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Ross Douthat Describes the Crisis of the Conservative Coalition

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Three years ago, it felt like something of a shock that religious conservatives overwhelmingly embraced the campaign of Donald Trump. Now, with the Republican-controlled Senate confirming judges at a record pace, and Trump offering rhetorical support to the religious right’s agenda, it appears rather mundane. And yet there remains a great deal of unease, among cultural conservatives, about the future of the country and the conservative movement itself.

Witness the manifesto “Against the Dead Consensus,” published by the religious journal First Things in March. Signed by fifteen prominent conservative intellectuals, including Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, the manifesto rejects the Republican coalition that has spanned the Reagan to Trump eras. “Yes, the old conservative consensus paid lip service to traditional values,” the statement says. “But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.”

One of the signatories, Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, went on to write, in another piece in First Things last month, that “Against the Dead Consensus” was specifically against “what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.” To Ahmari, French-ism “sees ‘protecting individual liberty’ as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.” In order to defeat a growing majority that Ahmari calls “the libertines,” cultural conservatives, in his view, must dispense with French’s “niceness” and “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

The piece elicited a response from French, who wrote that “there is no political ‘emergency’ that justifies abandoning classical liberalism”—and also from a remarkable number of conservative writers and intellectuals, including Ramesh Ponnuru, Bret Stephens, and the Times columnist and Trump critic Ross Douthat. In his column on Tuesday, Douthat, who is sympathetic to some of Ahmari’s fears about the place of cultural conservatism in an increasingly liberal country, wrote that “the rise of Trump has revealed the insufficiencies of the old synthesis, the fault lines within the right, the possibilities for a different fusion altogether,” while questioning whether such a new conservatism could develop under the Trump Administration.

Later that day, I spoke by phone with Douthat. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether the compromises that religious conservatives have made will come back to haunt them, why Douthat believes liberals are becoming less tolerant of Christianity, and the future of social conservatism within the Republican coalition.

To what degree do you view the discontent that Ahmari identifies to be about the place of social conservatives within the Republican coalition, and to what degree do you view it to be about the place of conservatives in American society more generally?

I think he would probably say that it’s both at once, that there is a connection of some kind between the fact that social conservatives have, arguably at least, historically been junior partners in the conservative ideological coalition, who go along with a lot of policymaking that isn’t really central to their issues in return for theoretically getting a certain kind of Justice appointed to the Supreme Court.

There’s a connection between that junior-partner role and the larger retreat of religious conservatism in American politics and culture. I don’t think you can separate the two. I think the weakening of social conservatism as a cultural force has led some social conservatives to question the bargain that they’ve made within the conservative coalition.

Do you see a connection between the way the culture generally has developed and the way Republican élites, who are in many cases not social conservatives, treat social conservatives within their coalition?

I think that there’s some connection. I think that for social conservatism to make sense as a political world view, it has to have a more capacious understanding of what kind of society it wants than just saying, “Leave us alone and let us pass laws against abortion.” I don’t think this is a main reason that religious identification has diminished or that marriage has declined or birth rates have declined. All of these are obviously driven by many, many factors.

But I think the argument that social conservatives want to make about American society is weaker than it could be, because it’s seen as narrowly focussed on a few issues, not having a strong economic-policy vision, and, more broadly, not having a story that’s distinct from the story that more libertarian conservatives would tell.

You wrote, “But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves.” You don’t seem to get much from the “thrill-in-combat” stuff that a lot of Trump supporters like about the President. But what is it that you want?

You’re right, I don’t thrill to Donald Trump’s approach to politics at all, but I think that, to the extent that they’re asking for more influence over economic policy and a conversation about the philosophical roots of liberalism, I’m there for that conversation, if not necessarily some of the more radical places it could go. But, yeah, to the extent that they’re suggesting a different Republican Party that is more populist, that supports working families, then I’m totally there for it.

Ahmari and a lot of social conservatives seems discontented with two things that might be separate. In the piece, he mentions his anger over a Drag Queen Story Hour, which is the type of thing that I assume even he does not want legislation banning, but then there are things that social conservatives presumably want to pursue through the political process. I’m wondering whether you think there’s actually some connection between those things.

Yeah. I think that, at the risk of being too tedious, there are three different but related things that are collapsed into this discussion. The first is the thing we’ve just been talking about, which is the question of whether social conservatives should want a different set of policies than what the Republican Party has historically supported. Then there’s this question about what you might call cultural strategy, because, if you look at the story of the last fifteen or twenty years, it’s the story of the apparent cultural retreat of conservative religion in the U.S., and that retreat led a lot of religious conservatives to a view that they were just going to be a creative minority within American society that tries to defend their own religious liberties and tries to have a missionary spirit, but not have the illusion that they were suddenly going to undo the recent waves of secularization.

