The most attractive part of the human body, based on centuries of human experience, is not the face, or the legs, or the midsection, or the chest, or the hips, or any genital; but, rather, the navel. This has come into starker relief now that we as a society have discovered that our ability to share our most trivial insights with a waiting world is quite literally at our fingertips. It is made worse in the face of absolute futility of action, something to which American conservatives would be absolutely conditioned but for the historical success of a former Democrat who launched one of those epochal political revolutions that happen in our system from time to time.
I have very little to add to the Sohrab Ahmari-David French affair that has consumed the attention of people who write about ideas, politics, and political grunting for a living, because this entire contretemps is not even a disagreement over tactics, or strategy, or even temperament or attitude. It’s a disagreement that cannot even agree on the field of battle.
On the one hand, the one side correctly notes that we have entered the stage of the culture wars in which evil may safely shed its love of tolerance because it has the upper hand. On the other hand, the other side correctly says that political liberalism has delivered on the promise of peaceful coexistence and prosperity. Many pixels have died to make exactly these points, changing no one’s mind in the process.
Each may find fault, I would suggest with great accuracy, with the other. But they’re not even talking to each other. They’re simply staking out stances, because neither really grasps the import of why they’re yelling past each other; or, worse, simply doesn’t have a solution except to keep doing what it has done so far.
The real problem here is simple to identify, but hard to solve. It is actually a combination of both positions: We are part of a liberal political order. (Here, I mean the word “liberal” in its classical sense, which refers to sometimes-muted popular sovereignty over and against the authority of a monarch, buttressed by norms and rules and laws both substantive and procedural; so the American system, for example, is liberal, while the Saudi system, by contrast, is conservative. This does not map perfectly onto how we perceive conservatism, which is a spectrum of rightist attitudes including some species of political liberalism; or progressivism, which historically includes others.)
Within the liberal order is the underlying presumption that whichever side wins a debate, absent a structural violation, wins. The other side must briefly yield, even if promising to reverse the effect through liberal means — debate, persuasion, and votes taken in representative bodies. But as ours has recently evolved, it is one in which one combatant is slowly but surely and successfully using illiberal tactics and strategies not merely to deny the other victory, nor even to deny it legitimacy, but to deny it access to the tools of liberalism and therefore the system; and the real battlefield, for now at least, is the governed, who cannot fathom a world outside that liberal order but who are constantly bombarded with cultural messages about the rightness of the side abandoning liberalism.
Indulge me in an example near and dear to my heart. Assume Republicans retake the House and expand their majority in the Senate. They also grow spines. They send up a budget not merely stripped of Planned Parenthood funding, but that instructs that no Medicaid funds may go to any abortion provider. States may use their own funds as they will, but Federal funding is right out. Trump, because he’s not smart but he knows marketing, signs this.
Raise your hand if you honestly believe a venue-shopped District Judge won’t void that part of the budget because reasons. Keep it up if you think the Ninth or Fourth or Second Circuits, where venue will probably be, won’t affirm. If the Trump years have taught us anything — an open question — it is that the total absence of a Constitutional basis for this behavior is irrelevant.
Now strain your shoulder to the tearing point if you believe (1) SCOTUS will take cert and (2) there won’t be a non-stop media, every medium, war on the GOP for denying funds to people who provide mammograms even though their leadership has testified under oath that they do not, in fact, provide mammograms.
As the great Justice Antonin Scalia noted, the Court is designed to be illiberal but limited, and is instead illiberal and expansive, and we have tacitly accepted this; and where the Court has not ruled or has ruled in our favor, we face a multi-pronged assault from tiny but disproportional elements of what’s left of civil society that serves to deny us legitimacy even in the eyes of our own representatives. If you doubt that, look at subdued reaction by every, single major Republican candidate in 2016 to Obergefell — or more precisely, to the demands by their constituents that they rein in the Supreme Court’s ad hoc lawmaking. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, a future President railed against unjust Supreme Court adventurism. Today, we shrug and accept the destruction of our system by men and women sworn to uphold it because their social milieu demands it. As the late Justice Scalia also noted, “when the Court takes sides in the culture wars, it tends to be with the knights rather than the villains — and more specifically with the Templars.”
There is no liberal solution to this. The tools of liberalism are thwarted, capriciously or at least without much reflection to their nominal sources of authority, by the illiberal part of the system to which we agreed, and from which we cannot extricate ourselves without armed rebellion or exile; and by a culture that has the ear of that illiberal block. So even when we win liberally, not only do we lose, but we have agreed to the means of our defeat and exile from future competition.
How do you fight this? French says he’s won using the tools of liberalism and he’s right, but he then points to victories we all know are etched in sand — every win to which he proudly (and rightfully!) points was made in court and is therefore subject to a later court pulling a Lawrence to his Bowers, or was accomplished legislatively and is therefore even more fragile. Ahmari says that the tide is coming, and he’s right, but he completely lacks any description or even general idea of how we get around this.
Their various champions have not acquitted themselves appreciably better, even when arguing eloquently and movingly. (Most of their champions, at any rate: Over at the Bulwark and Reason, they smell from Ahmari a dangerous whiff of Trump-loving Popery, and their work sounds like it; those weirdo integralists, against whom Ahmari went to war just two years ago, and with whom he has not aligned himself, the Bulwark anti-Catholics’ suspicions notwithstanding, are detached from reality.)
There are a thousand problems here that neither side even bothers to attack except fitfully and incompletely. Our system relies on an engaged populace who nevertheless draw their validation and morals from some place other than governance — presumptively religion, but even a philosophy with fixed goals and morals could work in a pinch. It is designed around having States be not just outposts of the Federal government, but also independent stakeholders in it, and therefore prone to loudly and angrily reining it in or at least standing toe-to-toe and arguing with it. It assumes that most decisions of importance and triviality are made locally and at any rate by elected representatives. It assumes, let’s be honest, a bunch of church going Protestants who believe in Hell and I guess Heaven are gonna be the bulk of the populace, with a small minority of Catholics willing to buck Rome on liberalism and some other people who don’t make a big stink about themselves, all of whom accept the underlying premises of the system as something other than a springboard to the next. It relies on a Federal government of enumerated powers only. It relies on shared assumptions about governance and indeed the universe. And so on.
None of this is true any more, and so we get two groups of people being swept away by the tide competing with each other to make ever-crappier allusions to (and accusations of watching!) a crappy TV show based on crappy books about the War of the Roses. Also Trump, because these days, even choices in pizza toppings involve Trump.
I don’t side with either because this is all stupid and they’re not making it less so.
This was originally posted to my blog, where I sometimes post but usually don’t.