Last week, New York Post Op-Ed edition Sohrab Ahmari published an article titled “Against David French-ism” in the Catholic journal First Things. His article was a traditionalist attack on more libertarian versions of conservatism, and his target was David French, a First Amendment attorney and writer for the conservative website National Review. Much of the right-wing intello-sphere has gotten into the feud, but before we get into it and where Ahmari goes wrong, we need to back up.
Since the 1950s, the dominant strain in American conservatism is known as fusionism, which mixes cultural conservatism, hawkish foreign policy, and pro-business economic policy. By supporting tradition, free markets, and fiercely opposing communism, fusionists thought they had a winning alliance which would create a prosperous and cohesive America and a free world. Fusionism reached its heights in the 1980s with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and modern fusionists would be people like Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg, Ben Sasse, and Ahmari’s target, David French.
Fusionism is, or at least has come to be, fundamentally small-l liberal. Fusionists, like French, are individualists who support civil liberties and freedom of expression, and they prefer persuasion to government force, which they reject as a tool to create a moral society. That job falls to culture, the social forces around us that we shape and are shaped by, and fusionism is, to Ahmari’s disdain, receptive to John Stuart Mill’s adage of live and let live.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1992, fusionism was left as a strange marriage between traditionalism and free markets. If you think about it, there’s not anything particularly traditional about free trade, and there’s nothing about opposing abortion that’s particularly capitalist, especially because the free marketeers are often more libertarian and secular than their traditionalist counterparts.
Enter Sohrab Ahmari. He is one of the “post-liberals” (link to a Free Beacon explainer), a group of predominantly Catholic conservatives who have become disillusioned with the small-l liberalism inherent in fusionism. The argument is really two-fold. First, when people are given a choice between what is good and what is evil, they will bend towards the evil. People too often see “that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom”, and so chose what they ought to avoid over what they should embrace. To prevent this, we have communities, religion, and relationships to help us choose the good.
So far, most fusionists and post-liberals are in agreement. They differ on two other accounts. First, the post-liberals see liberalism as corrosive to the institutions that direct us to the higher good. Ahmari chastises French for having individual autonomy as his political “lodestar,” and Patrick Deneen, another post-liberal, wrote a book titled Why LIberalism Failed, about how excessive autonomy destroys essential social institutions. Second, they believe the government has some role in creating a virtuous society. Ahmari rejects the notion that if only the government got out of the way, neutral zones which accommodated both traditional Christianity and libertinism could exist in the gap. While “government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill…questions that are squarely political…become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy.”
The second point of difference is that Ahmari wants religious conservatives to fight like they are in a crisis. Ahmari says “the only way through is 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.” He sees politics more as “war and enmity” where “civility and decency are second values” which “regulate compliance with an established order.” Ben Domenech, editor at the Federalist writing in support of Ahmari, called enemies of religious conservatives to the “culture war white walkers.”
I’m going to ignore Ahmari and French, the latter of who is woefully mischaracterized by the former, and who made a curious target anyway. Part of me actually thinks the post-liberals are correct with their critique of liberalism’s excesses. Hyper-individualism does breed destructive atomization. A good example is in religion. Religious people like to comparing about America “turning away from God,” but most of the decline against religion is people becoming “unaffiliated” or “nothing in particular,” not atheists. That’s a revolt against authority or tradition, not a revolt against God. Except man is a social animal, made for community. The post-liberals understand that in a way liberalism, with its emphasis on individualism, generally does not.
However, I emphatically reject the vision of politics as war. I believe Ahmari is right when they say there are people who want religious conservatism crushed under heel as backward or bigoted. Maybe those people have an outsized influence. But I refuse to believe the only way forward is to take the gloves off and hope that the intolerant secularists can be beaten to death before they do the same to us. Ahmari mentions the Kavanaugh hearings as an example of the enemies “who seek our personal destruction” on the march, but Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court because Jeff Flake had the FBI look into the matter, not because Republican Senators savaged Christine Blasey Ford. We won because we pursued peace in spite of the machinations of our enemies. There’s nothing wrong with fighting, but we cannot forget that “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
They’re also wrong about the role of government. Maybe this is a Catholic thing (Ahmari hinted as much), but their departure from liberalism brings me to the central problem with Ahmari-ism.
I have no idea what the end goal is. The post-liberals can make a solid critique of individualistic liberalism, but where they want to go I have no idea. Ahmari’s writing was occasioned by him seeing “drag queen reading hour” at a public library; in his ideal world, would that be illegal? First Things editor Matthew Schmitz was very upset that David French enjoys Game of Thrones while criticizing President Trump’s character; in the “post-liberal” world, is Game of Thrones allowed? Ahmari talks about re-ordering society along the highest good. Ignoring the question of how we ensure those re-ordering society have the correct idea of the highest good, what happens to those who disagree about what the highest good is? He doesn’t believe in neutral public spaces, because “individual experiments in living…cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community.” So then what? Or maybe Ahmari’s vision is not a radical departure from the fusionist consensus, he’s wants more family oriented policies advocated for through more belligerent means. But in that case, why the fiery rhetoric?
Also, if the white walkers are truly coming, you’d think the response would be more vigorous than a long essay about the tactics of a man who you agree with on most issues.
Perhaps I just haven’t read enough of the post-liberals (I plan on reading Deneen’s book when I get my hands on it), but they seem to critique without a vision. Ironically, Ahmari labels French-ism “more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets.” Yet Ahmari-ism doesn’t have a clear vision, and it amounts to little more than a persuasion that small-l liberalism needs to be expunged from conservatism. And if I have a choice between the firm yet gracious sensibility of David French or the belligerent persuasion of Sohrab Ahmari shooting for a destination unknown, that’s an easy choice.
That might have been long and tedious for anyone not particularly interested in conservative intellectual debates, but I enjoy them. Summer is upon us, which brings with it new responsibilities and new distractions, which is why I have not been consistent of late. Hopefully we’ll be getting back to the regularly scheduled programming shortly