Place and the Nation

John G. Grove

Spring 2024

The national-conservative movement presents itself as a more genuinely conservative alternative to the watered-down, "liberalized" conservatism typically found in America. National conservatives describe their vision as grounded in thick social bonds, viewing the nation as "the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe."

National conservatives claim to be defenders of locality and particularity over and against the forces of globalism and universalism. Remarkably, however, neither national conservatism's "Statement of Principles" nor its most thorough theoretical account — as articulated by Yoram Hazony — points to the guiding concept of place as a prominent element of the nation.

This absence of place stands in marked contrast to the concept's preeminence in the thought of another notable defender of the nation against encroaching international institutions and universalist philosophy: the late Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton built his entire understanding of the nation on the concept of "home," or a certain way of life that emerges from "the place where we are."

This distinction calls into question national conservatism's claim to be the "only genuine alternative" to global liberalism. It also has important implications for the way conservatives ought to understand the authority of the nation-state, specifically as it relates to federalism and locality.


In Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony defines a nation as "a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language, law, or religious tradition, and a past history of joining together against common enemies and to pursue common endeavors." This definition, which is largely copied from the one he offers in his earlier book The Virtue of Nationalism, does not mention anything about territory or place. Nor is place smuggled in with the concept of "tribe" — this he describes as a united collection of clans with a "cultural inheritance carrying forward certain traditional institutions, which can include its language, religion, laws, and the forms of its government and economic life."

Hazony's notions of both tribe and nation emphasize "the bonds of mutual loyalty" between people who are similar to one another. These bonds, he continues, hold together various "collectives" in "an alliance of many individuals, each of whom shares in the suffering and triumphs of the others." Here again, Hazony focuses on people, their characteristics, and their relationships and obligations to one another. Place can never be far from such characteristics, of course, but it is notable that national conservatives rarely single it out for consideration.

Even in contexts that would seem to call for a more direct appeal to territory and place, Hazony opts instead to rely on personal loyalties and religious similarities. For example, in describing why someone would fight to defend his nation in wartime, Hazony does not appeal to the citizen defending his home — the beaches, fields, streets, and hills that make up his native country. Instead, he describes the soldier's devotion only as a loyalty to "a collective." His account does not exclude the idea of fighting for one's home, but the fact that he fails to mention land and hearth in such a context is telling.

In Hazony's account, then, the nation (as well as the clan and tribe) are "of the same kind" as the family, but "on a greater scale." Hazony's traditional understanding of family — which is strictly hierarchical and reliant on the patriarch's beneficence and wisdom — makes this parallel all the more important. For Hazony, national loyalty winds up being a kind of synthesis of lower loyalties that are partially transformed and redirected toward the national state and its rulers.

Like national conservatives, Roger Scruton defended a certain kind of nation — though unlike them, he generally eschewed the term "nationalism." He also carefully distinguished between different kinds of national attachments, recognizing the (qualified) truth that nations are artificial creations and therefore can be constructed in better and worse ways.

Both Scruton and the national conservatives hold that healthy political life requires some form of collective to which individuals belong. In this regard, Scruton's approach bears some similarity to Hazony's presentation of the nation, especially when compared to that of individualist liberal theories. For Scruton, however, place is of central importance. Indeed, his entire understanding of the term "nation" hinges on people living in a shared place — along with the way of life that emerges from it. He describes this version of the nation in How to Be a Conservative:

The nation state, as we now conceive it, is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped by an "invisible hand" from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts, and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbours both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory.

When we look for specifically national loyalties, he continues, we do not find them

in a shared religious obedience, still less in bonds of tribe and kinship. We find [them] in the things that we share with our fellow citizens, and in particular in those things that serve to sustain the rule of law and the consensual forms of politics. First among these things is territory.

Scruton's understanding of the nation thus emerges largely as a pre-political loyalty — not to family, tribe, or people who are "like us," but to the people who live in and are committed to a particular place. The characteristics Hazony emphasizes — especially language and religion — will naturally emerge as markers of the shared national identity, but they are politically secondary to the nation itself.

