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How should conservative and traditionalist Americans go forward in today’s current political climate? That is the question at the root of an ongoing dispute arising from Sohrab Ahmari’s First Things article, “Against David French-ism” and David French’s rebuttal in National Review called “What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong.”
Ahmari argues, “The only way is through”—that is, we must “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.” Essentially, he is arguing for a restoration that places God and natural law at the center of the ordered world we inhabit; he calls for actually treating the culture war as a war.
French, for his part, argues that the way forward contains two components, namely, “zealous defense of the classical-liberal order . . . and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles . . . It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes.” We need to continue on the path of using peacetime liberal democracy to achieve our ends through the institutions of law, conserving our inheritance as we go.
Most of the commentary emanating from this initial encounter has been frustrating to read because the partisans of neither side seem to be able to agree on the most basic questions worth asking before going forward. That is: what is the strategic situation of conservatism, Christianity, traditionalism, and family in America? Are we holding our own against the radical Left? Or are we in danger of losing the culture war for good? Hardly any social conservatives I know argue that we are winning the culture war. What we can’t seem to agree on is whether we’re not losing or losing badly.
I think we are losing, and losing badly. Perhaps I’m overly alarmist, like Paul Ehrlich—predicting imminent doom like he did in the Population Bomb. In the 1970s, he wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over . . . (and as a result) hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” He said, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” I suppose many conservatives of the French variety would argue as much. But am I over dramatizing the strategic defeat which traditionalists and conservatives have been handed by the Radical Left over the last 100 years?
I don’t think so. My evidence? Look at American social life over the past century. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy, which used to be nearly nonexistent and was so for centuries, grew from less than 1 in 10 births 90 years ago to nearly 2 in 5 today. Divorce, which was once so toxic that it caused a schism within Christendom, is now commonly accepted by a majority of people who profess to be Christians. The average age at which a young person first consumes pornography is 11. And every year, 600,000 of the unborn are killed in the nation’s abortion factories to satisfy our insatiable need for inconsequential sex. As Cardinal Robert Sarah notes, the West (including the United States) is undergoing a silent apostasy. Americans go to church less, pray less, and believe in God in far fewer proportions than in generations gone by. Michael Anton goes into greater detail describing our poor strategic situation in The Flight 93 Election.
Again, this is the essential question that we have to answer going forward: are we just losing or losing badly and in danger of imminent collapse?
The wing of the Republican Party dominated by the likes of Mitt Romney, George W. Bush, and David French are 21st century Graham Martins in the culture war. Noble but painfully blind, Graham Martin lost a foster son during the Vietnam War. He was a Cold Warrior of the highest order and made greater sacrifices against the Communist menace than most Americans ever did. But Ambassador Martin wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger two weeks before the fall of South Vietnam that he did not want to start evacuating the capital city of Saigon because “Panic in Saigon arising from our actions” was “a far greater worry to me than North Vietnamese capabilities.” Martin couldn’t see past the few tactical victories which the South won as it collapsed; those tactical victories made him blind to the strategic collapse which was unfolding at the same time. As a result, a humanitarian disaster unfolded as countless South Vietnamese were unable to get away from the advancing Communists, leaving them to be persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered.
French, likewise, has spent a lifetime fighting for conservative and Christian causes. He has won numerous tactical victories; but how can any clear-eyed assessment of our situation conclude that strategically we’ve been winning?
The “David French” wing of the conservative movement tells us that we should hold to liberal democracy and its institutions. National Review editor Rich Lowry points out that Ahmari was shocked into his scorched-earth position by the Kavanaugh hearings. “Imagine, though, if conservatives had made the case for Kavanaugh on the basis that decency doesn’t matter to us much anymore—so we don’t care about the truth of the allegations against him—and furthermore, that we expect him to impose his Christian (or more specifically, Catholic) values on the country,” Lowry argues. “We would have lost the confirmation fight in a rout and would have deserved to.”
Yes, we win occasional tactical victories like the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. But overall, I see long term defeat. Just look at our declining families and churches. Just look at the state of American marriage and a birth-rate which has plummeted to record lows.
