A recent debate among writers at First Things, National Review, The New York Times and other American publications has pitted different conservative and center-right writers against eachother in a struggle for the soul of America and its future. It’s a complex and interesting debate that has been brewing for years. At its heart is where the conservative discussion goes from here. The elephant in the room is who should be calling themselves conservative and what the term means. Hanging over it all is the Trump era, which appears to have accelerated processes dividing the thoughtful Right in the US.
What appears below is more a list of articles in this debate, a short-hand resource for anyone interested or who wants to look back. There is already one reading list out there, this is another as I’ve chosen to put it together.
Even though its origins are in the movements split over “never Trump” Conservatives and others, the beginning of this discussion was Sohrab Ahmari’s piece at First Things May 29, 2019. Ahmari is the New York Post’s Oped Editor.
Against David Frenchism
” I can now say that for me, ‘Against the Dead Consensus’ drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart,” he wrote. “The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop? Why shouldn’t this new, aggressive vision of maximal autonomy not overtake the old?”
Ahmari says the US needs a more muscular conservative. “How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions?” He notes “Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called ‘culture.'”
“But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. 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.”
High court of the low blow
Bret Stephens of the New York Times was quick to respond. Where Ahmari had argued that French was a nice conservative, but that he wanted to demarcate a line between French and others, Stephens had a different view. “Until recently, Sohrab Ahmari was a mainstream conservative — urbane, intelligent and unfailingly good-humored — who wrote energetic defenses of classical liberalism against its enemies on both the progressive left and populist right, including Donald Trump,” he wrote. Where Ahmari had frequently referenced French’s Christianity, Stephen’s referenced Ahmari’s conversion to Catholicism while French was a “legal advocate for religious liberty and free speech, an evangelical Christian, and a recipient of the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.” But French is a “Never Trumper,” Stephens notes. “Trump practices the kind of sucker punch, smash-mouth form of politics that, in Ahmari’s mind, is the only way of effectively fighting the encroaching cultural tyranny of the left. It’s the high church of the low blow.”
Ahmari has been self-deprecating about the impact his article has had, and the debate it produced.
But his broadside obviously set off a much-needed debate among writers who self-identify as conservative. Many have been waiting, circling eachother like boxers, or privately holding their tongues, for years. This is because many journalists and writers don’t like to critique eachother, especially if they all work in a relatively small (in fact, shrinking) industry. Also the conservative movement has already had to deal with one Kulturkampf when the Never Trump crowd, some of them neo-conservatives, became increasingly clear in their anger at the drift of the GOP and the American right. This included a whose-who of what was ostensibly the conservative movement. The Economist wrote in August 2018 “Never Trumpers, as President Donald Trump’s Republican critics are known, are the forlorn hope of American politics. Led by conservative pundits such as Max Boot, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, David Frum and George Will, they are few in number, gallantly in favour of things like free trade and fiscal discipline that Republicans used to care about, and probably doomed.”
Both the National Review and The Weekly Standard had opposed Trump’s rise. National Review wrote in January 2016 ‘Against Trump’ arguing “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”
When Ahmari’s piece appeared it opened up a floodgate that was waiting to be opened.
J.J. McCullough responded in National Review on May 31, “the David French controversy revolves around allegations that the man is too much of an accommodating pragmatist on social issues.” He argued that what we’re really discussion is the bedrock of America. “Many of the things Ahmari asserts French “sees” or “views” or “embodies” about the American political order are not French’s opinions, but the Constitution’s. It is that document, not French, that acknowledges the free exercise of religion as a fundamental American right, while also acknowledging the existence of many other liberties against which it must be balanced.”
This becomes a profound discussion on religion’s role in informing the conservative’s view of policy choices. “It is in the context of a clear-eyed understanding of the limits of religious argument in the American system that the case for “Frenchian” compromise becomes necessary. The religious may lack an ability to dictate public policy according to their view of “the Highest Good,” as Ahmari puts it, but they can find much to value in the Constitution’s guarantee that public policy will not intrude on the individual exercise of their sincerely held religious beliefs.” McCullough concludes that it is important to reject authoritarianism on the right, just as on the left.
Mike Doran, coming to the defense of Ahmari after the Stephens article, offered a thread on Twitter to explain why Ahmari was worth listening to. He slammed Stephens for referencing Ahmari’s religious and immigrant background. “Progressivism is an intolerant religion that exercises disproportional influence on our public life by destroying all alternatives in the institutions where its adherents form a significant bloc. Anyone who has worked in education or the arts or in bureaucracies and businesses with a significant Progressive minority knows how insufferably intolerant this ideology is. And they also know how it distorts and weaponizes values that Americans of all religious and ethnic stripes share: civility, tolerance, diversity, etc. In the hands of the Progressives these values become tools for anathematizing non-Progressive ideas and of ostracizing and firing individuals who oppose the Progressive program. The fact that you came to this conclusion because you are a Catholic is irrelevant. You might just as well have been an Evangelical or a libertarian….The fact that you are an Iranian immigrant is irrelevant to the discussion of whether our country should have a rational border regime or open borders. David Frenchism works to the advantage of the Progressive project. Bret’s answer to you failed to address the substance of your argument.”
