What Are Conservatives Actually Debating?

What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.

In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.

This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.

Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.

In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”

I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.

Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.

Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.

But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.

Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.

This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.

Shields and Brooks on Trump-Pelosi feud, 2020 Democrats

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s political news, including NewsHour interviews with 2020 presidential candidates Eric Swalwell and Kirsten Gillibrand, the escalating feud between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and whether ongoing congressional investigations are leading to impeachment.

If a fetus is a person, it should get child support, due process and citizenship

The logic of Alabama’s abortion law should permit you to claim a fetus on your taxes and collect insurance if you miscarry.

We ought to take our laws seriously. Under the laws, people have all sorts of rights and protections. When a state grants full personhood to a fetus, should they not apply equally?

For example, should child support start at conception? Every state permits the custodial parent — who has primary physical custody of the child and is primarily responsible for his or her day-to-day care — to receive child support from the noncustodial parent. Since a fetus resides in its mother, and receives all nutrition and care from its mother’s body, the mother should be eligible for child support as soon as the fetus is declared a person — at conception in Alabama, at six weeks in states that declare personhood at a fetal heartbeat, at eight weeks in Missouri, which was on the way to passing its law on Friday, but at birth in states that have not banned abortion.

And what about deportation? Can a pregnant immigrant who conceived her child in the United States be expelled? Because doing so would require deporting a U.S. citizen. To determine the citizenship of a fetal person requires examination of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which declares, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The word “born” was not defined by the drafters. Presumably, they intended the standard dictionary definition: brought forth by birth. Our dates of birth are traditionally when our lives begin; we do not celebrate our dates of conception or the date of our sixth week in utero. But in states with abortion bans, “born” takes on new meaning. Now legislatures assign an arbitrary time during gestation to indicate when life, personhood and, presumably, the rights that accompany these statuses take hold. This grant of natural personhood at a point before birth brings application of the 14th Amendment into question and may thus give a fetus citizenship rights — but only in those states. There are no laws that allow the United States to deny citizenship rights to a natural-born citizen merely because they reside with, or in, a noncitizen.

Detaining any person without arraignment or trial violates the Constitution and international human rights laws. A fetus has not committed a crime, not been arraigned or charged, not weathered a trial by a jury of its peers, not had the opportunity to confront its accuser. These laws redefining personhood surely mean that a pregnant woman cannot be incarcerated, as doing so requires confining a second person without due process.

If personhood begins in utero, a fetus will need a name and a Social Security number to begin exercising private rights and using public resources. A Social Security number is necessary to claim a child on taxes. It is also a requirement to act on behalf of a child privately, like opening a bank account, buying savings bonds or obtaining insurance coverage. Typically, parents apply for a Social Security number when they obtain a birth certificate, but if states declare that personhood begins at some earlier arbitrary point in time, they will need to provide evidence, perhaps through a life certificate, that this new person exists and resides in their state. Once the life is established, can a mother insure a six-week fetus and collect if she miscarries? Will the tax code be adjusted in these states to allow parents to claim their unborn children as dependents at conception? If so, can a woman who suffers more than one miscarriage in a fiscal year claim all of her children?

These questions highlight the unintended and potentially absurd consequences of sweeping abortion bans. At the heart of the issue is how the 14th Amendment’s definitions of personhood and citizenship should be applied. States have been allowed to define the personhood of unnatural creatures — such as corporations — since very early in our nation’s history. In exchange for this freedom, states are not permitted to go back on their deal. In other words, once personhood rights are granted, a state may not deny life, liberty or property without due process, nor may a state deny equal protection under the law. States have never had the right to define the personhood of people. This was a subject — influenced either by place of birth or by complying with immigration and naturalization requirements — for the Constitution and federal law. State grants of natural personhood challenge this norm.

When states define natural personhood with the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade , they are inadvertently creating a system with two-tiered fetal citizenship. This is because Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey create a federal floor for access to the right to choose — a rule that some ability to abort a fetus exists in the United States. If these cases are overturned, that eliminates only the federal right to abortion access. Overturning Roe would not prohibit a state from continuing to allow access. In a post-Roe world, in states like New York that ensure the right to choose through their constitutions and statutes, citizenship will begin at birth. In states that move the line to define life as beginning as early as conception, personhood and citizenship will begin as soon as a woman knows she is pregnant.

Trying to define citizenship and personhood based on the laws of each state creates some far-fetched and even ridiculous scenarios. If we follow that logic, we’ll tie our Constitution into a knot no court can untangle.

How Banning Abortion Will Transform America

Across the United States, Republican-controlled legislatures are outlawing abortion, with the hope of bringing the issue before a sympathetic Supreme Court. If they succeed in revoking women’s reproductive rights, the US will quickly become a different society – one resembling communist-era Romania.

