There’s something precarious in writing an article about a debate. One runs the risk of demonstrating why one wasn’t invited to take the stage.
Still, Thursday’s exchange between Sohrab Ahmari of The New York Post and National Review’s David French ought to be weighed carefully by every Catholic journalist, statesman, lawyer, activist, and voter. These two men represent the new fault-line in conservatism that will define the American Right for the next half-century at least.
Mr. French, in the red corner, represents the liberal conservatives. By liberal, of course, we don’t mean “progressive” or “Democratic.” We’re referring, rather, to classical liberalism—what is usually (but not always accurately) called libertarianism in the United States. This kind of liberalism takes individual freedom, small government, and open markets as its highest goods. Inspired by Enlightenment-era philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu, liberalism is by most accounts the ideology of the Founding Fathers and the basis for our constitutional republic.
The conservative variant of liberalism is most closely identified with Senator Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr. The liberties promised by liberalism, they argue, can only be maintained by a citizenry that voluntarily practices self-restraint, as laid out by the tenets of Judeo-Christian morality. Ted Cruz is the classic example of a liberal-conservative statesman today, while National Review and the Heritage Foundation have long represented the liberal-conservative brain trust.
Mr. Ahmari, in the blue corner, stands for the much younger and more nebulous group of Christian political thinkers known as the illiberals. I say “nebulous” because the term is used to encompass a strikingly wide variety of thinkers. Most of them are men of the Right: they’re neo-traditionalists like Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Matthew Schmitz. But this grouping also includes Catholic integralists like Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and Fr. Edmund Waldstein—not right-wing, strictly speaking, so much as anathema to the Left. First Things has become the neo-traditionalist flagship, while The Josias and American Affairs are hubs for integralists.
The illiberals are united by one common belief: liberalism hasn’t served Christians as well as Christians have served liberalism. Their argument goes like this: conservatives (most of whom are Christian) are alone left to defend the right to self-determination against Leftist efforts to impose their own ideology on the entire country—indeed, the whole of the Western world. We’re trying to negotiate a ceasefire while progressives continue their long march through the institutions, raising their colors on every post and taking no prisoners.
The liberal conservatives are by far the more established. They have enjoyed near-unquestioned dominance on the political Right since the ascendance of Ronald Reagan. The illiberals, meanwhile, arose as a distinct tendency following the liberal-conservatives’ humiliating defeat during the 2016 Republican primary. Seeing the gatekeepers of acceptable right-wing opinion rock on their heels, the illiberals aligned themselves with the new Trump administration, hoping to influence the new centers of power from within. Trump’s economic nationalism and burn-the-ships rhetoric showed that conservative voters were finally prepared to abandon the old rules of engagement and fight the Left on its own terms: no holds barred, winner takes all.
Most commentaries on the Ahmari-French debate say that Mr. French had a better command of the facts than Mr. Ahmari. I’m not sure that’s true. Regardless, the most important fact remains: Christian conservatives are losing under the command of men like Mr. French, and we have been for decades. As Matthew Walther wrote in his own post-debate reflection: “Defenders of America’s involvement in Vietnam are fond of saying that we won the battles but lost the war. Frenchist conservatives have been defeated in virtually every engagement they have entered, but they insist that the field is somehow still theirs.”
Much of their exchange focused on drag queen story hours (DQSH), the subject that prompted Mr. Ahmari’s initial broadside in First Things. As Mr. Ahmari rightly noted, this is the subject that best exposes the fundamental flaw in Mr. French’s worldview: his idea of value-neutral public spaces. Mr. French argues (as all liberal conservatives do) that public spaces must be “value-neutral,” not for the Left’s sake, but for the Right’s. We can’t restrict these transvestites’ freedom to read storybooks to children in libraries—not without giving progressives an opening to prohibit Christian worship groups from gathering in public parks, for instance.
Mr. French’s position makes sense, in a purely utilitarian way. If the Left and Right both went completely ban-happy, trying to use the courts and bureaucracies to suppress each other’s First Amendment rights, there can be little doubt that the Left would win. Yet, by his own admission, “value-neutral” is a completely subjective term. It makes reference to nothing more substantial than public opinion.
For instance, Mr. French believes the First Amendment doesn’t protect the right to publicly display pornography. But why not? Because most people don’t think it does? After all, progressives increasingly argue that the West’s association of breasts with sex is a social construct—one that doesn’t exist in many African, Asian and Native American cultures, where toplessness is the norm. That sort of thinking could very well catch on. I don’t see why it wouldn’t: surely there are masses of decidedly un-woke men who would nevertheless embrace any new fad that encourages women to take their shirts off.
What defense will Mr. French then muster against a post office posting a picture of a bare-chested woman as part of an ad campaign warning against mail fraud? If 70 percent of the country is fine with bare chests, would that not fall under the scope of “value-neutral”? What can we say is objectively problematic about nudity without reference to Christian morality?