French also responded. Noting what Ahmari got wrong on May 30 he said “we persuaded left-dominated institutions to turn back from repressive illiberalism and recommit to religious pluralism. I’ve spent more time in conference rooms and meeting halls persuading the libs than I’ve spent in court owning the libs, and I’ve found that persuasion works. Not always, of course — nothing always works — but far more often than you might think.” He said Ahmari has misrepresented his views to create a simple binary.
He noted that “I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton, and I stated my reasons and urged others to abstain as I did. But I don’t criticize my fellow believers for making a different choice. What I have done is to point out the moral failure and hypocrisy of those of the movement’s leaders who abandoned their clearly stated, long-held principles for the sake of continuing to defend a man they’d unequivocally condemn if he was a member of the opposing party.”
“Ahmari has stacked the deck, grossly misrepresenting both me and Trump to make his case.” He sees himself as embracing two main values. “Zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles.”
Arguing about the argument
Jane Coaston at Vox provided an explainer on June 5 about this discussion which attempted to unpack the history of American conservatives. “During the Cold War, conservatism defined itself in its opposition to communism, and in the era of Trump, many conservatives appear to have defined themselves by their opposition to ‘the left’ or liberalism more broadly, a phenomenon I’ve termed ‘reflexible anti-leftism.’ But right now, many conservatives are talking and debating among themselves about what conservatism should be promoting, not just opposing, or, in the words of National Review founder William F. Buckley in 1955, ‘standing athwart, yelling stop,'” she noted.
Furthermore: “Should conservatism support a limited government, even if that puts nuclear families at risk? Should conservatism support free markets, even if that means people can readily buy pornography that saps their moral virtue? What would conservative victory, real, true victory, look like? Who would lose if Ahmarian conservatism or Carlsonian conservatism or any of the conservatisms won?”
On June 4 Matthew Schmitz at First Things argued that Ahmari is right. “Civility and decency are admirable things. But like beauty, charm, wealth, and learning, they may be turned to good ends or bad. Simple possession of them is no guarantee that a man’s intentions are pure or his cause just….This is especially true when society is structured around a great lie. In the Jim Crow south, for example, sitting down at the wrong lunch counter was definitely impolite. ‘Civility’ meant complicity with evil.”
“Franklin Roosevelt knew that they had to be oriented toward something higher. America’s liberal political forms once supported and were supported by an informal religious establishment, Protestantism. This later expanded into an equally informal “Judeo-Christianity.” Neither one of these informal establishments strikes me as perfect, but each directed America toward a higher good than secular progressivism has managed to do. Conservatives cannot sustain America’s admirable political tradition and legal forms without directing them toward something higher. That is why Ahmari will prove a better defender of what people rightly value in our liberal tradition than those who criticize him in its name.”
Rich Lowry at National Review has called the discussion “a cataract of conservative commentary.” He argued on June 7 that “The animating insight of the ‘post-liberal’ writers and their allies seems to be: We are losing the culture war so badly that the only option left is to impose our values on everyone else. How will they do that? Good question! We’ll get back to you after we are done savaging our allies.” Like others he pointed to the Kavanaugh case.
“Imagine, though, if conservatives had argued 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, we expect him to impose his Christian (or more specifically, Catholic) values on the country. We would have lost in a rout. Kavanaugh won the day by appealing to reason, fair play, and the presumption of innocence — in other words, things that the most disillusioned Catholic conservatives perhaps consider a sucker’s game, yet still have purchase with the American public.”
French responded on June 6 with more thoughts. “In essence, Ahmari is forsaking classical liberalism — the commitment to neutral principles (such as free speech, religious liberty, and due process) grounded in respect for individual liberty — for a largely undefined version of Christian statism. Classical liberalism (especially polite classical liberalism) is the path to defeat and decay. Only a more robust statist Christian response can meet the challenge of the illiberal secular onslaught.”
And French wrote again on June 7 saying that Trump supporters were savaging him. “A fundamental aspect of truly Trumpist political engagement is the intentional infliction of harm on political opponents. Cruelty is the point of their interactions. That’s the purpose of their communication.” He concluded: “Let’s pray that the collateral damage from their inevitable demise is not too great.”
A wrap of the debate on PJ Media tried to get a handle on some of the debate about the debate.
“Last week, Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed editor at the New York Post, wrote an article in First Things entitled “Against David French-ism.” This launched a firestorm on the right, with more attacks coming this week. David Marcus, a correspondent for The Federalist, suggested David French would not oppose euthanasia for teenagers, and the senior managing editor at RedState accused French of being a “Vichy Republican,” a reference to the Nazi government in France during World War II. Kurt Schlichter attacked French for supposedly abetting the left by noting the corruption of Paul Manafort. Will Chamberlain, publisher of Human Events, called for French to be fired.
