Post-Liberal Conservatism

A shorter version of this post was originally published at https://salvomag.com and is republished here with permission of the author (me).

There is a new movement that some call “the new right,” and others “the post liberal right.” It is emerging out of the wreckage of the post-fusionist liberal-conservative synthesis and echoes conservative movements happening throughout Europe. It seeks to recover a more genuinely conservative notion of freedom over and against the caricatures of liberty that have emerged during the COVID-era controversies.

I recently read two fascinating articles by leading figures at the forefront of this movement. It will be useful to spend some time walking through the arguments of these articles, with commentary of my own, to offer a lay of the land for the changing climate of American conservatism. In doing so, my purpose is to inform and not to take sides in the debate about this new movement.

Sohrab Ahmari on The New American Right

The first article is one that Sohrab Ahmari published in First Things titled “The New American Right: An Outline for a Post-Fusionist Conservatism.” Although written two years ago when Ahmari was embroiled in his dispute with David French, the piece usefully articulates a position that has subsequently gained momentum in conservative quarters.

Ahmari opens by observing that American conservatives have remained largely tethered to the Cold War legacy. A key feature of this legacy was the championing of liberty “first in the fight against communist totalitarianism, then in a more undifferentiated way in our resistance to ‘regulation.’” But Ahmari believes that this approach does not work for the new challenges facing us as a society. As he explains, “we need to wake up to twenty-first-century reality.” What is needed, he contends, is a total renegotiation of first principles, in which the conservative movement must explicitly embrace the Highest Good towards which political activity is oriented.

21st century conservatives have generally been hesitant to articulate any notion of the Highest Good, but progressive liberals do not share these same scruples. For them the Highest Good is, as Ahmari explains, “to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the ‘free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits.’” We should expect this from progressives, but what really gets Ahmari’s ire is that many conservatives (who he pejoratively refers to as “liberal conservatives”) have been happy to go along with this same framework of autonomy-maximizing individualism, at least implicitly.

“Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits….

The mainstream right and left have merged. The left emphasizes moral autonomy, while the right emphasizes market freedoms. For both, the highest end of politics is the pursuit of autonomy and care for the procedures that maximize autonomy….

There are genuine differences between the progressive liberal and the conservative liberal, of course. They typically emphasize different zones of autonomy. The right puts greater stock in market freedom and constitutional protections for individual liberty, whereas the left is exercised by identity representation that requires the power of government to knock down impediments to affirmations of personal choice. The right claims to guard freedoms, whereas the left insists that we must take affirmative action, as it were, to ensure true freedom. Many, if not most, of our disputes can be mapped onto these two configurations, both of which treat freedom without limits as the highest good.”

The realization of freedom without limits has created a state of affairs that Ahmari calls “unfreedom”:

“The modern West is unfree because it is irresponsible, unbounded, unattached…. Our consequent dysfunction frequently necessitates restrictions more onerous than any imposed by nature or tradition. The vast administrative state arises in order to regulate societies that have been deregulated by an individualistic liberalism.”

One of the consequences of conservatives embracing this type of unfreedom-disguised-as-liberty is that conceptual space has opened up for the left to simply dismiss conservative concerns as a species of private bias:

“The conservative migration to an exclusive emphasis on liberty has allowed progressives to frame the conservative ‘values’ as a species of private bias. If our dominant public philosophies are oriented only to autonomy, then any limit, whether based in moral truth or the common good, will be labeled irrational bigotry or atavistic theocracy. At best, the feckless conservative liberal shouts, ‘This far, but no farther!’ as one cherished ideal after another falls to the idol of freedom without limits. At worst, the conservative liberal declares with George Will that, actually, the task of conservatism today is to help people accommodate themselves to ceaseless disruption.”

In practice, this type of “liberal conservatism” has rendered conservatives just as impotent as progressives in addressing the challenges facing our society. Ahmari gives some examples:

“Conservatives and progressives alike decry children’s addiction to digital screens, but when the chips are down, the former safeguard tech monopolies (price stability for consumers!), while the latter press the firms to hire more minority executives. And one can imagine a heated debate over sex robots in the not-too-distant future. Conservative liberals will urge individual states to enact pro-business tax cuts to help attract sex robot–manufacturing jobs to economically depressed regions, while progressive liberals will publish op-eds lamenting the fact that the robots themselves don’t reflect the full spectrum of the nation’s diversity (along lines of race, gender, disability status, etc.). And so on ad infinitum.

Neither side can accept the limits that sustain true freedom.”

Is there an alternative? Ahmari thinks so. The solution is to rethink the very nature of liberty itself by returning to our classical and Christian roots. For millennia of classical Christian thought, an organism can be said to possess freedom only to the degree that it is able to flourish according to the final end appropriate to itself. So just as an acorn realizes its freedom by growing into an oak tree, a political community realizes its freedom by being oriented towards the Highest Good. In both cases, limits sustain true freedom: the acorn is not free to flourish unless it is limited to the ground, just as a political community cannot flourish if there are not limits on personal autonomy.

What it means in practice for a community to flourish according to the Highest Good is a worldview question; and that is precisely Ahmari’s point: we cannot do proper politics if we are not prepared to do philosophy and even theology. Specifically, we need the Biblical understanding of freedom and morality or we will never attain the true liberty necessary for community flourishing.

“Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined. Rather, true freedom is above all the free affirmation of the personal responsibilities attendant on individual rights. ‘I shall walk in liberty,’ sings the psalmist, ‘for I have sought thy precepts’ (Ps. 119:45). Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community…”

Of course, this kind of talk sends the left into paroxysms of anxiety over the specter of “theocracy.” But theocracy is inescapable: if a nation is not governed by the true God, they will be governed by the tyranny of false gods. Part of the antipathy to theocracy is because we have mistakenly conflated it with authoritarianism. Ahmari believes this is a mistake, for aligning the common good with the Highest Good may actually allow individual actors more leeway in many cases:

“Giving wide leeway to individual actors may turn out to be the best way to serve the common good in many instances. Our American tradition prizes liberty. But after too many decades of liberty without ends, freedom without limits, in many situations the new right must re-erect lost barriers. We need to restore the balance between liberty and responsibility, between personal freedom and an awareness of what freedom is for… In the long term, however, restoring Western freedom requires us to shore up a moral culture capable of inspiring a sense of responsibility, to rebind liberty to legitimate authority, to return the individual to his place as a member of the political community.

In this effort, we do well to remind our fellow citizens of the most fundamental limit of all: Man is made for more than this world, and his final destiny is in the hands of the Almighty.”

This is the basis for the “new right” or the “post liberal right”: a recognition of  creaturely limits. Instead of defaulting to the post Cold War tropes, these thinkers seek to return every issue back to first principles and constantly ask, “What are the true ends of political community?”

“Advancing a substantive account of the true ends of man and of the political community should be the first priority of conservatism today. The new American right doesn’t ask: How would this or that development promote or impede individual autonomy? Rather, it asks whether or not a new development allows man to participate in common goods proper to family, polity, and the religious community. It asks how to sustain the things we share in common as Americans, not the liberties we can enjoy in private.”

Patrick J. Deneen on a Non-Liberal Conservatism

A second article exploring the principles of this new political movement was written by Patrick J. Deneen. Deneen is a key theorist in the post-liberal right and teaches Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. Last month he published an article for his Substack newsletter titled, “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism Toward a Conservatism that is not Liberalism.”

Like Ahmari, Deneen strongly objects to the conservative movement being wedded to the tropes of liberalism, as this offers us “a politics based upon as an avoidance of any idea of the Good in politics and economics.” Deneen identifies the following seven areas where this fusion of conservative and liberal values has found focus:

See Also

  1. Religious liberty
  2. “Limited” government
  3. The inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations)
  4. Academic Freedom
  5. Constitutional “Originalism”
  6. Free Markets
  7. Free speech and “expression”

The problem is not that religious liberty, etc., are bad. The problem is that conservatives have taken up these causes without attention to the final ends (telos) of human community, and thus have succumbed to a quasi-relativism which assumes the good can be privatized, and assumes that our differences can and should be a matter of public indifference. Speaking of these seven issues, Deneen observes,

“Each was designed as a battering ram to demolish any prospect for a social, political, and economic order that – while never perfect – nevertheless understood that society must be ordered toward the end of advancing the telos of human beings.

Each of these features of liberalism is contentless, essentially boiling down to an ‘agreement to disagree.’ While conservatives spent several generations decrying the scourges of ‘relativism,’ their position effectively denied objective truth had any claim in the political order. As we have discovered, the challenge from the left is not relativism: they know what they believe, and pursue that goal with fierce and unwavering determination. It’s the defenders of Con. Inc. who are the relativists, promoting a world in which we the individual is the measure of truth.”

Deneen shows how this relativism has played out in the new preoccupation of conservatives: academic freedom.

“‘Academic freedom’ was the tool used to eviscerate the religious foundation of colleges and universities throughout the nation, giving priority to the viewpoints of individual faculty over the religious mission of the institution, and ultimately replacing what was in most cases a Christian religion with the new ‘liturgy of liberalism.’ Unsurprisingly, a form of freedom unmoored from an existing and shared conception of the good within the university community is bound to morph into a demand to valorize various forms of unfettered license – greed, concupiscence, intellectual sloth – that defines today’s campuses. Yet, today it’s so-called ‘conservatives’ who think that a defense of academic freedom will preserve them from progressive aggressions. They have picked up what was a liberal sword and have mistaken it for a conservative shield.

Thus, the national trajectory over the past seventy-five years has been one of a continuous movement to ever more extreme forms of liberalism. Conservatism Inc. has been adrift on the buffeting seas of unmoored individual freedom from the outset, wholly subject to the dominant currents of American liberalism.”

Deneen’s remarks come as a challenge to conservative thinkers who imagine that the solution to our present crises is to become more liberal. For example, the neoconservative political writer, William Kristol, called for “a new conservatism based on old conservative—and liberal—principles.” This fusion of liberal and conservative principles is also a feature of figures like the Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, whose folk conservatism draws on the legacy of Rousseau to offer a liberal-conservatism as an alternative to progressive-liberalism. But Deneen believes all this is a mistake:

“Trying to remain partly liberal is like being ‘a little pregnant’ – there is no such thing. Liberalism’s internal logic leads inevitably to the evisceration of all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church….

These establishment ‘conservatives’ play a key role in propping up the regime, and hence serve as useful foils – ‘controlled opposition’ – for the powers behind the powers – the oligarchs, the corporations, the power elite. Those powers have a vested interest in supporting Conservatism Inc. even as those institutions resemble an army well-equipped for the last war, fighting for a ‘dead consensus.’”

Further Resources

Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen are just two thinkers in this burgeoning movement known as “the new right” or “the post-liberal right.” The movement includes a range of other figures whose views are by no means heterogeneous, but who share in common the desire for a conservatism eviscerated of all liberal baggage.

For those wishing to know more about this movement, I will leave you with a few articles and videos for further study.

 

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