David French, Sohrab Ahmari, and the Future of Conservatism
David French of National Review and Sohrab Ahmari finally got around to debating their differing visions for the future of conservatism. After months of writing, podcasting, and tweeting the two debated at The Catholic University of America with Ross Douthat of the New York Times serving as moderator. This is not just some debate for nerds who like to talk and debate political philosophy and abstract ideas. This debate is important because the competing versions of conservatism will impact the future of the Republican Party and therefore the country.
The debate was largely a rehashing of previous internet exchanges, only this time it was in front of an audience with some barely functioning microphones, but after the debate concluded it is clear that both sides can still learn from the other.
Ahmari continued to argue that conservatives need to move beyond a blind devotion to individual autonomy and that the idea of a “neutral space” has led to an increasingly secular and aggressive left attempting to and succeeding in, driving conservative Christians from the public square. He continued to point to drag queen readings at local public libraries as a battle of tremendous importance in the culture wars and that conservatives need to be willing to use public power to push back on such activities. Another notable disagreement is that Ahmari believes support for Donald Trump is important to prevent a return to the days of the Colosseum, albeit not a literal Colosseum, for whatever you think of Trump, at least he’s not Bernie Sanders.
For his part, French reiterated his belief that the best way to ensure Christians have a spot in the public square is not through using local ordinance to eliminate drag queen reading hours, because that would be unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and those rules can be used against you when the opposition gains power, but to fight for the principles that allow Christians access to those public spaces. Those principles are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in its main body, the Bill of Rights, and the Civil War Amendments. He cited a trend in the improvement of Constitutional jurisprudence over the years, for example stating that in the early 80’s, colleges and universities were denying Christian organizations access to classrooms to perform things such as Bible studies whereas today such bans would be considered ridiculous.
To go onto a bit of a digression and to get my biases on the table, I take French’s side in this debate (I do not necessarily agree with everything French says and I’m not just talking about his preference for the NBA over March Madness, but more on that later), largely because of this issue and this example. About 35 years before I arrived at Western Washington University as a freshmen in 2014, the Christian organization I was part of was banned from holding simple Bible studies, even in the dorms, on the grounds they violated the Establishment Clause. Due to the Constitutional jurisprudence, French was referring to, that organization can now not only meet in the dorms, but every Friday night can hold a church-like service, complete with worship songs and a sermon, in the biggest lecture hall on campus. This history is part of what could be called the organization's “official history” and is taught to all sometime early in the school year.
To return to French, he believes that supporting Trump hurts the reputation of Christians. How can you be an effective witness for Christ and support a man with Trump’s history and character problems? He favors the politics of persuasion over “owning the libs.” As an Iraq War vet who joined the military at 37 and was deployed during the height of the surge, he rejects comparing any domestic struggle to actual war and laments that every election is portrayed as the most important election of our lifetime. Instead of focusing on drag queen reading hours, French believes Christians should first look at problems inside the tent.
There are problems with both “Ahmari-ism” and “French-ism.” As previously stated, I largely agree with French, but he does have one weak spot. He is right that the constant move to make every election the most important one ever is not only exhausting. He is right about the challenges Trump poses to Christians, especially young Christians trying to witness to young non-Christians, but his confidence in current jurisprudence is a weak spot.
During the Q&A he was asked about this. To get that jurisprudence you need judges and justices and to get them you need to elect a president who will appoint them to the bench. French responded by saying that what Trump is doing might be great here and now, but if he dooms the Republican Party in the long-term then what he does over a four year span will pale in comparison to what the Democrats could do over a longer period of time. He used the comparison of Republicans appointing nearly 600 judges in the twelve years after Jimmy Carter to illustrate short-term gains while incurring long-term losses. French’s long-term concerns are well taken, but short-term thinking is French’s biggest problem.
Sure, President Bernie Sanders might not be able to get his insane legislative agenda through Congress, but what if a currently 71-year old Clarence Thomas where to suddenly die or choose to retire? Yes, the Supreme Court won’t be overturning the aforementioned university cases regarding religious liberty, but what about the Hobby Lobby case that was 5–4 or controversies surrounding The Little Sisters of the Poor or Masterpiece Cakeshop?
