For months now, we’ve been told that so-called fusionist conservatism—the synthesis of traditional Christianity and individual liberty—is dead. In its place is arising something more muscular, more direct, unafraid to harness the power of government to achieve good ends. At the furthest reaches of this new school are those like Sohrab Ahmari, who recommend a bracing dose of Catholic morality delivered unabashedly by the state. The goal is no longer to defend the boundaries of the public square but, as Ahmari puts it, to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
He couldn’t even win a debate. Last week, at the Catholic University of America, Ahmari sat down with National Review scribe David French, a fusionist conservative, and was thoroughly trounced. He was unable to defend his most basic positions; matters of constitutional law stumped him. Asked by French what he would actually do to make America more moral, he recommended hauling the “head of the Modern Library Association,” which doesn’t exist, before a committee of Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, which also doesn’t exist. The row between these two began when Ahmari accused French of being insufficiently outraged over drag queen reading hours at local libraries. Yet by the end of Ahmari’s performance, even the most ardent social conservative had to be hoping a gay pride float would crash through the debate room wall.
Ahmari has a habit of being uncharitable to articles published on this website, and being a hardened TAC integralist myself, I’m forced now to draw my sword in defense. Because, really. I mean, really. Conservative commentary is more robust and energetic than it’s been at any point since the 1960s, yet we’re sitting here quarreling over whether a Catholic Church that can’t even govern itself should inform the governance of a country only one fifth of whose population is Catholic and of that only some of which actually practice. This is hoppingly, eye-wateringly idiotic, which is why it thrives on Twitter and explodes on contact with real life. That some of the commentary is trending in this direction should embarrass those of us who are Catholic.
Let’s first be clear what we’re not talking about here. This has nothing to do with thoughtful conservatives who want to use antitrust to break up Google or desire a federal ban on abortion or think the government should slap tariffs on Chinese goods. It has nothing to do with whether nationalism is a salutary force in politics or whether the Trump era will turn out well. It also has nothing to do with the fatuous old question of whether we should “legislate morality” (of course we should; are we to legislate sociopathy?). The contention at the heart of Ahmarism is that the government ought to impose a putatively Catholic conception of the common good unchecked by notions of individual liberty and so-called “proceduralism” (which the rest of the planet calls “the rule of law”).
The enemies of Ahmarism, then, are libertarianism with its emphasis on personal freedom, classical liberalism with its rules of governance, and progressivism with its debauched social ethic. These things the Ahmarists roll up into a ball and term “liberalism,” which they then inveigh against in columns that at first were interesting but now sound heavily mad-libbed. As with all ideologues, they refuse to recognize distinctions—between ordered political liberty and unlimited license, for example. As with all fanatics, they blame the enemy for all that’s gone wrong and credit him for nothing that’s gone right. (This is not, I should point out here, a critique of Patrick Deneen, whose Why Liberalism Failed is more a warning of what’s to come than a theocratic alternative. A conversation between Deneen and French would have been genuinely interesting.)
Ahmari’s politics is the sort held primarily by adolescents. It divides the world into easy categories, one strong (Ahmarists), another compromising (liberals), and a third evil (leftists)—and is there really such a difference between those last two at the end of the day? It’s the speech at the end of Team America rinsed in holy water. ...
For anyone who has seen Team America ... that last flourish is something. Purple goes on and eventually writes:
... Ahmari is, as Burke put it, one “of those democratists who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.”
What this is really about is cultural imperialism, taking America as it is and replacing it with something it’s never been. ...
Emma Ayers' take at TAC is that the debate was not really about politics but about theology.
Last Thursday, at Washington D.C.’s Catholic University of America, two representatives from different sides of the conservative divide faced off. The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari and National Review’s David French sat in armchairs on a Heritage Hall platform, flanking moderator and New York Times commentator Ross Douthat.
Before the debate even began, there was a pseudo-hysteric energy permeating the room. Everyone’s brow seemed a little furrowed, perhaps because we’d all arrived expecting an ideological brawl. And boy did we get one. French had shown up in a mood of obvious indignation—and understandably so. It was out of nowhere that Ahmari had lambasted his moral and political courage in a May First Things piece. Throughout the evening, sincere anger over that attack peeked through French’s speech, and with each personal goad on the part of Ahmari, his face grew redder and redder. Indeed, when Ahmari cast suspicion on French’s bravery during his service in Iraq, Douthat, positioned between the two, appeared a little afraid for his physical welfare.
Yet in the end, it was all a circus, a pointless display. Because the two men ultimately weren’t arguing about politics, on which they might have found common ground. They were arguing about theology and faith.