Unlike Hazony's vision of the nation, which depicts loyalty groups coming together consciously to form a larger loyalty group that supersedes them, Scruton's sort of nation is a "spontaneous byproduct...of social interaction," as he describes it in Where We Are. "Even when there is a conscious nation-building decision," he explains, "the result will depend on the invisible hand: it is the affection, not the decision, that shapes the national identity." One can contrast this understanding not only with that of liberal contractarianism, but with the vision of the tribal chieftain bending the knee to a new national leader, establishing a hierarchy of loyalty and honor.


A defining characteristic of the national-conservative movement is its growing embrace of "post-liberal" politics. Indeed, the overriding structure of Conservatism: A Rediscovery presents a choice between the national-conservative vision and "Enlightenment liberalism." This post-liberal understanding of political power departs from that of more traditional forms of American conservatism (which are also critical of liberal theory) in calling for a more distinct, unitary, and substantive understanding of the "common good," which government ought to be freed to pursue directly through public policy. As a consequence, in the national conservative's understanding of the nation, the nation's existence becomes almost inseparable from the politics of the national state.

Hazony sees the nation arising from an overtly political act, as various tribes consciously join together — a submission on the part of each tribe to the authority of the new nation-state. Each tribe's "allegiance" is then "directed toward the abstraction of the state," and each individual's soul is stamped permanently with a national identity. Once this nation-state arises, the nation and the state become much less distinct — the state becomes the definitive and authoritative voice of the nation, and it becomes hard to identify any elements of nationality that are not also within the purview of the state.

In this sense, one could more precisely characterize the national-conservative movement as "nation-state" conservatism. Notably, its adherents do not support nationalist movements within contemporary states, such as the Scottish, Catalan, or Flemish independence movements. Rather, they tend to defend the nation-states that exist in the world today while championing a robust understanding of their power and influence.

This tendency makes more sense if one looks more skeptically at the national-conservative narrative of nations emerging out of regional and tribal identities. In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet held that this romantic story was designed to paper over the centralization of power in the hands of the state: no mere development, as is so often argued, of folk ties of tribe, locality, or region. Doubtless the emotional elements which earlier populations found in kinship and region, in local community and church, have been transferred, so to speak, to the nation. But the logical continuity of symbolic transference should not be made the basis of assuming any continuity of social development in this instance. Modern nationalism...cannot be understood except in terms of the weakening and destruction of earlier bonds, and of the attachment to the political State of new emotional loyalties and identifications.

"The modern State," Nisbet concludes, "is not the offspring of the nation. It is far more correct and relevant to say that the nation is the offspring of the State."

National conservatism's commitment to the nation-state reveals one of the most notable distinctions between today's national conservatives and more traditional American conservatives: the former's rejection (or at least heavy qualification) of the commitment to decentralized governance and a clearly limited state. National conservatives often ground their rejection in the claim that a "neutral" or "civil" state is impossible — the strongest class or group, as Hazony puts it, inevitably "dominates the state." The key to cultural regeneration, then, is for national leaders to "embrac[e] and encourag[e]" salutary cultural norms. National conservatives thus blur the distinction between culture and politics, viewing conservatism as an entirely political enterprise and a healthy culture as the product of the laws that impose it.

The role of place, home, and settlement in Scruton's thought — and their relative absence in national conservatism — sets up a vital distinction between how the two approach political power. The concept of neighborliness that stems from Scruton's prioritization of place and territory over kinship, religion, and "tribal" loyalties (to use Hazony's terminology) makes possible the idea of a civil society governed by law that emerges from below rather than by commands from above — a notion foreign to national conservatism.

The sort of cultural unity that Scruton points to as establishing the "first-person plural" does not lay claim to the soul of the members of the community; this would destroy their ability to live in a civil state, interacting freely and establishing the norms of interaction as the "residue of human agreements." In this regard, Scruton adopts Michael Oakeshott's model of civil association: a "purposeless" association not aimed or ordered toward a particular substantive end, but that exists for its own sake.

Scruton goes on to explicitly contrast this civil society with the family:

The order of the city is not that of the family. It is an order of 'civil society.' It does not suppose that people can easily agree or that there is any one goal towards which they aspire. It sees people as irretrievably diverse, but possessed, nevertheless, of the capacity to live in peace and to adapt through consent and consensus.

In short, the nation and the family, clan, or tribe are not of the same kind.