If short-term concerns are the biggest problem with “French-ism” then lack of a strategy that goes beyond today is the biggest problem with “ “Ahmari-ism.” Ahmari, like many commentators and politicians, has identified a problem, but when pushed for an actual solution, has very little to offer. Ahmari’s solution is that local ordnance should ban drag queen reading hours at local libraries, but refuses to acknowledge that one day Democrats will be in charge and could use that same power against him. Other than that he offers a sort of conservative version of the nanny state, applauding Senator Josh Hawley’s efforts against the big tech companies.
Historically, conservatism has said that the purpose of government is protect the individual and his rights, Ahmari would have that move towards familial and his preferred version of societal cohesion. He thus supports more intervention in the economy than conservative free marketeers would be comfortable with. Debates about these topics aside, as Ramesh Ponnuri and Rich Lowry wrote at National Review, “condemning the liberal order because you want, say, a larger earned-income tax credit is rather over-saucing the goose.”
Ahmari also has a problem with burning straw men and the occasional ad hominem. This in-person debate was largely necessary for no other reason than to allow both men to define their terms after Ahmari torched some straw men in his original First Things essay. Ahmari appears to view the public square as zero sum. If drag queens are allowed to have an event at the library, it is either because Christians like French ceded it to them or they forcibly took it over and Christians like French are unwilling to take it back. The debate was also brought on by the personal attack that started it all. “David French-ism” was originally Ahmari’s term to describe a conservative unwilling to fight the forces of the left. Ahmari continued this in the debate where Ahmari launched a cheap shot at French, saying that a President David French would not have fought for an embattled Brett Kavanaugh. French responded by citing his aforementioned service in Iraq during the surge. Ahmari later apologized on Twitter for the remarks.
So, what does all this mean for conservatism today? Not much, because as long as there is a Republican president all of this all very much theoretical. It will get interesting starting when the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary gets going. The country needs the classical liberalism and free market economics of David French to prevail in at least one of the two major parties and that party is certainly not going to be the Democratic Party.
The country cannot have the two parties just be two different versions of identity politics competing against each other if it wants to be able to live with itself.
Freedom is for everyone. It is for the Christian like me who can worship and hold Bible studies at Western Washington University thanks to the First Amendment and the work that French’s predecessors did in defending it. It is also for the person who wants to wear drag and thinks we are the epitome of hate.
To get conservatism back to something French would be more comfortable with, however, conservatives need to be realistic. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 for many reasons, but today in 2019, many conservatives, even ones who agree with French about classical liberalism support him for one simple reason: he isn’t one of those bat guano crazy Democrats who are running on increasing government spending by trillions if not tens of trillions of dollars, gun confiscation disguised as a “buyback,” insane environmental proposals that will do nothing to address the problem they allegedly seek to address, taxpayer funded abortion on demand, the decriminalization of illegal immigration, and more. David French is admirably anti-doomsday-ist, but this isn’t Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. If the defenders of classical liberalism want to take the party back from Donald Trump, they need to assure the “He Fights” crowd that they will too and not just in the courts. It would be great if every president had the temperament of Calvin Coolidge, but in 2019 this is not realistic. This doesn’t mean being the nastiest bomb thrower on Twitter, but it does mean being willing to battle with the media and recognizing the Democratic Party for what it is, that being a radical far-left party.
This isn’t much a problem for David French, but it is for some of the others who will not vote for Trump who tend to write for The Bulwark or regularly appear on MSNBC. They key word in the phrase “conservative Trump critic” is not “critic,” but rather “conservative.” It is your right as a conservative to say that Donald Trump can never win your vote because he is a terrible guy who has destroyed, or at least damaged, norms, institutions, foreign alliances, has done nothing about the debt, has damaged the party’s electoral appeal, etcetera, but you need to make sure you make clear to other conservatives that you understand that history did not begin with Trump, that the Democrats will not only not fix those problems, they will only make them worse. If you can not do that, then get ready for Republican nominee Josh Hawley.