With the collapse of Buckley-style conservatism and the return of the neoconservatives to their ancestral home on the left, the prevailing orthodoxy of the managerial elite is without a counter. The old conservatism staggers on, mostly as a bit of nostalgia popular with old people, but also due to the lack of an alternative. The lack of an alternative right, so to speak, is what has saved conservatism thus far.
This has created a serious problem in the American political system. For generations, the system has relied upon a dialectic of sorts, where the progressives propose and the conservatives oppose. The synthesis is that the progressives get 90% of what they want and the conservatives voluntarily concede the rest. The back-and-forth creates the endless morality play that is liberal democracy.
Without a credible right side to oppose the left side, the field was open for Donald Trump’s populism to fill the void. This is why the neocons grabbed their bug-out bags and headed home to the left. It is also why the remaining conservatives locked shields with their alleged opponents on the left to thwart the Trump presidency. They successfully warded off the barbarians to preserve the old order.
This still leaves the crisis of conservatism. This is where a group calling themselves common-good conservatives hope to make their mark. The most well-known proponents of this new school of conservatism are R.R. Reno, Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and Josh Hammer. The latter two are attempting to create a new conservative jurisprudence to replace originalism and textualism.
The common-good conservatives begin their argument with an observation they borrowed from dissidents, without attribution, that conservatism has conserved nothing. Whatever its claims, it has failed entirely against progressivism. Simply being factually correct or making a sound argument based on constitutional principles was not enough to prevent the left from sweeping the field.
This is what brought Sohrab Ahmari to popular attention. He wrote a piece in First Things titled “Against David French-ism” in which he criticized conservatism’s lack of virility and accomplishments. Elevating a mediocrity like David French in such a way was a good way to draw attention to the common-good conservatives. It was a marker, of sorts, indicating a break from official conservatism.
The common-good conservatives, contra the Buckley types, are not opposed to expansive and activist government. They want the state focused on the promotion of the common good in the law and in public policy. The Constitution should therefore be interpreted as a vehicle to promote what is in the best interest of society as a whole, rather than a defense of individual rights.
It is this proposed new jurisprudence where things get interesting. The rest of the common-good conservative program is mostly just a variation of what the Bush people peddled as “big government conservatism.” They want the state to act on behalf of the community in order to achieve ends that serve the common good. This will necessitate a state large enough to achieve those ends.
This new jurisprudence, on the other hand, asks that judges weigh individual rights against the common good. For example, assuming there is a right to an abortion in the Constitution, abortion is bad for society. It undermines public morality by normalizing anti-natal practices and anathematizing the family and motherhood. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so abortion should be illegal.
This sounds appealing when the common good is always defined as that which the typical conservative finds appealing. Someone could argue that abortion reduces the number of people who tend to be a drain on society, so not only does the common good demand legal abortion, but the practice should be promoted among the poor and the criminally inclined, perhaps even mandated.
You see right away that common-good jurisprudence runs into a problem that both originalism and judicial activism have solved. The basic questions of “Who decides?” and “Upon what authority?” must be answered before anyone can have a rational debate about what is the common good. After all, who gets to debate and how the winner is determined is the heart of jurisprudence.
Originalism and textualism are honest lies in that the proponents are not really trying to get back to the original intent of the Constitution. That would mean overturning the amendments since adoption, especially the Reconstruction amendments. Instead, they focus on the intent of the document, including the changes, within the limits of the language itself. Unless proven otherwise, they take the document literally.
This means the originalists are trapped within the document. This is where the common-good conservatives step in and say that the court should break free from this constraint when the common good demands it. Otherwise, the originalists are left to defend the innovations of the progressives. This is also the charge against conservatism, which adopts yesterday’s progressive innovation as today’s conservative principle.
For their part, the progressives have largely embraced the common-good argument, but claim the right to decide what is the common good. This is the victor’s spoil for having won the Civil War and seizing control of the country. Esoterically, they claim that they are on the right side of history. Without explaining what this means, they claim the right to clear the field of obstacles as history carries us into the future.
Therein lies the trouble with conservatism and originalism but is also the defect in this effort to create an alternative to progressivism. However imperfectly, the current left and right have addressed the issue of authority. They have an answer for “Who decides?” and “By what authority?” that moves them forward. The common-good conservatives have yet to solve those two riddles of authority.
In fairness, the integralists seem to grasp this problem. Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule offer up the Church as the authority for the common good. After all, it comes with a well-developed moral philosophy, and it has been tested in the field. They seek a return to something like the throne and altar counter to liberalism argued by Joseph de Maistre in the years following Napoleon.
This is appealing to the intensely online right, videogame fans and people who do not spend much time outside, but otherwise it strikes most people as ridiculous. America never had a unifying religion. The current religion of the ruling class is post-Marx culturalism, and the mainstream churches are in collapse. The ingredients for a medieval social order simply do not exist in the modern age.
The only way forward for the common-good conservatives is to focus on the common rather than on the good. That is, shift the focus from the how and onto the who as their starting position. Once you establish who it is that makes up the common, you have answered the question of who decides. The answer to the next question is obvious, as a people have a natural right to preserve themselves. This is their authority.
That is unlikely to happen for the same reason the Buckley crowd threw in the towel on egalitarianism and the blank slate. To focus on the who rather than the how would place the common-good conservatives in direct conflict with the left. They would be challenging the very nature of their authority. They would soon find themselves bunking with dissidents in the outer darkness of political life.
Common-good conservatism brings us back to the same crossroads faced by the Buckley crowd in the middle of the last century. Until an alternative is willing to challenge the authority of progressives to control the moral framework, every alternative can only be a useful foil to advance progressive schemes. A genuine alternative will challenge the moral authority of the left with an alternative moral authority.
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