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There are multiple levels to the David French-Sohrab Ahmari debate. One could discuss whether, as Ahmari implies, it is wise and just to seek control of the administrative state to restore moral order. Or one could discuss whether classical liberalism and Christianity are really so opposed as Ahmari suggests.
A simple take away from the debate is this distinction: Ahmari recognizes that politics is war. David French does not and, as Ahmari observes, the consequences of this blinkered understanding have put conservatism in a losing position for a long time.
At the end of his piece, Ahmari went to a place that makes liberals scream “theocrat!”:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
A little harsh? Perhaps. Strategically, Catholic integralists could do with some Straussian discretion. But Ahmari’s message is one that the American Right should heed.
Sohrab’s Critics Miss the Point
One does not need to be a Catholic integralist, or even Catholic, or even Christian, to find Ahmari’s approach better than French’s. On the issue of drag queen story hour, French finds the “freedom of association” that underwrites such an event more palatable than its prohibition:
Does re-ordering the common good mean using the power of the state to prohibit that form of freedom of association? And if the state assumes for itself the power to stop such an event and perhaps fire the librarian who organized it, why does anyone think that the forces of Christian statism will continue to prevail and prevent, say, a radical member of a President Kamala Harris administration from wielding the same power against a public reading of The Screwtape Letters?
Ahmari offers no answers to these questions, French says. But he does. French summarily misses Ahmari’s point. How do you stop President Kamala Harris from instituting a “woke theocracy”? By fighting to make sure it never happens, that’s how.
The conservatism that Ahmari gestures towards says, “conservatives are already under attack. Start fighting.” David French-ism says, in effect, “Why try to win when you might lose? Better to make peace with drag queen story hour.”
David French-ism frets that reaching for the levers of power may backfire. You can’t just ban things that are immoral and bad for society. What if our opponents try to do the same thing?
There is no need to worry about some hypothetical persecution of Christians by a progressive administrative state—it’s already happening in dribs and drabs and lawsuits and edicts and legislation. What French and like-minded conservatives don’t seem to understand is that conservatives have enemies whether they like it or not, and meekly submitting to them is a recipe for certain defeat.
Conservatives have been losing, badly. Partly this is due to a lack of strategy, but more importantly it is from an inability to see that strategy is even necessary.
The Left understands that politics is war and acts accordingly. But classical liberals of David French’s type insist on winning “rationally” and “decently,” on winning over an immovable and vicious enemy in “debate.” One might attribute this to naïveté, or one can be more cynical and say that a wider kinship keeps classical liberals away from the battle.
Ahmari recognizes the Left is uncivil and, for all its vaunted tolerance, keenly illiberal. This much is obvious. But, Ahmari adds, “conservative liberals” actually support their own marginalization by tacitly sharing in the Left’s illiberal project.
Ahmari argues that liberalism cannibalizes moral order. Classical liberalism is just progressivism in slow motion; both, by maximizing individual autonomy, act as a social solvent. David French-ism, then, being only yesterday’s progressivism, has little recourse than hand-wringing about unfair treatment by an enemy that sees civility and decency as tools to enforce their values which, after all, are not so different anyway.
It’s Later Than You Think
French insists upon classical liberalism as the first principle of politics, declaring, there is no “political ‘emergency’ that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.”
No political emergency? Not even a push to make infanticide the norm? I’m no theologian, but I would think bearing witness to the eternal truth means fighting to keep those who reject that truth out of power, not professing the eternal truth in an ever-shrinking “neutral” space.
French falls back on a defense of classical liberalism as the greatest means not only to preserve everyone’s rights, but to stop the corrosive advance of progressivism as well: “but the Valyrian steel that stops the cultural white walker is pluralism buttressed by classical liberalism, not a kind of Christian statism of undetermined nature, strength, power, or endurance.”
Is that so? How has that been working out so far?
Against Depoliticizing Politics
Not only does classical liberalism not prevent progressivism’s advance, it accelerates it.
While the Left seeks to enforce its values at any cost, French’s form of conservatism fights to maintain a “neutral” space that, by design, ensures that the Right will be squeezed out of the public square.
In David French-ism, it is more important that conservatives “preserve a space for all American voices” in the miraculous “marketplace of ideas” than that conservatives actually succeed.
The “marketplace” of ideas is an interesting term. Is morality mere merchandise, something to be sold to a persuaded public? What intellectual merit can late-term abortion possibly have?
Classical liberals insist on the higher value of preserving “neutral spaces” for everyone to market their ideological wares. But the public square is never really “neutral,” if only because its parameters are defined by liberalism and its values. Under liberalism, this group may win today, that group may win tomorrow. But liberalism will always win, and when it does, culture and tradition lose.
