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How conservatives can get nationalism right

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);’[p 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.

As George Washington University professor Samuel Goldman points out in his book “After Nationalism,” the American story has many sources from which to draw. The initial founding population was largely British and Protestant, which laid some cultural underpinnings that the country has never quite rejected. The founding era also drew inspiration from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu and Francis Hutcheson. These writers and their American acolytes spoke of natural rights inherent in humans and human society everywhere rather than of English or Protestant heritages. Subsequent waves of immigration brought new cultural influences, some more congenial to British Protestant mores than others. And American political history created its own rivers and tributaries. Conservatives can invoke Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as models for American identity without specific recourse to any other foreign, theoretical or cultural source.

A politically successful national conservatism should attempt to draw on all of these to build an ideal that makes sense in 21st century America.

Some speakers at the conference, however, preferred to focus on one or more of these constituent elements to exclusion or denigration of others. Following those courses would kill this nationalism before it is even born.

Efforts to read the Enlightenment out of the American experiment are particularly unhelpful. Speakers such as Patrick Deneen and conference organizer Yoram Hazony regularly inveigh against the universalist and international impulses that the Enlightenment encouraged. But it’s hard to deny that these are essential elements in our national history. State constitutions from the founding era often invoke Locke’s famous trilogy of rights — life, liberty and property. Thomas Jefferson was an open sympathizer of at least the initial French Revolution, and the Monroe Doctrine decisively placed the United States on the side of newly independent republics in Central and South America. Iowans even named one of their counties after Hungarian Louis Kossuth in admiration of his effort to bring liberal democracy to his homeland in 1848. An American nationalism shorn of its liberal, universal elements is not American at all. Efforts to establish American nationalism as distinctly Christian are also misguided. It’s true that Christians have historically dominated the United States, and devout religious belief and practice are important parts of our national heritage. But it’s also true that this heritage was never enshrined in law. Early Christian political influences were also overwhelmingly Protestant, a feature that led to school prayers often being drawn from the Protestant Bible while also leading to bigoted “Blaine Amendments” barring public funds from supporting Catholic schools. It’s likely no coincidence the Supreme Court cases that held that sectarian public-school prayer was unconstitutional were decided within three years of the election of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. America’s Christian past was a denominational past, and a return to emphasizing Christian teaching would resurrect those denominational differences. National conservatism can succeed only if it accurately reflects the entire American nation. That nation today draws from many religious traditions and includes people from many different ethnic backgrounds. This potentially combustible mixture can coexist only if the national story gives each the ability to live dignified lives of their own choosing; both drag queens and fundamentalist Christians must have rooms of their own. That will challenge those who want to insert pre-modern ideas into our modern world. But if our national faith is true — if all people really are created equal with certain unalienable rights — it is not only possible, but likely, that a national conservative movement built on that cornerstone will survive and thrive.

We can fix Facebook, but it's going to cost us

Facebook stands accused — of pretty much everything. The social media platform, its ever-more-numerous critics say, spreads misinformation about topics ranging from the Jan. 6 riot to the coronavirus pandemic. It inflames anger and induces shame. At its worst, it allegedly enables polarization and even mob violence.

The fundamental problem, the critique goes, is Facebook’s business model. The platform, whose parent company is now officially known as Meta, “engages” users, who join for free, and gathers personal data through their interaction with the platform. Then it sells advertisers the opportunity to target users via algorithms built from that data: $28.2 billion worth of ads in the third quarter of this year, or a bit less than $15 for each of its 1.93 billion daily users.

The result is a toxic feedback loop whereby Facebook (and its photo- and video-sharing app, Instagram) not only recruits users ad infinitum but also manipulates their emotions to maximize eyeball-on-screen time.

“I believe that we still have time to have social media that brings out the best in humanity,” Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said at a recent Yale Law School forum. “That’s not going to come about unless we help guide Facebook in that direction and change the incentives.”

She’s right. We should change incentives — for Facebook’s users.

If they had to pay for the platform openly with, you know, money, instead of non-transparently, with their data, customers would have a tangible motive to modulate their own engagement. Facebook could sell fewer ads and still finance the service.

“Sorry, kids, we just can’t afford Instagram” would become empowering words in the mouths of otherwise helpless parents. (The words wouldn’t even have to be true!) The fee could take the form of a Netflix-like monthly subscription or — to tame self-perpetuating tribal “bubbles” — a penny per “share,” “like,” or “comment.”

These are hardly brand-new ideas. As The Post’s technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote three years ago, would-be reformers have been recommending fee-based social media since at least 2014. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, spoke favorably of it.

The underlying concept is that prices convey useful information. In this case, they would enable users to understand better their true preferences with respect to time on Facebook vs. other priorities, such as data privacy.

Like health insurance co-pays that encourage patients to consider their best treatment options, and not overuse the medical system, payments to use Facebook could nudge individuals to a more socially optimal use of the platform.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg would rather keep all the trade-offs behind the veil of ignorance called “free.”

He has rejected fee-for-service as a plan for “just serving rich people.”

“If you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay,” the billionaire told Vox.

This could be mitigated by creating an ad-funded “free” Facebook for those who prefer not to pay and a fee-based one for others, albeit at the sacrifice of whatever social equality is achieved by a one-size-fits-all Facebook. To minimize the harms of the current business model, though, you’d have to maximize the scope of a fee-for-service one.

