The Corner

Politics & Policy

David French and Sohrab Ahmari: What Are We Debating?

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Sohrab Ahmari has set off a bitter debate, but it’s not at all clear what that debate is supposed to be about. Classical liberalism? Civility? President Trump? The collected works of David French? So far, it seems to be about all of those things put in a blender — which is not a recipe for maintaining useful distinctions. I’ll try to separate some of the discrete issues.

First, about liberalism: Often when people are arguing about it they are using different definitions of it. I don’t know that French believes that government has to aspire to strict neutrality about rival conceptions of the good life, or that it must abjure the promotion of virtue as a goal. I don’t know, either, that Ahmari denies that human dignity requires governments to refrain from coercing people to adopt particular religious beliefs or practices. So, again, I’m not sure what the argument is about.

Second, about civility, politeness, and so forth: Ahmari portrays French as begging liberals to respect conservatives’ freedom of conscience; French portrays himself as insisting that they do. While I think French’s description better matches his career history, the disagreement itself suggests that there is no necessary connection between classical liberalism and the political timidity Ahmari opposes.

Third, about French: His response to Ahmari makes a strong case (so far unrebutted) that his views have been misrepresented. On Twitter, Ahmari commented that he salutes French’s military service and legal advocacy; his argument, he suggests, is with a destructive form of liberalism. So is it Ahmari’s view that French embraces this form of liberalism as an intellectual matter, in what he has written, but has not lived down to his bad principles in practice? But then we hit the problem that Ahmari has not identified the false ideas in French’s work. (Ahmari more or less tells us that he’s not going to be concerned with specifying and refuting particular tenets, since he’s writing in opposition to a “sensibility.”)

Finally, there’s Trump — on whom every conversation in America, apparently, must ultimately focus. Over the last year and a half Ahmari has become much more supportive of Trump than he used to be, and he is criticizing French from this new position. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind after added reflection, and Ahmari has done it before on larger matters, as he describes in his recent memoir. But I think there are two oddities in Ahmari’s case that could stand still more reflection.

I cannot count the number of times that social conservatives have justified support for Trump by reference to the weakened state of their movement. Because the law and the culture have become increasingly hostile to religious traditionalism and traditionalists, they say, they were impelled to defend a deeply flawed man who would at least serve as a defense. If you’re a social conservative who’s unhappy about defensiveness and neutral principles such as religious liberty, you ought to be pushing back on this large strand of pro-Trumpist social conservatism. (As French has.) And if this pro-Trump sentiment is right, it suggests that a social conservatism that demands more than freedom for its adherents will fail.

The difference between French and Ahmari with respect to Trump is also elusive. It’s clear that French is more critical of the president than Ahmari is these days. Ahmari suggests that there is something rotten about French’s welcoming some developments that have occurred under, through, and thanks to Trump while maintaining this stance toward the president. But Ahmari still regularly offers his own criticisms of the president. So what amount or degree of criticism is acceptable before crossing the line? Surely the answer cannot be that all conservatives have to be exactly where Ahmari is on Trump at any given moment.

We should all be willing to listen to one another — if that is not too civil and naïve a thing to say — especially given our many shared convictions. I’m not “against Sohrab Ahmari-ism.” But I wish I had a better sense of what it is.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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