Caesarism From The Post-Liberal Right?
Consider the positions that the mainstream of American conservatism spends a great deal of its time and treasure defending today:
The inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations)
Free speech and “expression”
Each of these positions was a creation of early modern liberalism, designed to overthrow a predominantly Aristotelian/Thomistic worldview. Each of these liberal features represent an aspect of what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the privatization of the good.” 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.
It is claimed that each feature of liberalism is necessary because of the fact of pluralism. One hears the likes of David French and Rod Dreher invoking “the fact of pluralism” as the impregnable wall that prevents any efforts to enact authoritative law. Yet, they simultaneously bemoan the rise of a monolithic left that has no compunctions about the “fact of pluralism.” If you are a religious believer, too bad. There’s no room for heresy in the Church of American Progressivism. Pluralism is only a problem, an obstacle, and a handcuff for … conservatives.
Well, gosh, I had not heretofore thought myself on the side of David French, whose views I have criticized, and I know that to be a “David Frenchist” is the worst thing in the world to a certain kind of Christian intellectual. But I do think — and I have always said this — that French is correct when he criticizes Sohrab Ahmari and his tribe on practical grounds. I wrote the other day about the moment in the first French-Ahmari debate, in which French, a lawyer, asked Ahmari what he would actually do to stop Drag Queen Story Hour. Ahmari had nothing to offer. I side with Ahmari on the awfulness of DQSH, and if I could pass a law to forbid it, I would.
But this is where it helps to have a lawyer on staff. French tirelessly points out that we would throw out a body of First Amendment jurisprudence that protects Christians for the sake of getting at drag queens, leaving ourselves with nowhere to hide when the mob comes after us. Then what?
The, um, fact remains that pluralism is a fact in this country. The country is, alas, de-Christianizing, and people like Deneen and me are going to be construed as enemies. I don’t see any practical way to fight this in the United States of America but within the liberal constitutional order — because if we overthrow the liberal constitutional order, we conservative Christians will soon find that we are a despised minority that will have nowhere to hide. I don’t like it, but there it is.
The problem with Team Integralist is they are good at picking out the flaws of the liberal order, but as yet have no realistic replacement for it. Pluralism might seem like a phantom to Patrick Deneen, but just try to create a political order based on subjecting the state to Catholic teaching, and see how far that gets you with the actually existing American people. I would be surprised if more than one in ten Catholics would go for it (and Catholics are only 22 percent of the US population).
I get the frustration. I have it myself. I see that the Left has hollowed out all the major institutions of American life, and wears classical liberalism like a skin suit. We live in an increasingly illiberal left-wing regime — and by “regime” I mean the ruling class, not just the state, but also corporations and other non-governmental institutions. I do not see any way to fight that effectively other than on well-established American constitutional grounds. The task is immense, and I don’t know that we can win. But what is the alternative? To create a dreamland polis on paper, but one that has zero chance of coming into existence in the real world, except perhaps through Caesarism. If Caesarism is what Patrick and his friends are after, then they should say so. If not, then they should explain how they intend to bring about their ideal state in a country with the demographic characteristics of ours, given the advanced MacIntyrean condition of disunity at the religious and even metaphysical level.
Team Integralist just wants to wave it away, but the fact that America is a pluralist, historically Protestant, and currently de-Christianizing country is a very big problem for their ideas. Again, if they believe the Founding was a mistake from the get-go, and that it should be overturned and replaced with something else, they should say so. If they don’t, then they should explain how they intend to bring about the changes they desire through the constitutional system that we have. Otherwise, it’s just a Very Online exercise.
Back in 1996, First Things magazine published a very controversial series of essays questioning the validity of the US political order, based on abortion. In the end, I think Father Neuhaus concluded that we should not abandon the constitutional regime until and unless we have exhausted all democratic means of changing the law. What if we applied this policy to our country today? Think of all the things the people fed up with soft totalitarianism could do within the system to fight it!
In atheistic France, a million people marched almost a decade ago to defend the traditional family in the face of gay marriage proposals. In America, which is far more Christian, this did not happen. Why not? If the people are upset about Drag Queen Story Hour — and I agree that we should be — then why not turn out to protest at the local library? The drag queens still retain a constitutional right to use that library — same as Christians — but a sustained and sizable protest would make a powerful statement about what the community values.
There are many, many ways to reign in the free market, and make it work more for the common good, within the current system. Why not let’s try them before we decided that liberal democracy doesn’t work? Activist parents in Virginia, and a brave activist named Chris Rufo, have shown what can be accomplished by angry, engaged parents confronting corrupt progressive authority. Before we abandon the Constitution, let’s try more of this.