The main point is to challenge Zuckerberg’s self-serving assertion that a bigger Facebook is necessarily better for everyone.

In the uproar over Haugen’s revelation of internal Facebook communications, though, there has been disappointingly little discussion of fee-based alternatives.

On Oct. 29, the Wall Street Journal published essays by 12 academics, politicians, business leaders and technologists under the headline “How to Fix Social Media.”

The vast majority urged government regulation or technical adjustment; only one, Sherry Turkle of MIT, briefly mentioned charging for services, so social media “doesn’t have to sell user data or titillate and deceive to stay in business.”

Regulation might indeed have promise — more vigorous antitrust enforcement, or changes to Section 230, the federal statute that relieves social media platforms of legal liability for users’ posts. Regulation could even be regarded as complementary to a fee-based business model.

For example, if someone did try to start a fee-for-service social media competitor to Facebook, antitrust regulators might be able to shield it from takeover by the incumbent.

It is admittedly hard to imagine how government could actually mandate fee-for-service social media. Certainly, it’s much easier for politicians to cry “break up Facebook,” or for academics to moralize about everyone’s responsibility to behave better. Consumers — who are also voters — instinctively love the idea of something for nothing, even if Facebook hadn’t long ago conditioned them to expect it.

A similar dynamic plagues the climate change debate, in which the most effective potential policy, a conservation-inducing tax on carbon, is also the least politically viable.

Meanwhile, we live out a rueful Japanese proverb. “There is nothing more expensive,” it says, “than something free.”

Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer specializing in economic and fiscal policy.

What has the Glasgow summit delivered?

At the end of the first week of the Glasgow climate summit, 100,000 protesters marched to denounce the attendees as phonies who will never honor their commitments to curb carbon emissions.

Despite pledges by 100 nations to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and by 20 nations, including the U.S., to end financing of new international fossil-fuel power plants, teenage climate superstar activist Greta Thunberg says the COP26 summit is a con:

“Two weeks of business as usual, blah, blah, blah!”

Thunberg has a point.

Commitments made in Scotland are not binding upon governments that, be they autocratic or democratic, do not subordinate their national interests to pledges ostentatiously made in global forums.

This Glasgow summit calls to mind the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which won a Nobel Peace Prize for Secretary of State Frank Kellogg.

On Aug. 27, 1928, 15 High Contracting Parties signed on to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. The signatories that day were the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and India. Within 15 years, all 15 nations, Ireland alone excepted, were ensnared in the greatest war in history.

Like the pledges at the climate summit, the Kellogg-Briand Pact provided for no means of enforcement or sanctions against nations that failed to live up to their commitment.

Consider. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon emissions, Russia the fourth largest, and Brazil the seventh largest worldwide.

Yet President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil did not show up at the summit. And President Joe Biden of the United States and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain both fell asleep during the proceedings.

Glasgow is destined to fail because national interests invariably triumph over globalism. The demands of the people who keep regimes in power will be heard and heeded before the claims of the transnationals.

Biden, faced with a threat by Sen. Joe Manchin to sink his Build Back Better bill, summarily dropped a measure that would have imposed rising carbon taxes on fossil fuel plants and provided monetary rewards for clean energy facilities. Biden dropped it because his own and his party’s fortunes depend on enacting the legislation.

The protests in Scotland this weekend were far more colorful than the yearlong “yellow vest” protests in France. Yet, the French protests proved more effective and successful. That movement originated with French motorists from rural areas who had long commutes and were protesting an increase in fuel taxes that was real and immediate. The French protests had a specific goal, and they succeeded in bringing about a reduction in the fuel taxes.

“King coal is dead!” we heard from the summit.

Really? Coal is a foundational resource in Asia, and demand for coal grows as the populations and economies of Asia expand.

Coal accounts for 60-65% of the electricity generation in China and 68-73% in India, two nations that represent more than a third of the world’s population. Nations such as Australia depend upon the sale and shipment of coal as essential components of their exports.

Consider Scotland itself. Should it move to secede from Britain, will it gladly forfeit the North Sea oil and gas deposits that have proven so beneficial to Britain? As America transitions to clean energy and electric vehicles, our own reliance upon China will grow. For China is today the world’s principal supplier of solar panels and the rare earth minerals vital to the batteries of electric cars.

To get to Glasgow, delegates, journalists and activists had to travel by commercial or private jet, and every restaurant, bar, hotel room and conference hall had to be lighted and heated by electricity generated by the kind of gas-, oil- and coal-fired plants that global elites want on the chopping block by midcentury. The carbon footprint of the Glasgow summit was not inconsiderable.

Now that the presidents and prime ministers have departed the global summit in its second and final week, we’re going to get down to the lick-log.

Writes the Washington Post: “In coming days ... negotiators from nearly 200 countries will haggle over every word in every line of an agreement that could shape ... how the rich countries of the world deliver on promises to help more vulnerable nations.”

Specifically, who will pony up the $100 billion per year promised to poor and developing nations at previous climate summits and never fully delivered? And who will pay the reparations for the “loss and damage” suffered by the poor and developing countries, previously caused by the industrialized nations of the world?

At root, almost every globalist and transnational institution and summit has a common feature: the endless transfer of wealth from the First World, the historic oppressors, to their alleged Third World victims. These gatherings are to determine how much in reparations the latter can extort from a conscience-stricken West.

Will the GOP reject the shakedown?

Patrick J. Buchanan is a nationally syndicated political columnist. He is the author of “Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever.”