Scruton thus identifies many elements of nationality that are not, properly speaking, within the purview of politics and the state. Indeed, the kind of cultural unity he has in mind is one "politics itself can never provide." The state's primary purpose in Scruton's understanding is not to pursue a single, substantive common good, but to establish those "side-constraints" that make peaceful life together in a certain place possible. This in and of itself does not create or directly enforce markers of nationhood, but it protects the sphere of human interaction that allows people living in the same place to cultivate them.

In Scruton's model, the nation-state does not seek to enhance the strength and cohesion of the collective, as the national-conservative model holds. Such a task easily slides into the purposive, "enterprise" association that he — following Oakeshott — distrusts. And its vision of civil government departs from the strict hierarchical lines of authority that Hazony and other national conservatives value. Scruton's observation about English political history illustrates the distinction:

The institutions of government in England were often criticised as irrational, with no clear chain of command....If you looked for the centre of power it appeared now in the sovereign, now in Parliament, now in the Cabinet, now in the judiciary, now in some quaintly named officer of the Crown.

Finally — again in contrast to the deadly serious hierarchical loyalties that Hazony prizes — Scruton's model allows not only respect, but also deep skepticism and even lampooning of our "betters" who occupy the highest rungs of the state. Presidents and prime ministers are not our dear fathers.


The relative insignificance of place in national conservatism has important implications in the American context. American conservatism has traditionally espoused a commitment to federalism and decentralization, defending the reserved powers of states and localities that have historically challenged, limited, and counterbalanced the power of the nation-state. Thus, one of national conservatism's most innovative qualities is its challenge to — and sometimes outright rejection of — traditional conservatives' embrace of federalism and skepticism toward centralized state power.

Given federalism's historical role as a pillar of American conservatism, national conservatives do not simply jettison it. Their version of federalism, however, markedly differs from any conservative understanding that came before. Their "Statement of Principles," for instance, endorses federalism in the following language: "We recommend the federalist principle, which prescribes a delegation of power to the respective states or subdivisions of the nation." This statement inverts the American constitutional structure, in which delegation (implicitly in the main body, explicitly in the 10th Amendment) goes the other way — from the states to the central government.

Additionally, both this "Statement of Principles" and Hazony's Virtue of Nationalism grant to the central authority a definitive and unlimited oversight over localities' conduct. "[T]he government that sits at the top of the federal structure," observes Hazony, "remains responsible for determining the appropriate degree of delegated authority at all times." Elsewhere, he narrows the point further by stating that "the officials of the national government" (emphasis added) have this power, indicating that he is not making an imprecise gesture toward the authority of the national constitution, but rather a claim about the structure of government power: It all comes from the top down. On this point, Jesse Merriam, writing in Law & Liberty, has observed that national conservatives accede to the 20th-century progressive consensus on the power of national institutions, and are thus in certain respects defenders of the status quo.

In one sense, the kind of nationalism to which national conservatives appeal doesn't quite fit the American context. There is a reason why, historically, American nationalists have often had to resort to the "creeds" and metaphors eschewed by national conservatism: The cultural uniformity they prefer either never existed, or, if it did, had been eliminated by the early 19th century. The religious unity that national conservatives prize, for instance, could emerge only when America's religious culture stripped various denominations of their distinctiveness and mysticism and melded them into a generic, civic Protestantism.

In another sense, national conservatives' embrace of federal power is very much in keeping with their understanding of the nation. In their account, similarities in cultural characteristics give rise to the nation, but a hierarchical understanding of loyalty and honor ultimately consummates and maintains national cohesion. Once tribes form a nation-state and give the national collective political life, the central state directs that life and maintains — by force, if necessary — the loyalty of the parts. This view is evident in some national conservatives' embrace of the imperial judiciary and the living constitution, at least insofar as they promote national cohesion and the common good. Whatever the original parameters of the constitutional agreement between the states or the intentions of those who ratified the Constitution, for national conservatives, establishing the national state puts it in command of the collective.

Though he lived in Sperryville, Virginia, for several years, Scruton never devoted much focused attention to the American political tradition; his discussion of home largely takes place in a very English context. Scruton valued how, in England, "locality was deeply entrenched in the whole system of government," with real authority that was not delegated from above, but cultivated organically from below. Such a structure enables individuals to defend local prerogatives against centralizing tendencies.

