What is the Core Principle of the Alt-Right?

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’?

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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13 Comments

  1. Walter Montgomery,

    In re: your question “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’?”, I’d like to raise some issues and ask some questions:

    1. Is that idea compatible with the alt-right core principles?
    For example, it may well be that people of different ethnicities are committed to that principle.
    But in that case, people of different ethnicities would have to be welcome in that country.
    Moreover, also people of different races would have to be accepted.
    Is that in line with the alt-right principles?
    Granted, when you suggest the principle only says that the best way to form nation states is generally along ethnic lines, that doesn’t seem to rule out forming a nation state in a suboptimal way, but which can still be good. I don’t know whether that’s one of the core principles of the alt-right, if there are any. But my impression is that a state build along those lines would at least not be applying any alt-right principles involving ethnicity. It would just make the nation state suboptimal at best.

    2. Different people may well be committed to the idea that all people share certain inalienable rights, but strongly disagree about what the rights are. That may well be problematic.

    3. People born in that country might not share that view. Would they be allowed to stay? If not, what would happen to them, under your proposal?

    4. Similarly, people born in that country might be the children of illegal immigrants. What would happen to them, under your proposal?

  2. Hi Angra Mainyu,

    I don’t think the formation of a state around the idea in my closing question is compatible with the alt-right’s optimal way to form a state for the reasons that you identify. You are absolutely right, regarding (2). To avoid potential problems, it might be necessary to commit to belief in the same inalienable rights, at least the same core rights. Regarding (3) and (4), my question was merely that–it wasn’t a proposal. I’m curious why people who associate with the alt-right might think we couldn’t_form_a state around the idea in that question. Now, beyond the formulation period, your questions (3) and (4) would need to be addressed. I don’t have anything to say about those for this particular post. I see those as post-formulation issues. Thanks for commenting.

    • Hi, and sorry I didn’t get your intent right.
      I guess from an alt-right perspective, a reply would be that a state along those lines might be good, but if there is in addition ethnic uniformity, it’s even better for some reason (it might be greater growth, or stability, etc.; I’m not sure what the alt-righters would/will argue). But even if ethnic uniformity leads on average to some benefits, the issue of what form of nation state is best doesn’t depend on considerations such as stability or growth alone, but also on the justice of the laws, among others.

  3. The alt-right would tend to say that (a) agreement on any useful substantive core principles will largely cluster around ethnicity, and (b) such agreement isn’t necessary or even useful if you have an ethno-state where natural kinship and fellow feeling is the basis for loyalty and solidarity. In support of (a) we can notice that no one other than northwestern Euros seems to be interested in (or capable of) the highly individualistic, high trust societies where abstract principles of human rights and liberal theory are really effective in regulating and motivating behavior. Expanding on (b), it seems better to have a freer society where divergent opinions and principles can be tolerated on the basis of (e.g.) Anglo culture–better for people who like a principled high trust liberal society anyway. If we’re all just Anglos or Aussies or whatever, we don’t need a totalitarian ideological uniformity to get along–we’re still mates and brothers. If we aren’t ideology becomes essential and we’re less free and liberal–as now with PC.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jacques. I’m wondering if you think that high individualism is necessary for high trust societies where principles of human rights and liberal theory are really effective. For instance, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, although less individualistic than the West, seem pretty committed to liberal theory and human rights. Of course, I could be wrong. I’m not that familiar with those cultures.

      I noticed you added a ‘(or capable of)’ in your supporting claim for (a). Care to elaborate?

      I think I agree with you on (b).

      What do you think of my proposal as a core principle for the alt-right? Is it on the right track, or do you think the alt-right doesn’t have a positive core principle? Maybe it’s reactionary and anti-PC, anti-leftist at its core.

      • Hi Walter,
        I think those Asian countries are all pretty different from northwestern European countries (and from each other too, no doubt). They are indeed high trust places, and Japan and South Korea might qualify as fairly “liberal”. Not that I’m an expert but it seems Japan at least is also fairly individualistic in certain respects. On the other hand I think they have some very strong ethnocentric and authoritarian/collectivist aspects that you don’t find much in England or Scandinavia, for instance. Singapore is often an exemplar for reactionaries and some alt-rightists because of Lee Kuan Yew’s frank race realism and anti-liberalism, for example. And I suspect this is due in part to racial-biological differences.

        Anyway I’d suggest that these are places with many resemblances to the kinds of societies produced by Aryans (for lack of any better term) but also many differences. Partly due to having been defeated and colonized by Aryans, forced to assimilate to an alien cultural model at least in superficial respects. For example, I just can’t imagine Japanese people or Koreans opening their countries to huge numbers of blacks or Indians or even white people. They would never do that insane thing because they just take for granted that _their_ nations are for them, i.e., for their racial-biological-cultural group. From what I hear, Japanese don’t even like having a small Korean-descended minority. (And what happened to the Ainu?) So the key point is that, as far as we can tell, none of these Asian countries are places where behavior is _motivated_ by the abstract humanist-liberal kinds of principles that Aryans seem to find motivating. Like almost every other group on earth, these high achieving Asians are naturally ethnocentric, tribalistic, chauvinist, nationalistic, etc. They do not want immigration and multiculturalism because they just take for granted that a good society for _them_ is one where their own ethnocultural group is a super-majority.