In the last few years, Trump came along and demonstrated that, if nothing else, more things might be possible in American politics than people expect. At the same time, I think, in various ways, secular liberalism became more overtly hostile to conservative religious institutions. I would note the A.C.L.U.’s turn against Catholic hospitals, and there was this sudden sense that there’s some kind of crisis of liberalism going on in the West, meaning not just the crisis of liberal politics but a kind of cultural crisis that connects to suicide rates and the opioid epidemic. I think all of that has raised the question for religious conservatives of, “Should we be retreating from this culture? Maybe this culture is totally up for grabs, and we should have a more militant, ambitious view of what’s possible.” That’s connected to the political-policy piece, because part of that strategy might be a different policy agenda, but it’s also distinct from it.

Then the third thing is just the simple debate about whether religious conservatives should support Donald Trump, where David French is a kind of totemic figure because he’s the embodiment of a certain kind of religious-conservative opposition to Trump that some people think is heroic and some people think is, well, what Sohrab suggested it was, a kind of political purity that isn’t suited to the real stakes of the moment. Those are the three things that are all jumbled up together in this conversation.

I won’t say “fears for your eternal soul,” but—

It’s always good to have fears for your eternal soul.

Is your fear about social conservatives supporting Trump more that it’s an immoral wager, which I think French would say was part of it, or is it more the practical thing that, in the long run, support for this guy who is lacking as a moral human being is going to damage social conservatism?

I’m sorry to keep doing this, but I think it’s both at once, right? I think that there is a sense in which the witness of religious conservatives and religious people in general depends on not appearing to be egregious hypocrites. Supporting Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily make you a hypocrite. You can cast a vote for Trump reluctantly in a lesser-of-two-evils spirit, but it certainly tempts his religious supporters into a kind of hypocrisy, a constant minimization of his offenses relative to Democratic politicians and so on, so that’s a straightforward moral problem, a moral dilemma.

Then, linked to it are the practical effects. It’s never so simple as you make a bad political bargain and you suffer for it, but I think it’s totally plausible and reasonable, and at least borne out in polling to date, that the moral compromise inherent in supporting Trump costs everything from bridge-building between white and African-American Christians, to possibilities for keeping the next generation of younger Christians committed and convinced. I think French is totally right to worry about that.

What is your attitude toward people who say that American Christians are a majority, that almost all the most powerful people in the country are Christians, and that even if the culture is liberal in various ways, or almost all ways, this sense of victimization, of besiegement, in comparison to what’s facing any other religious person in America, or Christians overseas, is sort of ridiculous?

I’d say first that there is a style of Christian anxiety that can shade into ridiculousness, as you say, especially when compared to the physical persecutions visited on Christians around the world. I’d also say that America is a big and complicated country of three hundred million people, and so a lot of different things can be true at once. It can be true that, one, America is still sufficiently residually Christian that there’s no other religion, certainly, that feels like it is the defining religion of the U.S. Our holidays are still Christian holidays. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity that’s written into the social fabric that’s not about to disappear. And, in certain places, there is an intensity of Christian identification that can still make life very uncomfortable for religious minorities, and in its darker moments can shade into bigotry.

At the same time as all of that, it’s also the case that one of the major coalitions in our politics, the liberal coalition, is taking stances that are increasingly hostile to conservative Christian institutions in ways that are new, relative to where politics was twenty years ago, and that suggests a trend that conservative Christians are totally reasonable to be worried about. It really is the case that, over the last ten years, the American Civil Liberties Union, the official guardian of civil liberties in America, has taken the stance that Catholic hospitals should be forced to perform abortions and sterilizations. That’s a big shift. It’s a new thing in our politics. It creates the kind of legal pressure on conservative Catholics, at least, that wasn’t there before. It really is the case that the State of California is currently considering legislation that would require Catholic priests to violate the seals of the confessional in certain ways.

It’s a complicated stew, but the bottom line is that I think religious-conservative concern over these trends is totally reasonable, and should be understood and comprehended even by secular liberals who think that all of the moves that the A.C.L.U. and other institutions are making are totally reasonable. You have to understand how those affect the people who you’re trying to put legal pressure on, and how they’re likely to react.