Indeed, by grounding the nation in the way of life emerging from a particular place, Scruton renders it impossible to disconnect a desire for freedom and self-government from the localities where we live. If the hierarchical lines of authority extending up to the nation-state extend to faraway places that most citizens have never seen, much less lived, and to people whose life is not only different, but foreign, those lines of authority must be severely attenuated for any sense of national attachment to be realistic. If one conceives of the hierarchical authority of the nation-state as emerging from cultural continuities, it is only natural that the authority will be challenged, and the loyalty to the nation questioned, if that underlying continuity no longer exists.

National conservatism's answer to this challenge appears to be using political power to reinstate and revive the cultural continuities that once existed. One can challenge the efficacy of that solution on multiple fronts, however.

First, as Scruton's account suggests, the central state cannot impose genuine culture from the top down. Government may encourage or demand adherence to certain markers of a culture that once existed, but these will constitute a mere simulacrum of the culture that emerges from actual life together. Second, as Samuel Goldman's After Nationalism suggests, it is questionable whether the cultural unity to which national conservatives appeal ever existed, in which case their claims to conservatism fade into the kind of willful, transformative nationalisms of the 19th century. Finally, one might defend national conservatives' solution at best as a grand wager that rolls the ultimate cultural and spiritual destiny of the nation on the roulette wheel of mass democracy, hoping that it will land on a red space. Should conservatives fail to win the right elections, they will have given up the structural and procedural limitations that could resist an encroaching progressivism.

The alternative to the national-conservative answer is not necessarily an individualist, "liberal" version of the nation based on creeds and universalist ideology. A conservative alternative exists in a robust recommitment to locality and federalism, understood not as a prudential delegation by national authorities, but as an order of self-governing civil states united for purposes of mutual defense and accountability and regulation of interstate interaction. This can be conceptualized by understanding the American constitutional order as defined even more completely by the "civil association" model than the average nation-state.

As noted above, Scruton argued that the state's responsibility was mostly the enforcement of "side-constraints," the substance of which emerges from social consensus. In the American context, the constitutional system as originally conceived met that description in a fuller way than other states' systems. America's Constitution emerged from a consensus that the central government should exercise only certain powers that touch the daily lives of citizens remotely and secondarily, leaving states and localities free to develop their own civil life and their own cultural markers. The central authority is restrained and counterbalanced by the local and state authorities that possess their own legal validity separate from and prior to the central state. These were not, as Hazony argues, "tribes" submitting to a common superior, but civil governments coming together in a civil association of their own for their defense and mutual accommodation.

National conservatives often appear to take their conceptual and aesthetic bearings from their understanding of European politics — where life in a particular place, markers of cultural identity, and state borders are more likely to parallel one another. From today's ongoing tension between national identity and the bureaucratized politics of the European Union, for example, they draw out an attachment to the nation-state and its authority. That lesson does not apply as easily to the American context, however. History, culture, and geography make the importation of European conservatism to America highly tenuous. National conservatives may praise countries like Hungary and Poland, but the former is roughly the size of Indiana with the population of Michigan, while the latter is roughly the size of New Mexico with the population of California.

Attempting to superimpose the vision of a culturally, religiously, or geographically homogenous nation on American politics points to either top-down cultural engineering or disintegration. Perhaps this is the reason why politicians and public commentators who share national conservatism's understandings of nationhood are, ironically, often the ones most likely to talk about the possibility of "national divorce." If homogeneity is the marker of national life, you will not find a nation in America: American unity must come from a constitutional, civil bond.


No one could call Roger Scruton an "Enlightenment liberal" — at least not with a straight face. Yet his vision of a limited state, distinct from civil society, that aims at consensus over purity and does not attempt to shape the soul of its citizens is precisely what national conservatives often attack as the "Enlightenment liberal" view.

Scruton's presentation of the nation can point us back to a different conservative tradition — one that also rejected liberal universalism and idealism in favor of humanity's communal and social nature while recognizing that true particularity requires a shared local life and the freedom to cultivate it. Unless the nation-state can exist as an outgrowth of this life — a power that is always limited and answerable to sources of local authority — it will be the enemy of culture, order, and neighborliness.

John G. Grove is managing editor of Law & Liberty. This essay is based on his March 2023 talk for the Ciceronian Society.


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