The Rise of the Illiberal Right

The Rise of the Illiberal Right

Cathy Young
Cathy Young
11 min read

In recent days, American right-of-center Internet has been consumed by an often acrimonious and sometimes comical public drama: a polemical battle over an essay by author and New York Post oped editor Sohrab Ahmari entitled “Against David French-ism.” The subject of this philippic, published in the religious conservative magazine First Things, is National Review writer David French, who Ahmari considers to be emblematic of a conservatism too weak and effete for the modern-day culture wars. Some of this quarrel is plainly over the simple matter of allegiance to Donald Trump: French is a staunch “Never Trumper,” while Ahmari is a former Never Trumper who, depending on where you stand, either saw the light or surrendered to the dark side. However, it is also a dispute about more fundamental issues related to the future of American conservatism, and the future of liberal democracy.

French, like Ahmari, is a Christian who subscribes to traditional sexual morality. But Ahmari’s quarrel with him is twofold. One, “Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees ‘protecting individual liberty’ as the main, if not sole, purpose of government.” Two, French is a naïve believer in pluralism and civil engagement who refuses to see politics as “war and enmity”: he wants to persuade, rather than “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.”

One piquant detail of the Ahmari-French row is that Ahmari himself is a lapsed “David French-ist.” In an essay for Commentary a mere three years ago, he sounded the alarm about the imperiled state of liberalism—not in the common American sense of left-of-center politics, but in the classic sense of commitment to individual rights and political pluralism—and about the ascendancy of “illiberal movements” on the Left and the Right, including Trumpism. But that was then. Now, Ahmari believes the liberal approach simply can’t work for cultural conservatives besieged by an increasingly militant progressivism—not only because the other side seeks total war and total capitulation, but also because valorizing individual freedom and autonomy empowers the enemy.

According to Ahmari, “The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to give the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.” Progressives take this autonomy-maximizing quest to the “logical terminus” of demanding that individual choices receive full acceptance from all: Thus, traditional Christians and Jews must use preferred pronouns for transgender people, assist in same-sex weddings if they work as bakers or florists, allow people in same-sex relationships to hold posts in religious groups on college campuses, and acquiesce in “Drag Queen Story Time” at the local public library. (It was precisely such an event in Sacramento that occasioned Ahmari’s anti-Frenchist outburst.) Conservatives who embrace individual liberty as the highest political value, Ahmari argues, are defenseless before that logic.

While Ahmari allows that French has tirelessly advocated for freedom of conscience as a writer, activist, and attorney, he believes it’s clearly not enough. He sees Trump as an unlikely champion of that goal—a natural fighter whose “instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion.” Thus, French’s Never Trumpism, along with his squishy insistence on “civility and decency,” amounts to sabotage of the culture-war effort. (To paraphrase the spymaster in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, “War is hell, Mr. French, even when it’s a cultural one.”)

Aside from the Trump question, Ahmari’s screed is part of a trend increasingly evident in recent years on the American Right: an explicit rejection of liberalism. The most prominent exponent of this position is University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen, whose book Why Liberalism Failed received considerable mainstream attention last year. Deneen is upfront about the fact that he is challenging America’s foundational values. In his view, the American Founding, rooted in Enlightenment liberalism and in Lockean individualism, should be regarded as a failed experiment: social atomization, moral nihilism, and cultural decline are not perversions of the liberal idea but its inevitable outcomes.

Some conservative Catholics who have jettisoned liberalism now embrace “integralism,” a doctrine advocating the full integration of spiritual and political authority—not exactly the fusion of church and state but, in essence, the subordination of the latter to the former, at least in everything concerning moral issues. This might seem like a fringe view in modern Western society, especially in the United States. Indeed, during a debate on “Catholicism and the American Project” at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture last November, Deneen remarked half-facetiously that he doesn’t consider himself an integralist because “they’re kind of crazy.” Yet, notably, the four-person Notre Dame panel featured two integralists—Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule and University of Dallas assistant professor of politics Gladden Pappin—and only one pro-liberalism speaker.

First Things has fairly clear integralist sympathies. Does Ahmari, a onetime atheist who converted to Catholicism three years ago? In a Twitter thread posted shortly after the publication of his article, Ahmari denied being an integralist and even asserted that he still considers himself “broadly a liberal.”

However, the “liberalism” he now envisions is one that allows “autonomy in appropriate spheres” but requires “submission to establishments and authority where freedom of thought doesn’t belong.” Who gets to define those respective spheres is left unclear.

