One wag has called it the “Franco-Persian War.” The debate between David French and Sohrab Ahmari has spurred a tremendous number of tweets and longer interventions. Sorting out the issues is difficult. But most observers agree that the exchange reveals real disagreements on the American Right.
Since Donald Trump’s election, American conservatives have divided themselves into two camps. One camp sees Trump’s rise as perilous, even disastrous. By this way of thinking, Trump polarizes public opinion, inflaming progressives and drawing them toward an extremism that, once in power, will brutally punish conservatives—especially social conservatives.
Those in this camp often hold a pessimistic view of the long-term trends in American society. The postmortem of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss commissioned by the Republican National Committee is illustrative. It assumed that American voters had turned a corner on social issues, and that the best strategy going forward was to emphasize economic freedom and growth while conceding ground in cultural matters. For social conservatives, this meant strategic retreat while defending our freedom to dissent from the progressive cultural consensus.
In my experience, those who sympathize with David French, a principled Never-Trump conservative from the outset, often think about our present moment in this way. For obvious reasons, my friends in academia who are under regular assault by the PC police tend to be among them.
Most establishment conservatives are attracted to this camp. We are among the university-educated cohort that increasingly dominates American society, and in this cohort the progressive cultural consensus is strong. As I sit in my office in New York, I have to work hard to imagine anything other than a defensive posture. This posture, as Ahmari points out in “The New American Right” (October), leads with urgent defenses of freedom. It emphasizes classically liberal ideals of economic freedom and defends the liberal tradition animating our First Amendment.
The other camp, the “new right,” as Ahmari calls it, sees in Trump’s victory hopeful signs. His ability to get away with ostentatious violations of political correctness suggests that the electorate is fed up with progressive denunciations. Moreover, the progressive cultural consensus is not just pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage. Today’s left endorses a freedom agenda of its own: open borders and a multicultural utopia of inclusion without limits. It denounces the United States as a nation based on slavery and oppression. Trump has induced progressives to expose these extreme views, which turn out to be unpopular with voters.
In short, Ahmari is making a political judgment very different from French’s. He sees auspicious signs in today’s polarized political landscape, opportunities for fresh initiatives rather than peril and persecution.
Voters are unhappy with globalization, as much a cultural phenomenon (“world citizens”) as an economic one. They are increasingly hostile to university-educated elites, the class in which the progressive cultural consensus is strongest. This may not mean that social conservatives can repeal the sexual revolution or legislate the restoration of the family. But perhaps we can regulate pornography and addictive video games, restore some Sabbath closing laws, and roll back radical anti-establishment jurisprudence.
Ahmari’s troops seek opportunities to make strategic advances, if we will but adopt a fighting spirit. Most Americans are unhappy with our progressive-dominated, elite-driven cultural politics. They don’t like being told their country is based on crimes. They tire of being slandered with charges of “toxic masculinity.”
In these circumstances, a populist politics can mount successful attacks on our country’s progressive nabobs. Only after suffering some stinging defeats will arrogant cultural progressives be willing to negotiate with social conservatives about how to structure our society so that it is genuinely pluralistic—rather than a progressive monoculture of “inclusion” that treats those who disagree as dhimmis.
Another disagreement between Ahmari and French concerns the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the Bush family, and often entails implicit criticism of old heroes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, George H. W. Bush intoned that the world could now look forward to “open borders, open trade, and open minds.” This formulation epitomizes the “freedom conservatism” that emerged out of the Reagan revolution and became the dominant strain on the American Right. This kind of conservatism sings hosannas to innovation and creative destruction. It expects global capitalism to bring liberal democracy to China.
Some who adhere to “freedom conservatism” have been won over to the left’s claim that its cultural program serves the cause of freedom as well. Feminism, gay liberation, and transgenderism are seen as for the best. This kind of conservative sometimes holds that cultural progressives can be too extreme and too intolerant of those who straggle behind on the great arc of history. They also object, sometimes heatedly, that cultural progressives use the regrettable means of judicial activism.
Others, perhaps the lion’s share, do not so much agree as acquiesce. They assume that cultural progressivism’s victories are inevitable. Some console themselves with the technocratic belief that economic policy is all that really matters. This allows them to look upon the moral and spiritual disorder of contemporary America with equanimity, for that disorder is of little consequence compared to such crucial issues as marginal tax rates. There is nothing 3 percent GDP growth won’t cure! Others refocus their conservatism. We’ve lost the culture, but at least we can conserve constitutional principles and the procedural norms of liberalism.
One gets a whiff of this sensibility when French describes the possibility that children will attend drag queen story hour as “one of the blessings of liberty.” No doubt he is well-intentioned. But the statement suggests that he will not contest cultural progressivism on substantive grounds. It is a cast of mind widespread among movement conservatives who came of age politically during the freedom-intoxicated George W. Bush presidency.
Ahmari and his fellow travelers take a more jaundiced view of the last thirty years. Surveying the wrecked condition of the American working class, they are not so impressed by “dynamism” and the “open economy.” In the face of social fragmentation, they are not inclined to nod when a Republican politician tries to show his bona fides by announcing “Diversity is our strength!” They have read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and do not regard radical feminism and gay liberation as continuations of the Civil Rights movement but as the privileging of elite priorities at the expense of the moral culture of ordinary Americans. They do not merely say Obergefell has no basis in the Constitution. Instead, they say that gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich paid for by the poor.
The Persian tribe turns toward reconsolidating themes, a “politics of limits,” as Ahmari puts it. One might call it a “politics of substance” rather than one of procedure. The French forces are not opposed to moral substance any more than their critics are hostile to personal freedom. But the two sides disagree about which to emphasize. This disagreement is significant, not trivial, and the side one takes depends upon deep intuitions about a range of complex and fundamental issues: modernity, human sinfulness, and metaphysics.
Only at this point is it sensible to engage the vexed question of liberalism. For liberalism, as an “ism,” adopts a Whig view of history, one that regards modernity as an unmitigated material and moral advance for humanity. It treats nearly all enlargements of freedom as goods-in-themselves—a judgment that is sensible only if one downplays human sinfulness. And liberalism sidelines metaphysics, arguing that this tradition of thinking is an enemy of freedom.
Here we come to a disagreement in principle. Are we to endorse a traditional politics of limits leavened by the modern liberal tradition? Or are we to support a politics of freedom leavened by older moral traditions? Should we be liberal conservatives or conservative liberals?
In the decade or two after World War II, this choice was at the forefront of conservative debates. William F. Buckley Jr. largely succeeded in making conservative liberalism the dominant option, though he wisely refrained from proscribing liberal conservatism. In the last generation, that wisdom waned on the American right. Conservative liberals came to regard their ascendancy as a divinely appointed destiny. By the time we get to French, conservative liberalism is obligatory, and the slightest dissent gets reframed as heresy.
But this misjudges history. The unique circumstances of postwar American culture and politics allowed Buckley’s way of thinking to thrive. Today, the postwar era is ending. The plausibility of liberal conservatism—the need for liberal conservatism—is returning. Will we stick with the once dominant conservative liberalism or turn to the too often forgotten option of liberal conservatism? This is the choice we all need to make.
The Franco-Persian War is befogged with confusion. But such is the nature of conflict, and we must not be deceived. Real choices are at stake, choices that will define not just the American right in this century but the political culture of the West.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.