By the same token, it’s inconceivable that Mr. French—or any liberal conservative, for that matter—would have defended DQSH in the 1980s under the same terms. He would be tarred as a mere libertine, thus hurting his own credibility as a defender of Christians’ civil rights. And yet, on Thursday, Mr. French vowed to take his fellow conservatives to court to defend drag queen story hour, in order to preserve those “value-neutral” public spaces. Many radicals and relativists have denied the existence of an objective Good and Evil; few are so bold as to go to war for Evil against Good just to prove they’re not blowing smoke.
I don’t mean to be flip. There’s definitely something attractive about Mr. French’s pragmatism. The problem, again, is that Frenchism is demonstrably a losing strategy. The fact that DQSH fits into the scope of “value-neutral” today is proof in itself that conservatives are failing utterly to shift the Overton window back towards our corner. It’s getting harder to be a traditional Christian in this country, not easier. Our ranks are diminishing, not growing.
When liberal conservatism came to dominate the political Right in the 1950s and 1960s, Judeo-Christian morality was the norm. We lost that advantage in the Sixties and Seventies. In fact, the rise of the hippies, the anti-Vietnam protests, and other new-fangled radicalisms was a catalyst for the birth of modern American conservatism. And what has happened in the last half-century, when men like Mr. French were leading the conservative/Christian counter-attack? Not only have we failed to reclaim the culture: we have failed even to slow the Left’s ascendency.
We have had no major victories in the Culture Wars since they first broke out. The Left, meanwhile, can claim Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges in the courts. Democrats outnumber Republicans in academia 10 to one. Television and film are becoming measurably more graphic. The entertainment industry is so left-wing nobody bothers commissioning studies to prove it. Ditto with news media. Clearly, our current strategy isn’t working. Isn’t it time we found some new generals?
I’m neither a political philosopher nor a prophet; I haven’t the faintest idea what political system will succeed Frenchist conservatism. It might be Ahmarist traditionalism, or Waltherite socialism, or Vermeulean integralism. It may even be Davisian anarcho-distributism (“three acres and a Remington 870,” I say). But we’ll come no closer to those real solutions if we follow Mr. French by throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, I don’t have any better ideas at the moment. We should probably just keep giving money to the Federalist Society and hope the wonks can sort things out.”
In fact, Mr. French doesn’t even see the threat. “I do not recognize drag queen story hour as a cultural crisis of great importance,” he declared Thursday, scoffing at the fact that there are “only” 35 chapters of DQSH in the United States.
Of course, Ahmari’s point is not that those 35 chapters will single-handedly turn millions of American children into transvestites. Rather, he’s arguing that the use of public spaces to introduce children to transvestic fetishism is symptomatic of a wider moral disorder. Some of these drag queens are proven to be convicted child molesters. Others use the opportunity to teach kids how to twerk. Still others have been photographed fondling children at story hour. None of this perturbs participating parents or library administrators. On the contrary: DQSH is defended by the guardians of acceptable opinion at The New York Times. These are the same tastemakers who claim the Catholic Church is nothing more than a pedophile ring with tax-exempt status. Surely it’s more than a passing fad.
Alas, all of this fits a pattern for liberal conservatives like Mr. French.
When a new cultural threat arises, their first move is to downplay it. Maybe they hope that conservatives harrumphing at a nascent radicalism will only give it oxygen. Or maybe they’re just terrible diagnosticians, unable to recognize a burgeoning moral cancer in its early stages. I don’t know. But, somehow, they never manage to pounce on a threat when it’s small enough to treat easily.
So, a few years go by. The new radicalism begins to pick up steam. The lump becomes too big to ignore. Oops! Then it’s on to step two: they offer to host a good-faith debate in the pages of their magazine. While most of their writers finally begin to launch their counter-attacks, the mag will also publish a few articles on “The Conservative Case for X”, where X = something glaringly un-conservative. After all, they wouldn’t want folks thinking they’re so blinded by their own ideology that they can’t see both sides of the issue.
Finally—inevitably—conservatives suffer a crushing defeat. Maybe the “value-neutral” Supreme Court hands down some horrifying piece of judicial activism in the form of a majority opinion. Or maybe Hollywood, colleges, newspapers, and other opinion-making bodies decide to take up the fashionable new radicalism and work to win over public opinion to their latest fad. Regardless, at that point, there’s no question of liberal conservatives trying to reverse the decision. We’re not like the Left, which can simply make up a ridiculous new social-engineering project and make it orthodoxy within 25 years. No: once we lose territory in the culture war, that’s it. We just roll over and play dead. All that liberal conservatives ask is that our “value-neutral” public institutions (PBS, for instance) understand that this new radicalism “remains unsettled for a significant minority of Americans.” Just give it time to settle in—that’s all we ask.
National Review’s founder William F. Buckley, Jr. vowed that his magazine would “stand athwart history yelling Stop.” Today, liberal conservatives have resigned themselves to jogging alongside history, wheezing, “For the love of God, please slow down.”
[This is part one of Michael Warren Davis’s two-part reflection on the Ahmari-French debate on the future of Christian conservatism. Read the second part here.]