, but then I’m not sure why he went on to say what he said.
Turning to the view that Shapiro attributes to the alt-right, I’m still not sure what it means. How could a culture be formed by an ethnicity? It couldn’t be! But I suppose what Shapiro meant was that, according to the alt-right, Western civilization was formed by people who chose, along ethnic lines, to associate with one another. Maybe that is what many alt-righters think, but a smart alt-righter will recognize that this is too simplistic as well, at least on a very straightforward reading. It’s not as though people always and only choose to associate with one another along ethnic lines. Sometimes people associate with one another because they both like to cheer for the same football team, for instance, and a smart alt-righter would recognize that shared interests, and maybe even agreement over certain creedal propositions, played a role in the formation of Western civilization.
So much for the core principle that Shapiro attributes to the alt-right. What might the core principle be, then? Even though Shapiro’s statement of it was flawed, he may have been on the right track. Ethnicity definitely seems to have part in the core principle. Perhaps this is the core principle: Present day Western civilization was formed, in large part, by already existing tribes that had a lot of culture in common, which made for the eventual formulation of nations and states with some creedal elements (the propositions that those tribes, for the most part, held in common).
This can’t be all there is to the alt-right’s core principle though. Even Howard Zinn could affirm that principle! There needs to be some added element about whether it is good to form nation states, and about the best way to do so, and I think this is the more controversial commitment of the alt-right. Hence:
Second Alt-Right Core Commitment: It is good to form nation states, and the best way to do so is, generally, along ethnic lines.
Saying that it is good to form nation states will trigger globalists, and saying that the best way to do so is along ethnic lines will trigger some classical liberals. But, notice that the second core commitment isn’t necessarily inconsistent with classical liberalism. It is an empirical fact that people tend to associate strongly with other people with whom they share an ethnicity; and, all other things being equal, people will tend to associate with those who share their ethnicity, rather than those who do not. Alt-righters seem to not just acknowledge this empirical fact, but embrace it wholeheartedly, and so think it is best to form nation-states along ethnic lines. Carving up political territory along these lines is most likely to lead to functional societies. None of this is necessarily inconsistent with the core of classical liberalism though, which I take to be that all humans have inalienable rights.
So-understood, I don’t yet see why the alt-right and even traditional conservatism shouldn’t be allied. Is it because we disagree strongly on the best practices for forming nations? At this point, you might think that it’s a little late for such disagreement; we have already committed to having a country with every kind of ethnicity. Maybe alt-righters and traditional conservatives could join forces to fight for federalism, which has been under attack for decades now. A more robust commitment to federalism would give people more ability to form the kind of local communities that they desire.
I’m curious to see what, if anything, people think I’m getting wrong about the alt-right’s core principles, and whether they are necessarily inconsistent with the core commitments of classical liberalism or traditional conservatism. I’m also curious about whether it is the best practice to form nation-states along ethnic lines. It is certainly true that people tend to associate strongly with those who share their ethnicity, but we can also associate strongly on other grounds too. Is it, in principle, a bad idea to form a state around some of these other associations? Why couldn’t you form a successful state around this idea: ‘All people share certain unalienable rights, and anyone who shares this view is welcome here, so long as they can demonstrate their commitment to this idea and we have space and jobs for them’?
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