David French v. Sohrab Ahmari. It’s not a prize fight. It’s a debate about the future of American conservatism.
So argues Ross Douthat, and he’s right. Are we going to keep singing the old fusionist tunes? Or will the Right become relevant again in a society fractured by the global economy, demoralized by cultural deregulation, and misruled by a clueless elite?
Douthat gives an accurate account of the ambitions of those of us frustrated by the classical-liberal, limited government conservative establishment. His analysis expresses well my own goals and the direction of First Things.
Religious and social conservatives, not classical liberals and libertarians, need to lead American conservatism. Our society is riven by identity politics. We are divided into economic winners and losers. Our leadership class drips with disdain for ordinary people in “flyover” country. Classical liberalism and the “neutral public square” that Bret Stephens and others champion cannot heal these wounds. Rights and procedural fairness, important as they remain, cannot move us forward. We need the language of covenant and solidarity—the natural language of religious and social conservatives.
There is a practical reason why we should lead: We have voters behind us. And not just the religious and social conservatives, who unlike libertarians and classical liberals number in the tens of millions, not tens of thousands. There are plenty of working-class people whose native political intelligence tells them that our country is in trouble. They experience the breakdown in marriage, the declines in life expectancy, and the erosion of community. They’re not looking for “neutral” leaders. They want a vision of national renewal—covenant and solidarity.
The libertarian-inflected conservative establishment fixated on limited government cannot provide this kind of leadership. Religious and social conservatives can. This does not mean theocracy, as Bret Stephens insinuates. Nor does it foretell “illiberalism,” as countless pundits intone. Instead, it means restoring the social fabric of our country so that it can sustain our best liberal traditions.
In 2019, the male-female dance has been disrupted by radical feminism and LGBT jihadists. Racial relations are being poisoned, not just by the bigot-baiting grifters, but by the mainstream media. Immigrants are not assimilated. All of this erodes solidarity. The libertarian and classical liberal leaders have shown that they will not confront directly multiculturalism and identity politics. Religious and social conservatives have a substantive vision of the common good, one all Americans can share. This gives us a basis on which to turn back the most destructive forces in our society.
We need an economy in which high school-educated Americans and their families can flourish. As Daniel McCarthy laid out in our pages, this means stiff-arming the free-market fundamentalists. We need to renew broad public confidence in our free-market system by reorienting it toward productive work, as Oren Cass argues in The Once and Future Worker.
A religious and social conservative sees a fitting role for government to play. Pro-family tax policies are needed, as are industrial policies that encourage the expansion of high-wage jobs that help working-class people escape the two-income trap. We must break up the tremendous concentrations of economic and cultural power in the Silicon Valley giants. Elite universities are the corrupt monasteries of our day. Their bloated endowments need to be taxed and their government subsidies reduced. The same is true for huge foundations and the billionaires who fund them. We need to phase out tax deductions for lifetime donations in excess of one billion dollars. These are properly political goals, properly conservative goals. If they run afoul of the preachments of Milton Friedman, then so be it.
We need to rethink the liberal element of the American tradition so that we can save it from its excesses. The issue of the right of local libraries to host “drag queen story hour” triggered the spat over David French-ism. Local libraries have that right, it’s true. But the nonchalance with which our leadership class looks upon the indoctrination of our children into the latest sexual ideologies shocks any sober observer. If this is held up as a sign of liberal bona fides, we’re in serious trouble.
The same goes for political economy. The dogmatism of classical liberalism has blinded many to the consequences of economic globalization. Many whose eyes were opened by the 2016 election are disarmed, convinced by the Wall Street Journal editorial page that all government efforts to remediate the harms will be self-defeating.
I’m fed up with shotgun blasts of “fascism,” “theocracy,” and “illiberalism.” These ritual evocations of past demons create the false impression that liberalism is the only decent, humane, and just position. But that’s not true, not even close. Classical liberalism detached from the warm bonds of solidarity is cruel. Liberalism operating without a biblical horizon is soulless. Liberalism detached from a substantive vision of the common good lacks civic nobility.
Many of my friends find Donald Trump intolerable. I tell them, “He is a symptom, not a cause, of what you dislike and fear.” It’s past time for leaders of the conservative movement to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem, promoting a right-leaning liberalism that is cruel, soulless, and lacking in civic nobility. It is time for religious and social conservatives to speak up and take the lead.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.