HUNEDOARA, ROMANIA – “It was a horrible time,” recounts one Romanian gynecologist, referring to the period between 1966 and 1990, when abortion and contraception were completely banned under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. “Women refused to have sexual lives, resulting in family fights and abandonment,” she continued. “For a woman, any sexual contact meant only panic and pain.” As another Romanian who lived through the period put it, “It was impossible to have a normal sexual life because of fear of getting pregnant.” 
If the Republican Party in the United States has its way, millions of American women could soon come to know the same fear. Republican lawmakers in GeorgiaAlabama, and other states have enacted or are proposing outright abortion bans, hoping to bring the issue back before a sympathetic US Supreme Court and overturn or further gut the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In the absence of Roe’s constitutional protection of a woman’s right to have an abortion, America would become a different society, because, as in Ceaușescu-era Romania, the government would police its members’ most personal choices.
It wasn’t only women who suffered from the Ceaușescu regime’s attacks on their bodily integrity. Far from strengthening the family, Romania’s draconian “pro-life” policies
  • poisoned heterosexual intimacy,
  • strained marriages, and
  • weakened social trust.

Monthly gynecological exams brought the state inside women’s uteruses and, by extension, into the bedroom. State surveillance of sexual activity resembled that of a farmer breeding livestock. With provisions prohibiting women from going out of state for an abortion, or from using certain contraceptive methods (such as intrauterine devices), much of the new US legislation, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would expose women to a similar enforcement regime.

After the Ceaușescu regime fell in December 1989, one of the interim Romanian government’s first moves was to decriminalize abortion. While debates about many aspects of the communist legacy soon erupted, few Romanians had any doubt that forcing women to have babies they didn’t want had been disastrous for the country.

Even after three decades under the ban, Romania’s birth rate had not increased. Instead, Romanian women had undergone nearly 7.3 million back-alley abortions – an average of three apiece – between 1967 and 1989. At least 15,000 women died as a result of complications and untreated side effects. Romania’s infant-mortality rate during this period was the highest in Europe, and anywhere from two to 59 times above that of other countries.

Though most Eastern Bloc countries expanded women’s reproductive freedoms after Stalin’s death in 1953, by the late 1960s, communist leaders began to worry that declining birth rates would lead to future labor shortages. But while other East European countries addressed the issue through longer paid maternity leaves and higher child-care benefits, the Romanian government took a different path.

Prior to 1966, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world. But, desperate for population growth, Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, essentially nationalizing Romanian women’s wombs. Both abortion and contraception were criminalized for all women age 45 and under who had not borne at least four children (later increased to five). The only exceptions were for rape and incest, high-risk pregnancies, and cases in which the fetus could contract a hereditary disease from either parent. The law was strictly enforced. The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, registered suspected pregnancies and kept tabs on women until the birth of the child. It was the kind of natalist authoritarianism that US “pro-life” advocates have long dreamed of.

With challenges to Roe looming on the horizon, and with many US states having already denied access to abortion facilities and reproductive health services through other means, Romania’s experience shows what happens when women suddenly lose the right to control their own bodies. Without reproductive freedom, heterosexual sex turns into a game of “Russian roulette” for women, because they quite literally bear the consequences of any liaison. Indeed, Alabama’s new law goes further than Ceaușescu’s Romania, by eliminating even the exception for rape or incest.

Abortion opponents claim that banning it will

  • promote marriage,
  • strengthen families, and
  • restore traditional gender roles.

But the Romanian case shows that a more likely scenario is a

  • rapid increase in maternal mortality, an
  • explosion of unwanted children and orphans, and
  • a “sex recession,” as wives choose to avoid intimacy with their husbands altogether.

As in Romania, the state’s violent intrusion into the private sphere will upset the lives of men and women alike. Americans can look forward to a future of bad sex and wrecked relationships.

It’s time to face facts. A century of evidence from around the world shows that coercive reproduction policies correlate weakly with actual fertility rates. The fact is that women’s decisions about family size are based on material realities. When basic food supplies are scarce (as in Romania in the 1980s), women will risk their lives having back-alley abortions, for fear of lacking the means to care for a child. Where paid parental leave and childcare are absent or prohibitively expensive, as they are in the US, women will make similar economic choices, regardless of the laws on the books.

After communism, Romania’s people recognized that democratic societies have a responsibility to guarantee women’s bodily autonomy, and to respect the right of all citizens to make their own decisions about whether and when to start or add to a family. It is odd that in the “land of the free,” one of the major parties would emulate a communist dictator.