On the other hand, people skeptical of the Ahmari approach such as Rod Dreher ask, “First, if not liberalism, then what? . . . The (Catholic) Church can’t even get most of the Americans who profess the Catholic faith to agree with . . . core Catholic teachings. So, for all liberalism’s flaws, there is no alternative that is both preferable and realistic, at least not at the present time.” Dreher goes on to say that we are doomed anyway because Christians are a minority within our neo-pagan culture that values equality above religious freedom. It is true that practicing traditionalists are a minority in this country and it is true that our views are falling out of the mainstream. Dreher is also right that most people who nominally call themselves Christians are just neo-pagans underneath. But perhaps a time of exertion and persecution will wake them from their slumber and force them to choose to God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or the God of Sex, Consumption, and Radical Autonomy?
The question is, what are we going to do to preserve our place in this country before the state religion of progressive liberalism wipes us out? Adam Serwer, potentially has an answer.
In his Atlantic article, “The Illiberal Right Throws a Tantrum,” he scolds the Ahmari wing of the Republican Party as Orbanists (after Hungary’s Victor Orban, a pejorative for people skeptical of globalism, liberal democracy as a mechanism, and progressive liberalism). He mocks Ahmari for even considering the idea of abandoning liberal democracy. “Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate,” Serwer explains. “Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of ‘Operation Wetback,’ or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants . . . The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.”
Besides the fact Serwer evidently never read illiberal African Americans like Stokely Carmichael or Latino Americans like Reis Tijerina and besides the fact that he thinks he’s speaking up for Hispanic Americans while advocating policies that undermine the wages of minority groups, he provides a clue as to the answer going forward. African Americans and Hispanics gained their rightful place in this society by gaining political and cultural power through nonviolent civil disobedience. They consistently agitated non-violently to get the state to overreact, proving that the regime was founded on coercion, belying its claims to neutrality.
If you accept the hypothesis that we are being defeated strategically, then other methods need to be tried and soon. For me, the ultimate strategic goal needs to be a new sort of Peace of Westphalia. It ought to allow adherents of traditional religion who place family and church at or above the individual in importance for crafting laws and cultures to do so. It ought to allow those of us who see our pre-Enlightenment Christian heritage as just as valuable if not more valuable than the liberal democrats see theirs and to craft laws which allow us to live this way without being molested by Progressive Liberal jihadists.
What does this mean and how do we get there? It means identifying Progressive Liberalism as a religion which seeks to destroy our own religion. And it means acknowledging that progressive liberalism, for now, has become the state religion of our liberal democracy—saturating most of our other institutions (our culture, the family, our social norms, etc.). It means understanding that our liberal democracy cannot be neutral as long as progressive liberalism remains the state religion. It means truly waging a cultural war of the most intensive kind to remove it from imperiling our ability to exist in this country without being completely marginalized.
We need to recognize we are religious minorities and then demand the same minority rights which others have used to carve out their own spaces in this country. And if they refuse us this right, then we need to goad them intelligently into using state power against us to illustrate to everyone that they’re about the bald faced use of power to suppress the family, the Church, and the little platoons that make a civil society worth its salt.
How can we do this? It means preferring traditionalists by patronizing their businesses and supporting individuals legally (as David French, to his credit, has done) and financially when they are persecuted by the state religion of Progressivism. It means boycotting businesses which seek to expand the stranglehold which the religion Progressive Liberalism has over this country. Other minority groups have that right; so should we. Or, in other words, we need to separate the Progressive Liberal religion (our chief adversary) from the Liberal Democratic State. And yes, maybe it means even more aggressive peaceful measures than that—refusing to accept the actions of an illegitimate state which persecutes the Church.
Perhaps the threat of Ahmari’s rejection of liberal democracy is still useful because the threat of a total conservative rejection of liberal democracy imperils a great many things which the Left adores. Perhaps it will work on secular liberals of good will by making them understand that there are conservatives and traditionalists who are just as committed to their religion as the Progressive Liberals who dominate our culture, our corporations, and our government. Perhaps this can goad enough Americans of good will to get the federal government to take one huge step back from national policy and towards a federalism that allows us actually to coexist in a truly pluralistic society.
In international relations, Henry Kissinger called this the “Madman Theory of Diplomacy.” President Nixon pretended to be a madman, capable of anything, even using nuclear weapons on Beijing, Hanoi, or Moscow. The threat of President Nixon the madman worked to get the Communist Bloc to negotiate. Maybe it will work on the leftist bloc. It’s certainly worth trying in light of the state of American social and political life today. Perhaps the “Madman Theory of Internal State Diplomacy” can save both the system of liberal democracy for traditionalists and today’s neo-pagans alike.
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