        About ‘capable of’… This is speculative, naturally, but I think that when we observe the behavior of almost all human groups over all known history or prehistory we find no reason to expect that anyone except maybe a few genetically unusual groups are _capable_ of having the specific kinds of high trust liberal societies we find here and there in recent northwestern European cultures and their offshoots (like the US). There may be many reasons for this (hypothesized) incapacity. I’ve indicated one already: everyone else appears to be very strongly inclined toward taken-for-granted tribalism and ethnocentrism, and it’s not likely that such a near universal and ancient disposition has no basis in biology. Individuals may overcome that inclination but at the level of theory we’re thinking of huge numbers–the Japanese in general, Africans in general–and it’s not plausible that these groups on the whole will start to feel and act like typical white Americans. Even typical white Americans don’t really feel and act that way consistently or deeply, one might argue. I find it hard to imagine Irish Catholics and Protestants overcoming their grievances and hatreds and relating just as free and equal citizens or whatever, let alone huge numbers of whites, blacks, browns with countless different cultural, religious and behavioral differences going back thousands of years. Other reasons are intellectual. Australian Aborigines are just not intelligent enough to organize a society on the idea of a social contract, abstractions about rights and so on. This is probably true for many groups, and probably why so many have never even approximated anything like this (disastrous) approach to social-political thinking and legitimacy. (Only really smart groups convince themselves of such stupid ideas.) Needless to say I can’t convince skeptics of these large claims here, but this the gist of the arguments I’d try to develop…

        I think your proposed core principle is definitely on the right track. Ethno-nationalism of some kind does seem to be a crucial dividing line between almost everyone we call ‘alt-right’ and, sadly, almost everyone else these days including mainstream conservatives. So yes I think that’s very promising. You should get Ferox to comment here because I think he might agree with this way of defining alt-right-ness or getting closer to a definition.

  4. “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.”

    Respectfully, this is a false dichotomy. Just because civilizations are formed by multiple factors does not negate the possibility that they are also formed on the basis of a core ideology. In the case of Western Civilization, it was largely founded on the basis of the values inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview, as well as the heritage of Greek philosophy and Roman law. This worldview encouraged the notions of objective morality, human dignity and equality, and the logic and orderliness of the natural world which allowed the West to advance culturally and scientifically the way that it did. It is simply a straw man to say that Shapiro is claiming that Western Civilization formed “just by commitment to certain propositions,” and for the life of me I can’t figure out how you came to that conclusion.

    “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!”

    You seem to be expecting a level of logic and coherence from the alt-right they have never to my knowledge demonstrated. The fault in this case lies not with Shapiro but with the alt-right.

    “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.”

    Again, you give the alt-right too much credit by assuming there is an underlying logical coherence to their position where none actually exists. The core of the alt-right movement really is just the flip side of Black Lives Matter racists spouting pseudo-intellectual drivel about racial realism. They don’t believe that people from different ethnic groups can unite around common ideas to collectively further civilization, because they believe great civilizations can only arise out of the Euro-Caucasian ethnicity.

    “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.”

    Because, quite simply, the alt right doesn’t believe in federalism. They don’t believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. They seek to establish a Third Reich-style nationalist government around the principles of ethnic purity and national sovereignty. All of this members of the alt-right movement freely admit. As far as the purist expression of the alt right goes, it has no more (and possibly less) in common with classical Conservatism than Bernie Sanders-style liberalism does.

    I’m not sure why you chose to take one sentence from Shapiro as your touchstone for deciphering the nature of the alt-right. Shapiro himself has given much fuller descriptions of the alt-right such as here:

    http://www.dailywire.com/news/8638/what-alt-right-ben-shapiro#

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW76FHpOyBA

    There’s also the very thorough and well documented overview of the movement written by Michael Knowles:

    http://www.dailywire.com/news/9441/actual-conservatives-guide-alt-right-8-things-you-michael-knowles

    Or you could always just get it straight from the horse’s mouth:

    http://alternative-right.blogspot.com/

    https://voxday.blogspot.com/2016/08/what-alt-right-is.html

    http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/

    • Hi Coldpoint12,

      I think you misunderstand my purpose and some of what I say. For instance, I never denied this assertion of yours: “Just because civilizations are formed by multiple factors does not negate the possibility that they are also formed on the basis of a core ideology.” I’m not sure the ideology is usually the basis though, and I take that question to be part of what needs to be settled by those on the right. What is the basis?

      Your next series of comments are points I would probably grant, but I would add that I’m not that interested in capturing what most of the alt-right thinks. If we wanted to lay out the core of progressivism, we wouldn’t ask the average progressive. I’m more interested in what a philosopher, who associates with the alt-right, would say the core is. There are some such philosophers, and they wouldn’t believe that it is *in principle* impossible for people of different ethnicities to form or advance a civilization. But, they would say that it is unlikely. This also is something that the right must settle.

