Since the election of Donald Trump, a new faction within the conservative movement has spoken out about the failure of classical liberalism in America. A Catholic journal named First Things has carried the torch for this new post-liberal crusade, publishing an article entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” in March 2019. In this manifesto, the authors proclaim that the pre-Trump conservative consensus “failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else.” They continue, “It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness” and “too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.” According to post-liberals, classical liberalism is a moral vacuum that has failed to orient society around a “higher good” that is necessary to save individuals from themselves.
While post-liberalism has gained some traction in small intellectual circles in the past year, the movement gained significant media attention with a recent feud between two conservative journalists — Sohrab Ahmari and David French. After learning that a Sacramento public library had allowed a drag queen reading hour for young children, New York Post Opinion Editor and First Things contributor Sohrab Ahmari felt the time was ripe for a post-liberal rallying cry. Incensed by what he perceived as cultural decay ostensibly brought on by liberalism, Ahmari targeted an unlikely political pundit. On May 26, Ahmari tweeted that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” According to Ahmari and the post-liberal guard, David French’s ‘nice-guy’ conservatism must be held responsible for the “moral slippage” our country faces today.
David French is a staff writer for National Review, an Iraq War veteran and an attorney who has dedicated his life to defending free speech and religious liberty. He is a prime example of everything the Republican party should stand for. But according to Ahmari, French is a squish who “believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.”
Ahmari has actually said that the only way to properly restore American culture is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” Ahmari and the First Things crowd quizzically rally behind Donald Trump to legislate this higher good and mend our irreligious social fabric. Notwithstanding the irony of championing our adulterous, faithless president as a cure-all solution to the culture war, it is unclear how exactly they aim to constitutionally silence these allegedly inferior cultures that have eroded American values.
Post-liberalism paints the “French-ian” way as submissive to progressive culture without recognizing that it takes immense strength and dignity to defend the civil liberties of one’s political adversaries. Post-liberals have taken the easier route. It’s much easier to succumb to tribalism by silencing one’s opponents rather than recognize their equal right to pursue their own conceptions of a virtuous life. As James Madison said in 1792, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Casting aside that truth is a disgrace to our nation’s founding principles.
It is also absurd to suggest that the conservative culture war can be saved only by adherence to a higher good that is narrowly constrained to the Catholic worldview. Some of the most influential conservative thinkers and pundits of our time — including Jonah Goldberg and George Will — fall outside of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant and Catholic paradigm. To suggest that conservatism can only be saved through an appeal to Catholic norms is to cast aside co-religionist and even atheist thinkers whose contributions to contemporary conservatism cannot be overstated. And here lies the greatest irony of all. A former Muslim turned devout Catholic, Ahmari seeks to destroy the very liberty that led him to discover the religious and political convictions he holds so dearly.
Conservatism must reorient its focus away from the confines of religious doctrine and toward the most important aspect of our nation’s Founding — a deep reverence for liberty. Since culture is born from civil society, religious institutions and private life, it is clear that that is the soil in which it grows best. The post-liberal propensity to marry moralizing principles with governmental authority sounds appealing with a Republican in office, but becomes risky when the torch is passed to someone who is not so sympathetic to Catholic ideals. Conservatives who embrace illiberalism must recognize that doing so sets the precedent for illiberal progressives to do the same.
One last note on drag queen story hour. First of all, it's harmless. If you think otherwise, no one is requiring you to attend. But if you genuinely believe that a few drag queens pose the biggest threat to civil society, your perceptions of the culture war are seriously misguided.
The biggest takeaway from this ideological squabble is that conservatives are now picking sides — you’re either with the moralists or you’re against them. It has become a choice between a very narrow Catholic ordered paternalism on one side and an iron-fisted reverence for “weak” civil libertarianism on the other. Though most post-liberals have yet to embrace full-fledged integralism, it appears that they will jump at any opportunity to thwart civil liberties that stand in the way of their Catholic utopia. What was at first a small Twitter war between conservative pundits has the potential to permanently alter the conservative movement for years to come.
Audrey Fahlberg is an Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.