If you believe that—that these things represent a threat to Christians—and we don’t have to debate the specifics, it seems to me that one way in which we could find some common ground is the idea that you’re in some way acknowledging that conservative Christians might benefit from democratic laws and democratic norms, and that one of the reasons that Trump is somewhat of a threat is that a liberal society is actually good for religious believers.

Yeah. If you look at groups like the Becket Fund, which has been defending people in religious-liberty cases, they have very deliberately taken a very ecumenical approach, where they are defending Muslim religious liberties as much as conservative-Christian religious liberties. I think if you went to a big piece of the religious-conservative intelligentsia, to the extent that such a thing exists in 2015 and 2016, they would generally agree with the perspective that you’ve just offered.

I think the question that Ahmari is raising but that is also sort of generally in the air is whether secular liberalism has a kind of stopping point that accepts the continued not just existence but flourishing of conservative religious traditions that aren’t on board with the cultural-liberal consensus. I’ll be totally honest, I don’t know what the answer is, and one of the reasons this debate is interesting is that I think the shift in secular liberalism’s attitudes toward people of my beliefs, for instance, over the last twenty years, has been dark and startling in a lot of ways, and it does raise the question of where is the stopping point, where is the stable ground, and what strategy is most appropriate in response.

I want to turn to something that you talk about at the end of your piece, where you say that because of some of his racial demagoguery, because of the way he behaves, Trump may not be able to bring a real majority to Republicans in the near future, and so supporting him presents a practical challenge. I might take the opposite point of view on that and say what’s been striking is that Trump has been able to keep a coalition of the size he has given how grotesque he is on a daily basis. I think maybe a bigger challenge for non-conservatives and social conservatives worried about their moral choices would be if you have a conservative who is a nationalist, disregards norms, and pursues really hard-line policies in the ways that Trump does, but is not personally the same sort of tweeter and the name-caller and so on. I can see a person like that getting a very real majority in America. Do you think that that would also pose its own challenges to social conservatives?

You might be right that a different kind of populist nationalist would pose a more serious threat to liberals and the Democratic Party long-term than Trump is posing right now. You can frame that as a problem for liberalism, which I think it obviously is, but I agree with you. It’s also potentially a problem for religious conservatism because part of what I think is best in what Ahmari wants and what some of the other younger religious conservatives want is a Republican Party or a conservatism that’s more informed by what I would call the fullness of the Christian sociopolitical tradition—that isn’t just an adjunct to a pro-business party and that actually has a Christian vision of the common good. We have plenty of examples from twentieth-century history where, out of fear of liberalism or Communism, religious conservatives made alliances with secular populists and nationalists, and it ended up going pretty badly for everybody.

I’m interested in this idea of someone who substantively is the same as Trump, but who doesn’t tweet and call Mika Brzezinski names—of how a politician like that would play.

But is also doing child-separation policies at the border, you mean?

Yeah, essentially.

I think the fact that religious conservatives have been as supportive as they are of Trump suggests that such a politician would be equally or more effective in having their loyalty. Now, that being said, I think such a politician would be better than Donald Trump. My view of Trump is that, while he has done some extremely noxious things, in general his worst feature, his most authoritarian feature, really is his public presentation. I think that such a politician would in fact be a better figure, even though obviously liberals would have many reasons to oppose him.

I’m wondering if you think that, for a lot of conservative Christians, what they especially abhor about Trump is not that he slept with a porn star—or that he’s been married three times or that he grabbed women inappropriately or any of these things—but his place in the culture before he was elected, and how he was part of this gross and tawdry culture that I think a lot of social conservatives especially abhor.

I think that one thing Trump played on was that there is obviously a side of religion in America that is, in its own way, garish and tawdry and a sort of religious analogue to his public persona. It’s not a coincidence that the first religious conservatives to support Trump were a mix of political opportunists, certainly, but also televangelists and prosperity-gospel preachers. In fact, in Trump’s own past, the church he was associated with was the church where Norman Vincent Peale, the “Power of Positive Thinking” guy, was the pastor. I think that part of Trump’s appeal to religious conservatives is not despite the garishness and tawdriness, it’s connected to it.

I think that’s very different from the way that a different kind of religious conservative, of which Sohrab is an example, has gradually talked themselves into Trump. I think they’ve taken a mix of a very partial interpretation of what he’s doing, and their fear of or hostility toward liberalism, and talked themselves into it that way. He’s both drawing a certain kind of religious conservative out of a feeling of necessity, and another kind out of a very American kinship between the con-man entrepreneur and the tent revivalist, if you will.

That was a really pathetic attempt to sell your previous book.

I didn’t even cite it, man.



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