The Last Liberal Conservative

In a piece for First Things in the Fall of 2019 Sohrab Ahmari argued that a new American right was necessary to replace what had passed in the last half of the Twentieth Century as conservatism. “For the past two generations,” Ahmari argued, “American conservatives have been focused on liberty, first in the fight against communist totalitarianism, then in a more undifferentiated way in our resistance to ‘regulation.’” The conservative movement “has come to deny” transcendent things–religion, family, etc–“any substantive primacy in the public square.” The mainstream right and left, lamented Ahmari, “have merged.” The American 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.” Ahmari is not wrong about the problems facing American society in the early Twenty-First Century, but he misidentifies enemies of conservatism when he argues that “conservative liberals insist that their commitment to autonomy above all overrides the old ‘faith and family’ concerns.”

Conservative liberals—or more properly Liberal Conservatives—have existed for nearly two centuries in Western political life. Modern American libertarians desperately clinging to an unquestioned individualistic order might call themselves liberals, but for all of its failures liberal conservatism never divided culture and religiosity in such a way that denigrated Christianity’s necessary influence in politics and society. Libertarians like David French argue that “efforts to achieve change or to preserve influence by might and power have turned to ashes and dust” which ignores the fact that American liberties are owed to the Western patrimony of nearly sixteen centuries of Christian social and political development. Liberal conservatives in the Nineteenth Century, unlike latter-day libertarians who claim their mantle, understood that institutional Christian might and power played a role in liberal efforts to expand basic civil rights in a broadly conservative order. Liberal conservatism did not mean tearing down the Christian order or Christian socio-political establishments.

Nineteenth Century Catholic and Protestant intellectuals and politicians knew that staving absolutism and revolution meant they needed to join necessary civil freedoms with a conservative understanding of the common good. This happened across Western Europe in the years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Protestant and Catholic statesmen knew a return to the absolutism of the ancien régime was untenable to the literate middle classes who gained political power in various degrees during the Napoleonic Wars. They also knew that radical individualism and secularism undercut society’s foundations and could easily lead to society’s disintegration into revolutionary violence. The French Revolution was never far from the minds of European politicians even after the restoration of a conservative European order in 1815. The answer to how to govern the West in the new nineteenth century lay in maintaining a conservative society through the implementation of some liberalizing measures: constitutionalism, representative institutions, and measured religious liberty.

Ahmari’s answer to our present moment lies in integralism, a political ideology wedded almost exclusively to the Roman Catholic church that summons throne—or executive in our republican context— and altar to the defense of the common good. Integralism is not innately unchristian, nor does it deserve the slanders often attached to it by some of its enemies who paint it as anti-Semitic or pseudo-Fascist. It is not either but it does not account for the societal goods that came about from Liberal Conservative political movements and parties in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Catholic Emancipation, Jewish Emancipation, the right of working people to vote, the end of chattel slavery, and broad civil toleration of religious minorities in general all were birthed out of liberal conservative politics. Far from being libertarian and disinterested in the maintenance of a Christian conception of the common good, liberal conservatism became the most important political instrument to sustain stable Christian societies in the modern era. Ahmari is right to hope for a turn away from libertarian individualism but conservatives need not embrace integralism as the only alternative. A legacy of two centuries of liberal conservative governance across Western Europe and North America provides a sturdy tradition able to advance the common good and protect basic civil liberties. This tradition of Edmund Burke, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln still deserves our allegiance and respect. I’ll write more on this later. I admit that I’m not sure if this sort of liberal conservatism can endure but for now I’m going to claim the liberal conservative mantle as a useful intellectual and political tradition worthy of conservative esteem even in 2021.

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