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.

The Rise of Woke Capital

In the other story, corporate America just performed another bait and switch at the common good’s expense — making a show of paying bonuses and raising wages after the passage of the corporate-friendly Republican tax bill, but actually reserving most of the tax savings for big stock buybacks

.. Corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather, the activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess — to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone

.. In every era and every political dispensation, businessmen ask themselves: What am I required to do to make money unmolested by the government? 

.. But there are other ways to compromise besides on wages

.. a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily.

..  It’s worth noting, for instance, how Tim Cook’s willingness to play the social justice warrior when the target is a few random Indiana restaurants that might not want to host hypothetical same-sex weddings does not extend to reconsidering Apple’s relationship with the many countries around the world where human rights are rather more in jeopardy than they are in the American Midwest.

.. the Peace of Palo Alto won’t be fully tested until the next time the Democrats hold real power

.. “As much as we fear corporations gone wild,” Poulos concludes, “we love corporations that love us.” And in a rich society people may prefer that their #brands prove this love by identifying with favored social causes rather than through the old-fashioned expedient of paying their workers a little bit more money.

.. For others, though, the Peace of Palo Alto has rather less to offer. It confirms the blue-collar suspicion that liberalism is no longer organized around working-class economic interests, and it encourages cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement

.. the Republican Party even as it lurches deeper into demagogy and paranoia — by making a vote for the G.O.P. the only way to protest a corporate-backed liberal politics that seems indifferent to the working man and an ascendant cultural liberalism

..  Their wokeness buys them cover when liberalism is in power, and any backlash only helps prop up a G.O.P. that has their back when it comes time to write our tax laws.

The win-win scenario for woke capitalism can’t last forever. But it might be quite the racket while it lasts.