In some quarters of the American Right, it has become fashionable of late to blame our classically liberal order for the ills that afflict American conservatism, and then to hint vaguely that an alternative system of government might deliver more-salutary results for religious and social conservatives. This argument — insofar as one can call it that — is a poor one, and perhaps even a dangerous one. It should be resisted.
The critique offered by the “post-liberal” or illiberal-curious crowd contains a number of fatal flaws. It relentlessly confuses the bones of our political system with the meat that free people put upon them, and thereby becomes both incomprehensibly vague and nigh on impossible to interrogate and find any meaning in. It badly misidentifies its enemy, which leads its progenitors to turn, mistakenly, upon their allies. It is wantonly self-destructive, in that, if followed to its natural conclusion, it would limit, rather than increase, the power of those who advance it. And, because it is not tethered to any specifics, it inevitably invites respondents to inquire, “So let’s assume you’re right about classical liberalism — so what do you want to do about that?” Taken together, these defects reduce it to little more than a whine — a lament that can be summed up in terms familiar to the three-year-old: “That’s not fair.” And whines do not great political systems make.
Defenders of our classically liberal order such as I contend that its purpose is not to deliver endless victories to one group or another within society, but to create a framework within which people who hold markedly different conceptions of what constitutes the Highest Good can coexist without going to war. In America, this end is achieved in part by our constitutional structure, which is designed to protect the individual and to foster the pluralism that is necessary for peace, and it is achieved in part by the inclusion of democratic elements that ensure that the losing side in any dispute has a chance to win in the future. Ultimately, the classically liberal order places only one condition on participants, and that is they agree not to try to abolish it or to permanently take it over. Beyond that, it doesn’t much care how it is used. The result is a country in which the Amish and Silicon Valley can coexist, and in which the Mississippi Baptist and the Brooklyn hipster can thrill to the same flag. It is a country in which Texas can thrive, and so can Massachusetts. It is a country that can host both Franklin Graham and Marilyn Manson (but not Charles Manson).
Critics of the liberal order reject this characterization, charging that the system is unjust because it merely pretends at neutrality and toleration while in fact smuggling in its own values and imposing them on the public square. This critique is similar in kind to the progressive claim that, say, neutral and expansive free-speech protections are not, in practice, neutral and expansive but rather serve to reinforce a particular view of the good life — say, white supremacy or patriarchy or Christianity or capitalism. If this critique were correct, it would be damning. Fatal, even. But it is not. And, in fact, it is entirely backwards.
To grasp why, one needs only to look at the examples of failure and hypocrisy that are offered up against the classical-liberal order. The Obama administration forced religious business owners to pay for contraception. Aha! Jack Phillips can’t run his bakery in Colorado without his conscience rights being assaulted. Aha! College campuses are shutting down speakers! Aha! And so on. Now, it is true that these things have all happened. But it is also true that they are not reflective of the classically liberal order but of an illiberalism that seeks to amend or undermine it. Or, to put it another way, these infractions are the products not of our system working correctly, but of its being rejected by a progressivism that is openly hostile to its presumptions.
Moreover, these departures are being fought — and remedied — on the back of liberal provisions such as the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That the owners of Hobby Lobby had to sue for their rights is an indictment of the Obama administration, certainly. And yet they won — and at a Supreme Court that was less likely to protect religious liberty than is today’s. Jack Phillips may have been targeted and abused in a way that no man in a free society should be, but he also won 7–2 at the Supreme Court in a case whose holding is likely to be expanded in the future. And the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports that, while there are still free-speech problems on campus, the number of institutions that earn its “red light” warning has dropped from 74.2 percent to 28.5 percent over the last decade. There is no easy way to prevent attempts to crush the individual in any society, but there is an easy way to repel them. The liberal order is the dissenter’s best friend.
What of the culture? Doesn’t the liberal order eventually corrupt that, even as it insists that it is merely a framework within which all people may thrive? Writing at First Things, Sohrab Ahmari has argued vaguely that it does, and he has pointed to the existence of something called “drag-queen story hour” at a library in Sacramento, Calif., the existence of which apparently demonstrates that we are sliding to Gomorrah on John Locke’s back. Leaving aside that there is nothing intrinsic to the liberal order that prompted such an event — America had the same political, judicial, and constitutional system in 1930, and there is no way that this would have happened then; what has changed is the culture on top of that system — it is hard to discern in what alternative nonauthoritarian political system such a practice could easily be ended. Which is why, I imagine, Ahmari has not presented a plan of any sort.
What could he offer? Does he want more local control over libraries? If so, he’ll be disappointed when he learns what the locals in much of California choose to permit. Does he want free-speech zones imposed, as on college campuses, the better to limit the taking of offense? If so, he must explain how he differs in principle from his political rivals, and why he uses the illiberalism of progressive college campuses as an example of the problem with the status quo. Or does he just want to win — that is, to ban drag-queen story hours nationwide by any means necessary? If he does, he has only one option: to stage a coup and to replace the American system with a new order headed by those who think like him. Given that he doesn’t mention such a plan, I shall assume he does not want to do this. That being so, there are only two other ways that Ahmari can win this fight. The first is to move somewhere else — someplace where this sort of thing does not happen anywhere within the polity. (It is worth noting, incidentally, that Ahmari does not actually live in Sacramento.) The second is to win the argument culturally so that such behavior is marginalized and disdained, even if it is not illegal.
Despite having no other solution, Ahmari disdains this final option, which he disparagingly calls “David Frenchism.” He is wrong to do so even on his own terms. Why? Well, because absent the establishment of a dictatorship, any non-cultural solution to what ails America will itself be reliant on the culture. Ultimately, in America, everything falls under democratic control — yes, even the Bill of Rights, which can be amended by a supermajority and which relies for its execution on judges who are chosen by the executive and legislative branches. And that democratic control is the product of our culture; if the culture is fallen, the democracy will be, too. Ahmari seems to imply that there is some way of taking over the government in order to fix the culture while that culture is the “enemy.”
But what, exactly, would that look like? I do not for a moment believe that Ahmari seeks a sinister alteration to our order. I do think, however, that he has a duty to explain himself in detail.
I think, too, that he ought to be extremely careful what he wishes for. The irony here is that if the post-liberals were somehow able to establish a set of institutions that could direct the culture as they wished, they would likely be setting themselves up for persecution. It should be obvious that any organization imbued with sufficient power to win cultural battles without democratic backing would also be imbued with sufficient power to crush social and religious conservatives without democratic backing. And then what would the persecuted do, having agreed to dispense with the guardrails?
The great thing about the American order is that you have just as much right to say “But the First Amendment!” as the people who hate you and believe you want to turn society away from the Highest Good — and vice versa. To undermine that principle on the grounds that you really do know what’s best is folly. The best way to fight illiberalism in 2019 America is the same as it was in 1919 and 1819: not to abandon the system wholesale and seek some elusive permanent victory, but to insist on its being upheld. It is to speak, to argue, to persuade, to engage, and, in such cases as the law is being ignored, to take the buggers to court and remind them that the Constitution is supreme in this country — and should be. No victories are won in self-imposed exile.