New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari launched a broad intramural conservative dialogue last week with his short essay at First Things entitled, “Against David French-ism.” David French of National Review, as the eponymous personification of Ahmari’s ire, responded in kind. Many others within the right-of-center commentariat have also weighed in, including yours truly.
The dialogue launched by Ahmari is a broad-ranging and multifaceted one. In part, it is downstream of a purely attitudinal debate being aired between hard-edged, “own the libs”-style Trumpism and softer-edged, cheerily optimistic Reaganism. In part, it is a philosophical discussion about means-ends rationalizations. In part, it is an intellectual discussion about the continued political vitality and relevance of traditional William F. Buckley Jr.-inspired “Fusionism.”
But the most interesting aspect of the dialogue, from my perspective, is the extent to which it pits the unabashed, forceful public promotion of moral/value-based argumentation of the Ahmari side against the more reserved, procedure-centric, federalism/civil society-imbued classical liberalism of the French side.
In this specific aspect of the dialogue, Ahmari has more to offer to directly confront the current American crises of societal rot, moral decay, and widening cultural chasms between economic classes.
In the original constitutional construct — before there was a Fourteenth Amendment that fundamentally altered the relationship between the states and the federal government that the states created — there was much to be said for value-neutral argumentation about the benefits of pluralistic liberalism, federalism’s mutually self-reinforcing spheres of dual sovereignty, and a Tocquevillian (or “David French-ist,” Ahmari might say) abiding faith in the ability of the mediating institutions of the civil society to inculcate virtue across generations.
Two Founding-era quotations can succinctly demonstrate the point. James Madison, in The Federalist No. 45, famously averred: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” And it was President John Adams who said: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The relationship between the two quotations is intuitive: When the states politically dominated over a comparatively meek federal government — indeed, when the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment itself was understood as permitting states to establish their own churches — then the “laboratories of democracy” of which Justice Louis Brandeis ultimately spoke could compete in the eternal marketplace of ideas for the conception and promotion of the good life. In this bygone constitutional era, classical, value-neutral, pluralistic liberalism had much to offer as a direct means toward the end of human flourishing.
But it has now been over a century since Woodrow Wilson’s progressive commencement of the transmogrification of the republic from a negative liberty-securing limited government into a positive liberty-conferring leviathan monstrosity. Our entrenched bureaucracy in the administrative state — which harrowingly wields a lawless combination of legislative, administrative, and judicial power alike — has sapped the citizenry of our collective willpower to learn basic civics and mature into Cincinnatus-esque citizen-statesmen. Further compounding the problem of self-governance is our modern crisis of judicial supremacy, which has empowered the “least dangerous” branch of which Alexander Hamilton spoke over the two political branches ever since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its misbegotten Cooper v. Aaron diktat in 1958.
Amidst this depressing backdrop of an intellectually fatigued and civically lethargic citizenry, political argumentation framed through the values-neutral lens of pluralistic liberalism has increasingly little to offer. Not only have the administrative state and the crisis of judicial supremacy collectively sapped We the People of our capability of republican self-governance, but the permanent mandarins of the former have increasingly worked in monolithic fashion toward advancing the preferred ends of society’s culturally hegemonic leftist institutions: The Fortune 500, the academy, Hollywood, and the mainstream media.
A sober assessment of the threat posed by the nexus of post-constitutional governance and culturally hegemonic leftist control over society’s major mediating institutions requires a sober, properly calibrated response. If we on the Right are to have any chance of beginning the restoration of a proper constitutional order and the retaking of these institutions that the Left has so thoroughly vanquished, we must recognize that culture and tradition are paramount and hierarchically rank above all other concerns. And in advancing public arguments for culture and tradition, values-neutral pluralistic liberalism simply will not suffice. Instead, we on the Right must make overtly moral arguments about culture, tradition, sovereignty, economics, and foreign policy alike.
Advocates for religious liberty must transition from arguments grounded in individual autonomy and toward arguments grounded in the intrinsic utility of religion as a public good. Advocates for capitalism must transition from arguments grounded in GDP and real, inflation-adjusted poverty reduction and toward arguments grounded in the intrinsic morality of freedom of labor and laissez-faire. Advocates for national sovereignty must transition away from arguments grounded in tangibly protecting Texan and Arizonan ranchers and toward arguments grounded in the virtue of the post-1648 Westphalian nation-state system itself. Advocates for Israel on the American university campus must transition away from pleas for “peace” and “tolerance” and toward arguments grounded in the inherent, biblically derived morality of a Jewish state existing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
And so forth.
It is only by beginning this rhetorical and dialectical shift toward starkly moral terminology that the Right can begin the process of winning back our culture. And it is only upon beginning to take back the culture that the Right can make meaningful process in restoring our constitutional order and regaining control over the dominant institutions of our civil society. And it is only upon restoring constitutional order and seizing back institutional control that we may save the republic.