What is going on? To a large extent, this debate is a proxy for disagreements on whether or not to support President Donald Trump. In 2016, National Review ran an issue entitled “Against Trump.” For a short period of time, it looked like National Review writer, conservative lawyer, and Iraq veteran David French would mount a “Never Trump” campaign for president. French did not, but he remains an outspoken critic of the president — though not always negative toward Trump. Meanwhile, Ahmari claimed that fervently supporting Trump can bring a conservative restoration to American culture.”
In this discussion of the debate Tyler O’Neil asserts that “In short, Ahmari’s beef against French can be summed up on three fronts: French is a committed classical liberal and classical liberalism won’t save conservatives from the hatred of the radical left.”
He goes on:
“However, as Rod Dreher pointed out, ‘moral and religious conservatives — especially Christians — are a minority in this post-Christian country. … I can’t see any meaningful protection for us and our institutions outside of liberalism’s structures. Arguments for religious liberty are inherently liberal arguments. … The idea that people should tolerate things that they dislike out of respect for pluralism is a liberal idea — and it’s just about the only thing we Christians have left to stand behind in post-Christian America.’ This ties in to Ahmari’s hope that Trump represents a new force toward ‘order, continuity, and social cohesion.’ Trump has achieved key goals of the pro-life, religious freedom, and social conservative movements, but that does not make him a force for community. It also does not make him a champion of social order or cohesion.”
Why it matters
Alan Jacobs on June dived into the discussion. “There is one more point to be explored here, and it involves not substantive political philosophy, but rather rhetorical style. If you are centrally a political conservative and you also happen to be a Christian, then perhaps you may set aside certain Christian commandments in order to achieve your primary ends. But if you are centrally a Christian and secondarily a political conservative, then you have certain obligations that you cannot ignore.”
Karl Smith at Bloomberg on June 5 added that “Conservatives are currently engaged in a vicious intramural debate over their future in the Republican Party.” He concludes “There is no authoritarian traditionalist future for the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the fusionist bargain has delivered pretty well for social conservatives, and may be their only hope for future relevance….there is no future in which traditionalists are able to impose their vision on America. Buying into that rhetoric will only hasten social conservatives’ decline.”
The debate clearly goes far beyond just Sohrab and French, as evidenced by the raising up of their two ideas as two examples, symbols, binaries, straw men, for a larger argument that needed to be had.
The debate has its spin-offs as well. Liel Liebovitz at Tablet argued that Jews should care about this debate. It is important to pause here and note that most of the above discussion has hinged often on Christian conservatives. It’s worth pointing out that some of the neo-conservative Never Trumpers are Jewish. For them the issue of Christianity or debates in Christian middle America, may not resonate. While “Judeo-Christian” values might, clearly the discussion of Evangelical or Catholic internal debates and how they impact Conervatism may not be as relevant.
Liebovitz notes “What to make of this argument? Stephens and others clearly imply that behind Ahmari’s call to arms lurked a shadowy figure, draped in Catholic robes, who would force Americans to recite the catechism while banning abortions and forcing gays back into the closet. Scary, if true; ugly bigotry, if not.”
“From tax cuts to crushing ISIS, from supporting Israel to appointing staunchly ideological justices to the Supreme Court, there’s very little about the 45th president’s policies that ought to make any principled conservative run for the hills. What, then, separates one camp of conservatives, one that supports the president, from another, which vows it never will?”
And he then notes “French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels.”
What is the Jewish aspect that the article was titled about? “Only in an America that takes faith seriously, that respects and empowers community, and that shudders at any attempt to censor wrong beliefs and incorrect thinking, can Jews hope to thrive.”
Martin Longman at Washington Monthly concludes (on May 31) “My takeaway from all of this is that partisans on both sides think bipartisanship has no near-term future. It’s hard to argue with them, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of America is happy with this situation. The politics of bipartisanship—of a promised return to normalcy—are probably more potent today than at any point in the past when we actually had some cross-party consensus.”
More importantly Ross Douthat argued at The New York Times asserted that “the basic concept of a right rooted more in cultural conservatism and economic populism than in libertarianism and individualism isn’t fanciful; it describes the emergent right-of-center ideological formations all across the Western world. The American pendulum may swing back to fusionism after Trump — French is hardly alone in championing the old regime, and most Republican politicians remain instinctive fusionists — but some version of Ahmari’s turn is one that the right is making almost everywhere, for now.” He wondered how “a culturally conservative movement can expect to thrive under the leadership of a figure as distant from its official ideals, and as alienating to persuadable voters, as the figure of Donald Trump.”
For more reading see Joe Carter’s list at Action Institute.