Perhaps this is why, as Ahmari writes, French-ism “depoliticizes” politics. Rather than advise that conservatives take political action, French-ism looks to the mysterious intervention of a deceptively neutral “culture” to solve political problems created by liberalism.
The basic commitments of liberalism are already baked into the hardware of our political operating system; what need then is there for political consciousness, or for that matter, political action?
When push comes to shove, David French conservatism refuses to see politics as a type of warfare, and therefore it has no strategy, because it shares the Left’s basic commitment to restless individualism.
Matters of “Decency”
French cites examples in which he persuaded leftist institutions to “turn back from repressive illiberalism and recommit to religious pluralism.” But there’s the rub: already, religion is consigned to the option of one among many. The true “religion” of “pluralism” is the liberalism in the interstices.
As Ahmari puts it, “Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way.” Looking beyond this, Ahmari seeks “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Classical liberals reject this political realism as vulgar and a betrayal of higher principles of tolerance and pluralism. But this is no wonder: of course liberals define liberalism as the only decent worldview.
Liberals see any expression of intolerance or rectitude as uncouth and “theocratic.” But nobody is really against decency and civility. They are corollaries to the reigning ideology of any given historical time.
Today, it is more indecent to oppose abortion than to support it. This has been true of virtually every progressive advancement: each leftist victory in the culture war is defined by the elites as the new “decent” thing to believe.
The summum bonum of liberalism is the unbounded individual will. Working from this basis, classical liberals of French’s type, and similar figures in the wider fold of the center-right and so-called Intellectual Dark Web, draw a sharp line between “moral order,” from which they invariably shrink as some kind of theocracy, and “decency,” by which they mean tolerance.
The decency of liberalism is the right to be left alone by one’s neighbor, and vice versa, and not much more. All manner of evils are welcomed by liberalism’s project; the sole indecent thing is intolerance of some lifestyle or culture.
When push comes to shove, French-ism seeks the “decency” of tolerating the vulgar and evil over moral order, in the name of the individual will. Enforcing morality is authoritarian and therefore beyond the pale. Government should seek the common good, but it must be careful not to get too zealous about it. As French puts it:
While governments should of course seek the “common good,” they do not and should not have the brute coercive force to “re-order” the public square to achieve that good as they define it.
Well, what is the point of seeking the common good then?
Has it ever occurred to David that the state can just as well enforce classical liberalism at the end of a gun? In practice, this has been the project of the state in progressivism all along: to destroy traditions and unleash the individual from the shackles of culture.
America has never been a Catholic empire, and those who envision such an end have their work cut out for them (to put it charitably). But surely there is some middle ground between complete individual freedom and a hypothetical Christian imperium. America has always hovered between the two, weaving liberalism and Christianity together.
But the West has gone so far in the direction of liberalism now that a Christian theocracy is hardly in the plotline of any course correction. One does not need to share the long-shot ambitions of Catholic integralists to find their concern for moral order more persuasive than the need to ensure that “drag queen story hour” is protected.
In the marginal sense that French thinks strategically, he warns that going down a path of scorched earth political warfare will alienate potential allies. This is no small consideration. Certainly, conservatives should do whatever possible to persuade like-minded people to join them.
But the enemy does not appear to be open to persuasion. French-ism’s concern about converting Americans to conservatism is worthless against its wider retreat from the battle.
This is especially so given French-ism’s criticism of “Trumpism” (for want of a better term). It is true that Trumpism, like Trump himself, is something of a mess. In its present state, it lacks cohesion. Its messenger is a polarizing figure without much in the way of a cogent ideology.
Perhaps Trump is not an effective coalition builder. If he has done one thing, though, it was this: he destroyed the old, comfortable consensus that wasn’t working, the consensus that French-ism defends.
French dings Ahmari for crediting Trump with instinctively understanding what has been missing from American conservatism and nudging things in that direction. But French-ism does not even attempt to move beyond the stale fusionist consensus.
If nothing else, Trumpism is a starting point, the inchoate first step towards a more capacious, stronger American conservatism. What makes Trump polarizing is not just his personality, but the ideas that Trump, however inarticulately, expresses.
Those ideas may be unpopular, and that is a problem to be solved by strategists and culture warriors. The answer is not to plead with the enemy for admission to the future.
French finds Trump’s outreach wanting. But before Trump, the American Right was barely fighting. Trump may not be a thinker, and he may not be a particularly effective brawler in the end, either. But Trump and Ahmari both get something that French does not: politics is war. French’s refusal or inability to see this summarizes the mentality of the dead weight on the American Right.
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