Liberal pundits are always overeager to proclaim a “crisis” of conservatism, or even to declare its demise. But it is beyond question that the very meaning of conservatism is today a more open and more urgent question than at any time since the birth pangs of the political and intellectual movement in the 1950s. It has been six decades since the formidable William F. Buckley, editor of the National Review, served as midwife to the birth of the conservative movement, refereeing the debate and finally deciding who would be included and who would be excluded.
Of course, the debate over the meaning and direction of “conservatism” now takes place in the shadow of a certain real estate mogul who became president, since the hopes of conservatism have long been associated with the prospects of the Republican Party. Questions surrounding the president’s character may be unavoidable, but they distract from this important philosophical debate.
To be sure, the president deserves credit for making it impossible for conservative intellectuals to ignore the fundamental (and one would think obvious) importance of the nation (with its trade, its borders, etc.). Conservative intellectuals as well as politicians had doubtless grown a little complacent in their role as the loyal opposition to the liberal-progressive and transnational establishment, whose absolute reign in the academy has now extended into the media and elite culture. Insofar as conservative thinkers needed a reminder that a country’s first duty is to its own people, then let us award one big philosophical point to our Tweeter-in-Chief. But to recognize the legitimacy and even the nobility of the political form of the nation-state is only the first step in renewing conservatism. The question remains: What kind of nation are we to be?
The intraconservative debate has inevitably become personal, as reputations, careers and egos become stakes in a challenging philosophical discussion. The risk that arguments will generate more heat than light was evident in the recent dust-up that Sohrab Ahmari initiated when he published (on the website of First Things_,_ a very intelligent, conservative Christian monthly) a vigorous, not to say strident critique of “French-ism.” His target was not France or the French, but David French, of the leading conservative magazine National Review. Here is how French summarizes Ahmari’s critique:
“Ahmari’s stated desire 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.’ By contrast, (Ahmari) says, (French 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.’”
Whereas Ahmari believes that we are fighting a war that must be won or lost, French stands by “classical liberalism — the commitment to neutral principles (such as free speech, religious liberty and due process) grounded in respect for individual liberty.”
I wish French were right. I wish conservatism could still be defined as the preservation of old-fashioned liberalism. There is truth in the idea that American conservatism has always been about conserving liberalism, about preserving “ordered liberty” or constitutional freedom as conceived by America’s Founding Fathers. But this liberty has never been a matter of truly “neutral” pluralism; liberty has always depended upon sources of order and virtue — traditional and religious sources that no supposedly morally neutral theory of individual freedom could ever provide. Individual freedom and pluralistic respect have always depended upon the support of a broad (though never universal or absolute) consensus on fundamental goods (religion, family) and on moral limits.
The reason conservatives now disagree bitterly about the meaning of conservatism is that, alas, it is not clear just what is left to conserve of the morally and religiously grounded and limited freedom that once defined America. The incoherent idea that boundless individual freedom (especially irresponsible sexual liberation) could by itself design our moral boundaries increasingly prevails, and it has teeth. Ahmari is right that French’s faith in a “neutral” pluralism is naive. But French is right to wonder what Ahmari can possibly mean by calling for the victory of some conception of a “Highest Good.”
The politics of a free people must always include a certain “pluralism” — an ongoing debate and, yes, a struggle for power among competing visions of justice. But this debate cannot be settled, nor our ongoing culture war avoided, by the invocation of some “neutral” ideal of “individual freedom.” This is why the intellectual renewal of conservatism is an urgent task: There remains precious little conservative liberalism to conserve, and so we must rise to the higher challenge of a liberal conservatism — the challenge of regrounding freedom in a classical and Christian concern for the common good.