Dan McCarthy gave a talk to students and faculty on Sept. 5 titled “Nationalism and the Future of Conservatism.” Mr. McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age, a conservative journal published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He also contributes to a variety of publications including the New York Times and USA Today.
You graduated with a degree in classics from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. How has your degree helped you in your work in conservative journalism and politics?
I think a classics background is very valuable for a journalist or anyone who works with language because it gives you insights into your own language that you wouldn’t expect to get from an acquaintance with Greek and Latin. Superficially it enriches vocabulary, but it really teaches you about the structure of language in a way that very little English instruction does nowadays. The parts of speech, the ways verbs and nouns interact — basic considerations which are almost subconscious to a native English speaker — become things you think about consciously when you’re working with a foreign language. And then of course the access to the Great Tradition that is provided by Greek and Latin is invaluable. There’s no substitute for reading these works in their original languages. My education informs my reading and writing but isn’t really something I display for the sake of impressing people. I try to let it influence my style of thought as opposed to inserting a Latin phrase or a citation by a famous philosopher into every essay.
You worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2008. How has the political atmosphere changed since then?
In 2008, nothing was quite as dramatic as what we see today. In terms of the angry rhetoric, I think the source of that was a great feeling of betrayal among the American public with respect to America’s leadership of both parties. And when you have a candidate like Donald Trump — or Bernie Sanders, for that matter — come along and be very blunt about expressing that frustration and anger, it resonates with a lot of people. It expresses how they’ve felt for a very long time. I think the political leadership of both parties suppressed a number of issues for a decade or more and as a result were not aware of just how deeply the discontent was felt among the American public. Rhetorically there was also this tendency for politicians to use soundbites and say very little while signaling to their base and getting people to support them without really engaging in politics, and that upset people. That kind of highly polished rhetoric has given away to a much franker conversation now. Even though it may be angry and sort of disturbing to people at some level, it’s actually a more truthful style of political discourse than what we had a decade ago.
What does nationalism mean to you?
Nationalism is an extremely powerful force that can take good forms or bad forms depending on the conditions of a country and the kind of leaders you have. It’s a term that often frightens people. They think of Nazi Germany or WWI and the clash of different nationalities that led to that conflict, but I think nationalism is the most necessary and yet inconvenient term to describe what’s happening in American politics right now. There’s this desire to reassert the idea of America as a nation-state with a distinct citizenry with distinct interests, not simply the idea that America is part of a global system and has to advance that system through activist military efforts abroad and through the creation of international economic freedoms. There’s a sequence of loyalties that we should keep in mind: first of America’s citizens, second of its allies, and third of the larger, global community. That had fallen by the wayside during the heyday of NAFTA and global trade agreements. All of these things were about building a system rather than fighting for the advantages and the well-being of the American citizenry. And the American elite has not accepted or adapted to this new political dispensation. They’re still stuck in the globalization politics of 1999. The nationalism I’m talking about is pro-American and has nothing to do with the negative associations people have. One reason why we need to have a responsible, good, conservative form of nationalism today is because if we don’t, the pressures that create nationalism in the first place won’t go away. They’ll still exist, but they’ll simply be taken advantage of someone on the left or by an insane sort of nationalist.
How would you distinguish patriotism from nationalism?
I think patriotism is a broad feeling of love for one’s own country, and nationalism is more specific because it’s about a particular program that seeks to advance the interests of your country as a nation-state. One reason I don’t like to use patriotism as a political term is because it suggests that everyone who’s not on your side isn’t patriotic and I don’t think that’s true. People can be patriotic and love their country and still have ideas that are very wrong. But to say that someone isn’t a nationalist is not to pass judgement on whether they love their country or not, it’s simply to say they don’t see national interest in the terms that people who do identify as nationalists see it.
Obviously, the focus of your work is on American politics, but what role do you think nationalism plays in Brexit in the United Kingdom?
I think there’s a strong parallel between Brexit and the Trump phenomenon. Both of these developments took place in 2016 and for the same reasons: you had a political elite and a very misplaced faith in a world system that was transnational. They put all their efforts toward building the system and perfecting the European Union instead of looking out for different sectors of Britain’s own society. Both in the UK and the United States there was this tendency for high finance to dictate policies and to think that as long as the stock markets were happy and consumer prices were low, everything would be fine. But, in fact, we found that people had very serious concerns about whether their own lines of work would be eliminated by foreign competition and changes in technology. They worried a great deal about whether their children would inherit an economy that would have space for them to live and grow or if it would be divided into the haves and have-nots. That’s why in British politics you saw an interesting conjunction where some borderline socialists supported Brexit as much as the right-of-center people supported it. It cut across traditional party lines in the same way that Donald Trump did.
Do you think the media is so far-gone that conservative journalists should abandon it, or should they stay in the trenches and try to reform it from within?
I don’t think anyone should fear that if they are conservative or strongly religious they have no career in journalism. There is, however, an increasing divide between so-called mainstream journalism and conservatives. Legacy media outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times are starting to editorialize on the front page. The president makes a statement and they don’t just report on the statement, they report on what they think the statement really means based on what liberal activists on Twitter insist it must mean. I think that’s very troubling. A conservative in mainstream journalism should be prepared to feel a little isolated. You don’t want to be paranoid or suspicious, but be aware that those around you might have no understanding whatsoever of where you’re coming from and make incorrect assumptions that you’re a bigoted, hateful person. On the other hand, you don’t want to surrender your own principles and ideals to fit in with everyone else. You do see people who have a conservative background and go into mainstream journalism and become indistinguishable from the liberals around them. It’s a very tough path to walk, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. You have to know what your appetite for risk and adversity is and have courage. That’s something the country can never do without, but at this point courage is a necessity. It can’t just be relegated to soldiers; everyday citizens have to have courage as well.
What advice do you have for Hillsdale students in general?
Cherish your studies while you have the opportunity. This is a time in your life when you’re expected to read great books. Never look at it as a classroom assignment. When you’re much older you’re going to wish you had the free time to read the Iliad and Shakespeare and right now you not only have the free time but are expected to study these things. Take advantage of that and enjoy it. Make it part of your character. Internalize what you get from these great texts. This is the moment to attain that formative education which will provide you with the kind of versatility that you need not only in journalism but throughout American life in the 21st century.