A lot of this is downright silly, just a way to put into law the peculiar preferences of a handful of hard-right Catholics. But while most of the conversation about Vermeule’s demands focused on the constitutional issues, or the “etc etc” lacuna that would appear to hide quite a lot of authoritarianism, the bigger issue is less how extreme Vermeule and his immediate peers are, and more how their anti-liberal demands are symptomatic of a problem inherent to conservatism as a specifically political project.
For Vermeule, there’s a proper way to live, and in that proper way is found happiness of a worthy, genuine sort. He imagines this proper way to look basically traditionalist Catholic. Those who deviate from it might believe they are happy, but they’re not, actually. Instead, they’re prey to a liberalism-imposed false consciousness, dragging down not just their own well-being, but that of society as a whole to the extent they impact and influence it. The goal of government, then, isn’t to force people to become traditionalist Catholic, because that’s not possible, but instead, as we see in his laundry list and its menacing “etc etc,” to compel them to at least behave as if they were.
The problem for Vermeule, unless he’s planning a violent overthrow of the US state, is that fewer than a quarter of Americans are Catholic, that portion is declining, and many actually existing Catholics are, in fact, quite liberal. In other words, I don’t expect he’ll have much success at the ballot box. Thus, we needn’t worry too much about America plunging into trad Catholic theocracy.
But that gets us back to Vermeule as symptomatic of something bigger. While most conservatives don’t share his peculiar idea of the good and virtuous life, the underlying idea that it is the state’s job to enable, propose, and perhaps even compel us to abide by a particular “right way to live,” and one grounded in certain cultural traditions, is just what it means to be a political conservative.
In an earlier essay
, proposing that we can view political philosophies as ultimately about constructing or maintaining social and governing patterns, I put it this way:
Conservatism, as a political ideology, seeks to maintain those social and economic patterns that conservatives prefer or believe are conducive to a good society. Thus, in contrast to libertarianism, political conservatism is not about identifying, cultivating, and maintaining those patterns of rules and institutions which maximize liberty. Instead, it is about maintaining social patterns which result in a society that aligns with the conservative’s cultural values and personal tastes.
I went on to argue that this creates an irreconcilable tension with libertarianism, or genuine liberalism, because liberalism aims at maximizing liberty, which conservatism does not. We can see this quite clearly in Vermeule’s demands.
Of course, since the rise of “fusionism,” at the National Review and then the Reagan GOP and the establishment party that followed, Republicans, to the extent they represented American conservatism, talked a good game about liberty. The nature of our constitutionally limited order, they argued, was to protect individual freedom and free enterprise, even if they got squeamish, for example, when such freedom extended to the bedroom. Until the collapse of the GOP into Trumpism, at least mainstream Republican leadership presented themselves as, in fact, liberals in the classical sense, and said they wanted government to effectively protect liberalism from its enemies on the left.
But Trump ushered in an era of “post-liberal” conservatism, whether that was his own crude and unfocused populism, or the more intellectual approach of national conservatism, the New Right, or the fringe integralists. The idea that government should, above all, respect and protect individual and economic liberty, is increasingly sneered at by the American right, and that disdain for liberty is finding purchase, and maybe even dominance, within the GOP establishment.
The clearest example is Josh Hawley, a highly-educated, quite intellectual senator, who also happens to hate your freedom, and does nothing to disguise that. He’s written and spoken at length, both before and during his political career, about the need to abandon liberalism in favor of a “common good” conservatism exercising state power to advance the common good as he defines it. In an essay about Hawley
, I wrote,
Hawley not only rejects the idea that “liberty is all about choosing your own ends,” but sees freedom as a destructive turn away from a purer way of life, constrained by social hierarchies and tradition. Liberty, he says, “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” He believes liberty has led to a country that is riven by conflict, marked by distasteful cosmopolitanism, and overly welcoming to foreign people and ideas. It is an America too concerned with the outside world when we should focus on promoting a socially conservative working class protected by impenetrable borders.
Again, while we might still think of Hawley as on the fringe of the establishment, the difference between Hawley’s anti-liberalism and what we used to think of mainstream conservatism isn’t about whether the state should trample freedom to maintain a certain way of living, but how far out of step culture is able to get from those traditionalist ideals before it does.
As rapid technological and economic change drives cultural dynamism and cosmopolitanism, and as “traditional” social, gender, racial, and religious structures and relationships give way to liberty-enabled evolving preferences, conservatives committed to “conserving” will feel more pressured to kick off the fusionist consensus and instead support the Vermeule/Hawley/populist constellation of anti-liberalisms.
Thus I’m worried about the future of American conservatism not because I think conservatives will get on board with Vermuele’s particular wishlist, but because he, and the rest of the New Right and the NatCons, represent conservatism reawakening to what’s it’s always been about, which is to support liberty only insofar as liberty doesn’t mean cultural and economic drift too far from “traditional” norms and values. But because liberty inevitably means just that, more and more American conservatives are likely to feel, if not solidarity with all of Vermuele’s particulars, then perhaps increasing affinity for Vermeule’s broader anti-liberal project.