The anti-liberal trend on the Right is not limited to Catholics, though it does appear to be strongly linked to religious traditionalism. Another notable anti-liberal manifesto published in First Things this year was the essay “Conservative Democracy” by Israeli (and Jewish Orthodox) political scientist Yoram Hazony, author of the much-discussed 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony not only proclaims the failure of liberalism but proposes an alternative vision of democratic government: one that explicitly repudiates the liberal Enlightenment tradition linked to political philosophers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant, with its creed of reason, “the free and equal individual,” and obligations arising from choice.

Unlike Deneen, Hazony enlists American constitutionalism (at least pre-World War II) in the conservative political tradition he wants to restore; but he accomplishes this by reducing the Lockean roots of the American founding to some unfortunate “Enlightenment-rationalist phrases in the Declaration of Independence.” The conservative democracy he advocates is based on a prominent public role for the majority religion (“The state upholds and honors the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation” which are deemed “indispensable for justice and public morals”) and an understanding of rights and liberties as deriving from national history and culture rather than universal principles.

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From my vantage point as a thoroughly secular Jewish agnostic, I share many of the concerns about militant progressivism voiced by cultural conservatives like Ahmari. I’m not especially horrified by “Drag Queen Story Hour” (parents can choose whether or not to bring their kids, and while these events are obviously intended to promote acceptance of “gender fluidity,” they don’t seem to be particularly sexualized). However, I have serious reservations about aspects of the transgender rights revolution, particularly as it pertains to children. I believe the tendency to brand sexual traditionalists as bigots is bad for both practical and moral reasons, even though I have strong disagreements with their beliefs. More generally, I think it should be obvious that the far Left’s take-no-prisoners style of culture warfare invites similar extremism from the Right, of which Ahmari’s essay is an illustrative example.

But Ahmari gets modern progressivism completely wrong. For one thing, it is not individualistic or classically liberal but quite the opposite; its central value is collective identity. Just recently, reports on anti-racism training in New York City schools highlighted the fact that a slide presentation at one workshop listed “individualism” as a part of “white supremacy culture”—a fairly standard claim in social justice circles. Other Enlightenment values such as rationality are viewed a similarly negative light. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself has been under fire from the Left, accused of nothing less than spawning racism. (In some cases, right-wing and left-wing attacks on the Enlightenment are mere variations on a theme: progressives deride Enlightenment philosophers as white men whose individualism was a product of privilege, while Hazony derides them as unmarried, childless men whose individualism was a product of disconnection from family life.)

The progressive Left’s commitment to the autonomy principle is highly questionable as well—or at least highly selective: it more or less begins and ends with the right to choose abortion and the right to choose one’s gender from dozens of options. Yes to drag; no to kimonos.

Ahmari also vastly oversimplifies the culture wars as a clash between beleaguered cultural conservatives and a monolithic progressive army. In reality, gay white males are under attack as too privileged; the feminist movement has been tearing itself apart over “intersectionality”; and transgender activists have been clashing not only with radical feminists but sometimes with drag queens, whom they see as having reactionary attitudes toward gender. (“Drag Queen Story Hour” may yet get shut down by culture warriors from the Left, not the Right.) Meanwhile, plenty of liberals detest the absurd and authoritarian excesses of “political correctness.”

Principled liberalism can be an ally against militant progressivism—whether in defense of free speech or of other values. Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian baker who had refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, accepting his argument that his religious liberty was violated when the Colorado Commission for Civil Rights rejected his faith-based objection as a mere cover for prejudice. (The ruling was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom many social conservatives have singled out for special scorn because of his argument, with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage, that constitutional liberties protect the individual’s ability to make his or her own decisions about morality and meaning.) National Review editor Charles Cooke has pointed out that, while Ahmari has mentioned the sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as his breaking point, Kavanaugh was successfully defended on the grounds of the presumption of innocence, a basic liberal tenet. (And French was one of his most vocal defenders.)