      The Shapiro link that you posted is the link that I posted above in the article. The sentence I used was from that article. That sentence is the only place in which he tries to give a definition of the alt-right. That is why I chose that sentence. Maybe if I have time, I’ll check out your other links.

  5. Thank you for at least attempting a serious inquiry into alt right thought. I don’t consider myself one of them, but I think as a rising political and cultural force we must understand the way they think. I think something worth further investigation, that you did touch on briefly, is why they think nations must be formed along ethnic lines and not formed by a unifying creed or civic nationalism.

    • I think alt righters will be able to make a positive case for why nations must (or ideally are) formed along ethnic lines.

      But a negative reason against not forming nations along ethnic lines is that the presence of more than one race sharing the same territory leads to conflict and disunity. This will be an empirical claim, I take it. Here is a worthwhile defense of such a claim: https://youtu.be/QXz3gsYW9hM

  6. Good post, Walter. It’s tricky to say what the core ideas of the alt-right are. Allow me to offer a view on this (which I may post about later). Instead of thinking about the alt-right as a set of ideas, we might rather think of it as a kind of attitude and general methodological approach. This attitude and approach arises of out of frustration and recognition of the failure of American conservatism to stop the left from destroying and undermining the country and culture. So, the fundamental starting point is to acknowledge that _this isn’t working_. The alt-right is, then, in a way, a rethinking of the right. Every idea and strategy of American conservatism is held in suspicion, guilty until proven innocent. What the alt-right has in common with many American conservatives is that it wants to conserve the historic American nation. A nation is not just, or even primarily, a set of ideas. It’s a people with shared history, language, lands, values, vision of the future, and perhaps some other things. Many American conservatives at least implicitly recognize this even though many or most are unable to articulate it. But they see and viscerally understand that the historic American nation is being destroyed. The problem is that they don’t have the conceptual tools or strategies to successfully do anything about that. The alt-right is seeking to find and articulate the conceptual tools and strategies that will destroy the left and preserve and restore the historic American nation, or, if that’s not possible, something like it.

    It’s through this skeptical examination of all the ideas of American conservatism in light of it’s failure to preserve the historic American nation that we can arrive at many of the ideas associated with the alt-right, including ethno-nationalism, the one that you cite. I think that many on the alt-right have realized that the historic American nation was, whether legally or even consciously acknowledged, an ethnic nation. Those on the alt-right tend to think that unless we have some really good evidence to think that the ethnic component of that wasn’t essential, the only way to preserve or restore that nation is to preserve or restore the traditional ethnic balance.

    The alt-right attitude and strategies have led to interesting ideas about a series of very important issues in addition to ethnicity and nationalism, including ideas about feminism and sexual morality. And the strategy component is equally important. The alt-right recognizes American conservatism’s failure to effectively fight political correctness and failure to stop the left from controlling every major cultural institution. New strategies are required. One characteristic of the alt-right is to relentlessly mock the left in the harshest and most crass terms because it’s often fitting and effective. The term ‘cuckservative’ is a paradigm example.

    Is the alt-right consistent with classical liberalism? The alt-right doesn’t, or certainly shouldn’t, take classical liberalism as a given. It’s one of the things that is under suspicion. Does classical liberalism help or hurt the preservation or restoration of our historic nation and way of life? Many alt-righters have a growingly dim view of classical liberalism. At the least, it’s been a very ineffective set of concepts in fighting the left. Worse, it could be a misguided and mostly vacuous set of abstractions that has caused enormous amounts of foolishness and destruction. Even if it’s not that bad, I think that a lot of alt-righters would say that the idea of universal political schemes as specific as classical liberalism are misguided. They may be good schemes for particular groups of people during particular historical periods. But classical liberalism may now be working more against us than for us.

    • Thanks Criticus. I see some advantages to your way of characterizing the alt-right. For instance, I think mine over-intellectualizes it. I think the vast majority of those who associate with the alt-right don’t think of it in terms of an ideas movement. And, it might be that there isn’t a core idea underneath their associations that unites them. It might be this attitude that you mention. I’ll be curious to hear what some of these conceptual tools are, when you get around to writing your post.

      I wonder where you see evidence of the effectiveness of the harsh mockery. How conservatives should combat liberalism seems to be a key issue over which conservatives are divided. I wonder how much of that division is rooted in the fact that conservatives tend to want to be civil and polite, and just don’t find mockery to be fitting for civilized people.

      I’m interested in what you say about classical liberalism. I hope, in due time, this blog explores whether classical liberalism is seriously misguided in its abstractness. The ideas of classical liberalism seem to lend themselves to the left easily, but I can’t tell if that is the fault of classical liberalism, or just that the left can (and will) manipulate any language to its purpose. When I wrote this piece, one thing I was thinking about was that many of the founders were probably tribalists (and the alt–right seems to share this feature with the founders) but were also classical liberals. I take it that they didn’t find these things to be inconsistent. But, if they are consistent, maybe that doesn’t matter in_this_time and place.

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