As for deciding that religious liberty, free speech, and academic freedom are bad concepts, well, good luck trying to convince most Americans of that. We value religious liberty in this country precisely because the country was founded by religious dissenters. If we don’t have religious liberty, we small-o orthodox Christians are sunk. We are in this crisis today in part because the Left has abandoned these classical liberal values. I completely understand the desire to throw off the ideal of liberalism, and fight them openly from an illiberal Right position — but if you hope to prevail in the inevitable political struggle, you had better have the people on your side. Are the American people really inclined to side with Catholic integralism?
Once again: I agree with Deneen’s criticism of liberalism in his great book Why Liberalism Failed. I don’t have faith that America is going to come out of this crisis intact. But I could be wrong! I hope I am. There are valuable things to learn from that critique. Yet I am not convinced in the least that we on the Right, in post-Christian America, can defend what we value in this actual, existing political order, with a populace that has largely abandoned substantive forms of orthodox Christianity. Aside from revulsion at the more radical versions of race and gender ideology, the United States is not a culturally conservative country. I hate that, but that’s where we are.
You could do it with Caesarism, which is tyranny. Is this what the integralists want? One more time: if it is, then they should say so. If it is not, then they should say why not, and how they intend to get us from this point to what they call a “common good” regime absent coercion. Despite the way they behave, I am not their enemy, but I am not going to quit asking these questions — and it’s not because I have a sinecure within Conservatism, Inc. (I don’t), or am awaiting, in my Baton Rouge subdivision, my invitation to Georgetown cocktail parties. We are in a very, very serious moment in the life of our nation and the churches, and we have to proceed with focus and prudence. If I’m wrong, show me where I’m wrong. Sneering at critics of integralism is not a worthy response.
The Integralist Door Theorist: A Dialogue
“Hey mister, that front door you have is in pretty bad shape. It’s not going to keep the bad guys out.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that. It’s been bothering me for a while. What do I do?”
“I would take down that door right now. It’s crap.”
“What, and leave my front door wide open? Are you serious?”
“I didn’t say you had to leave it wide open. You need a stronger, better door.”
“I know. So what do you have for me? Are you selling doors?”
“Not as such. Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re telling me that my door is weak and I need to take it down. What are you proposing that I put up instead? I can’t just leave my house wide open.”
“You are operating from a defensive crouch. Is your name David French?”
“A defensive crouch! The days of being in a defensive crouch behind flimsy doors are over!”
“Damn right I’m being defensive. I want to defend my house from the bad guys. You are telling me that my front door is in bad shape, and I agree. You are telling me to take it down. You want me to take down weak protection for no protection at all. What sense does that make?”
“There will be a better door, in time, when we learn again how to build doors like they did in the 13th century. Now those were some strong doors!”
“You know, I’ve seen some of them in Europe. They are pretty impressive, the ones with the fancy ironwork. But medieval doors won’t fit on American houses.”
“You have a pint. The door-building in this country has been fatally flawed from the beginning. American doors were never going to amount to much.”
“Maybe so, but American doors is all we have. So what am I supposed to do? You say I need a medieval door, but nobody makes them these days, and they wouldn’t fit any door frames I know of. I would actually like to have a medieval door, but where’s the market for medieval doors going to come from?”
“It’s always about the market with you people. You think the market can solve all problems.”
“Come on, be serious.”
“Well, America needs a sensible leader who orders everybody to install medieval doors. That way, we will have medieval door factories, and everybody will have one, and everybody will be safe and happy.”
“What if nobody wants medieval doors? And like I said, medieval doors don’t fit on American houses. Anyway, what am I supposed to do about the open hole in the front of my house, while I’m waiting on the medieval door I ordered?”
“Why do you keep asking these questions?”
“Because I’m not a theorist of doors. I just need to keep my house safe.”
“John Rawls! Empire of Guadalupe! Wide stance! David French!”
“Hey now, no need to get snippy.”
“I will not be tone-policed!”
“Whatever. Maybe I can put some extra locks on this front door, and put some security lights up. Shouldn’t I at least try to strengthen what I have instead of taking the door down?”
“There you go again, being a frightened retreatist.”
“Oh, come on! You are asking me to take down this beat-up front door and leave my house wide open, and hope that somehow somebody comes along with a better door. Show me the better door, and show me how I’m going to be able to get it secured in place, then I’ll consider your offer. Until then, I’ll stick with the front door I have, not the supposedly better front door that doesn’t exist, except on a rectory somewhere in Normandy. I agree with you that my door is not very strong, but I would be a fool to take it down without knowing what’s going to replace it.”
“Admit it, you’re a door defeatist.”
“This conversation is going nowhere. Goodbye.”
“Coward. But look, before I go – can I interest you in buying a subscription to our Substack? It’s about door theory.”
UPDATE.2: I did not see this coming: