“Common-good capitalism,” a recent proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is capitalism minus the essence of capitalism — limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions. Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism” is Christian authoritarianism — muscular paternalism, with government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons. This is the Constitution minus the Framers’ purpose: a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living. Such respect is, he says, “abominable.”
Vermeule would jettison “libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology.” And: “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go, insofar as they bar the state from enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources.” Who will define these duties? Integralists will, because they have an answer to this perennial puzzle: If the people are corrupt, how do you persuade them to accept the yoke of virtue-enforcers? The answer: Forget persuasion. Hierarchies must employ coercion.
Common-good constitutionalism’s “main aim,” Vermeule says, is not to “minimize the abuse of power” but “to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.” Such constitutionalism “does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy” because the “law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits,” wielded “if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them.” Besides, those perceptions are not really the subjects’, because under Vermeule’s regime the law will impose perceptions.
He thinks the Constitution, read imaginatively, will permit the transformation of the nation into a confessional state that punishes blasphemy and other departures from state-defined and state-enforced solidarity. His medieval aspiration rests on a non sequitur: All legal systems affirm certain value, therefore it is permissible to enforce orthodoxies.
Vermeule is not the only American conservative feeling the allure of tyranny. Like the American leftists who made pilgrimages to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, some self-styled conservatives today turn their lonely eyes to Viktor Orban, destroyer of Hungary’s democracy. The prime minister’s American enthusiasts probably are unfazed by his seizing upon covid-19 as an excuse for taking the short step from the ethno-nationalist authoritarianism to which he gives the oxymoronic title “illiberal democracy,” to dictatorship.
In 2009, Orban said, “We have only to win once, but then properly.” And in 2013, he said: “In a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions.” Elected to a third term in 2018, he has extended direct or indirect control over courts (the Constitutional Court has been enlarged and packed) and the media, replacing a semblance of intragovernmental checks and balances with what he calls the “system of national cooperation.” During the covid-19 crisis he will govern by decree, elections will be suspended and he will decide when the crisis ends — supposedly June 20.
Explaining his hostility to immigration, Orban says Hungarians “do not want to be mixed. . . . We want to be how we became eleven hundred years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, authors of “The Light that Failed,” dryly marvel that Orban “remembers so vividly what it was like to be Hungarian eleven centuries ago.” Nostalgia functioning as political philosophy — Vermeule’s nostalgia seems to be for the 14th century — is usually romanticism untethered from information.
In November, Patrick Deneen, the University of Notre Dame professor whose 2018 book “Why Liberalism Failed” explained his hope for a post-liberal American future, had a cordial meeting with Orban in Budapest. The Hungarian surely sympathizes with Deneen’s root-and-branch rejection of classical liberalism, which Deneen disdains because it portrays “humans as rights-bearing individuals” who can “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” One name for what Deneen denounces is: the American project. He, Vermeule and some others on the Orban-admiring American right believe that political individualism — the enabling, protection and celebration of individual autonomy — is a misery-making mistake: Autonomous individuals are deracinated, unhappy and without virtue.
The moral of this story is not that there is theocracy in our future. Rather, it is that American conservatism, when severed from the Enlightenment and its finest result, the American Founding, becomes spectacularly unreasonable and literally un-American.
One of the central themes of Tocqueville’s thought is that a political movement, or (at a later stage) a political regime, may be undone by its very success.1 University of Notre Dame professor Patrick J. Deneen shows himself to be a worthy successor of Tocqueville by updating his teacher’s theme, applying it neither to democratic revolution nor to steady-state democracy, but to liberalism. In a cutting style that sustains its momentum throughout, Deneen addresses the widespread sense that liberalism is visibly teetering, and demonstrates with great power that the very successes of liberalism have undermined its own foundations.
By itself this would be enough to make the book a triumph. It is therefore churlish to wish for more, yet, I will play the churl. At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen is masterful; at the stage of prescription, he relapses into liberalism (or more accurately, as I will explain, into liberalism’s false image of itself). At the stage of diagnosis, Deneen proves beyond a reasonable doubt that liberalism claims to eschew comprehensive substantive theories of the good, yet inevitably embeds and enforces just such a comprehensive substantive theory, based on a particular and erroneous anthropology. At the stage of prescription, puzzlingly, Deneen tries to eschew any competing comprehensive theory and plumps for a vague communitarian localism, which can finally exist only at the sufferance of the aggressive liberal state. In that sense the diagnosis itself undercuts the prescription, suggesting that the retreat into local communities is at best a precarious maneuver.
Given this complaint, I will undertake a kind of Deneen fan fiction, offering an alternative ending to the book—one that is, I believe, more consistent with Deneen’s own argument. In the alternate ending, rather than retreating to a nostalgic localism, nonliberal actors strategically locate themselves within liberal institutions and work to undo the liberalism of the state from within. These actors possess a substantive comprehensive theory of the good, and seize opportunities to bring about its fulfillment through and by means of the very institutional machinery that the liberal state has providentially created. Then and only then will the liberal state, reintegrated from within, finally and truly become a victim of its own success.
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.