Of course liberalism is not flawless, and liberal democracy has its built-in conflicts and tensions that can sometimes, as I myself have argued, make it a victim of its own success. The demand for equal rights and dignity for groups that have been subjected to historical discrimination or even dehumanization—women, racial and religious minorities, the LGBT community, the disabled—is a welcome and necessary extension, or fulfilment, of the liberal idea. But when this demand focuses on rooting out (actually or allegedly) demeaning language, images, “tropes,” or ideas, it inevitably infringes on freedom of speech; and when it demands full, state-enforced acceptance of behavior many religions regard as morally wrong, whether it’s birth control usage or same-sex relationships, it is likely to trample on religious liberty. (Before his recent anti-liberal turn, Ahmari rightly labeled this “illiberal liberalism.”) The demand for absolute equality can also, as we have seen, shape-shift into a politics of identity that is the exact opposite of individualism.

Liberal democracy has other inherent paradoxes, from the democratic over-expansion of the welfare state to costly military adventures driven by a perceived imperative to support universal human rights abroad. When affluent liberal societies become a magnet for immigration from less developed countries, migrants who do not share these societies’ values can have a disruptive effect if their numbers are large enough. Many of these conflicts and tensions have reached boiling point in recent years, which explains the perception of liberalism in crisis.

However, I suspect that the death or even failure of liberalism is as exaggerated as liberalism’s impending global triumph was at the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the anti-liberals have yet to offer a remotely plausible or attractive alternative. Deneen, who stresses that the road from liberalism must go forward and not back and that liberalism’s genuine gains in freedom and equality must not be lost, envisions the growth of small communities committed to conservative cultural values and left to their own devices by the state. However, given that his model for such cultural change is the Amish community, which lives in extreme isolation from the larger society and shuns modern technology, it’s unlikely that this idea can work on a larger scale.

Hazony’s “conservative democracy” is a far more political project, and one with some troubling overtones. Thus, he argues that the state which upholds the majority religion should also offer “wide toleration of [other] religious and social views”—but only as long as they “do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.” Ahmari is vague about the ways the public square would be “re-ordered” to moral purposes, but he makes it clear that the state must not remain neutral between traditional morality and modern-day licentiousness. Some hardcore integralists follow the logic of their beliefs to a much darker conclusion. Earlier this year, First Things ran an essay defending Pope Pius IX’s decision, in a notorious 1858 case, to remove a Jewish boy secretly baptized by his Christian nursemaid from his Jewish family and have him raised as a ward of the Church—on the grounds that “putative civil liberties” should not “trump the requirements of faith.” Also in First Things, integralist philosopher Thomas Pink has criticized the Catholic Church for abandoning its erstwhile belief in “religious coercion”—i.e., the use of state power to restrict the practice and preaching of “false religions” including Protestantism.

Theocratic restoration in the West is a febrile fantasy. But in practice, the governments often held up as current models of anti-liberal democracy—in Hungary and Poland—do have distinct authoritarian leanings. Hungary was recently downgraded by Freedom House, hardly a left-wing outfit, from “free” to “partly free” because of state assaults on the press, academic institutions, and minority religions. These encroachments include discrimination against evangelical churches as well as increasing state control over the press—and laws requiring all state entities to protect “Christian culture.” While the situation in Poland is better, troubling recent news stories include a lesbian activist’s arrest on blasphemy charges for putting up posters of the country’s famous “Black Madonna” icon sporting a rainbow halo.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of government-backed Catholic traditionalism, National Review’s Rich Lowry correctly points out that it’s simply not going to happen in the U.S. Ahmari’s only specific proposal, and the crux of his disagreement with French, is to stop worrying and learn to love Trump. But while Trump can shift some policies—and perhaps even achieve the social conservatives’ dream of a repeal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that protects abortion rights nationwide—it hardly follows that he can shift the culture. The President of the United States doesn’t get to cancel Drag Queen Story Hour at a local public library. (And when public libraries do cancel such events as a result of protests, progressive churches sometimes step up to host them instead.) So far, at least, Trump’s effect on public opinion seems to be to shift it away from whatever he’s advocating: pro-immigration sentiment in America, for instance, is at a record high.

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It is safe to say that I disagree with David French—often strongly—on most issues pertaining to religious and sexual morality. But I also believe that the presence of his brand of faith-based social conservatism is essential in a free, secular, liberal society—as a necessary check on, and counterpoint to, permissive values. This conservative role depends on persuasion and dialogue, and on decency and civility. Progressives who see social conservatives as the enemy find this unacceptable; Ahmari wants to fight the culture war on their terms.

Of course liberalism is not perfect, and it may well be in need of a course correction. But for the foreseeable future, there is no better way. In that sense, we should all be Frenchists.

Culture WarsrecentReligion

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist. She is a writer at The Bulwark, a contributing editor at Reason, and a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute.