Towards a Conservatism Eviscerated of Liberalism
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
Over Thanksgiving weekend I read a fascinating article by Sohrab Ahmari, a leading figure at the forefront of this movement. It will be useful to spend some time walking through the arguments of this article, with commentary of my own, to offer a lay of the land for the changing climate of American conservatism.
Sohrab Ahmari on The New American Right
Sohrab Ahmari's article was 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....
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.”
Sohrab Ahmari is just one thinker 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.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. In addition to working as a ghost-writer for celebrities, his work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manuel for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, forthcoming 2023). He is a contributor to Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives (Sebastian Press, 2018), and Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination (Eighth Day Press, forthcoming 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/the-new-post-liberal-american-right