The past few weeks have witnessed a nasty internecine fight among religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy’s time has passed. Sohrab Ahmari, writing at First Things, attacked National Review’s David French for adhering to a traditional commitment to liberal democracy while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.” Would the left have stood by liberal democracy in the face of such circumstances? In fact, the balance of forces tilted away from the left’s cultural priorities for most of my lifetime, and the left’s response was to win arguments—slowly, painfully, and at incalculable personal cost.
Many religious conservatives see antidiscrimination laws that compel owners of public accommodations to serve all customers, laws that might compel priests to break the seal of confession if they are told of child abuse, and the growing acceptance of trans people as a kind of impending apocalypse. It is no surprise that among their co-partisans, Ahmari seems to have the upper hand here; in such circles, “Crush your enemies” almost always plays better than “The other side has rights too.”
The concerns Ahmari airs are not wholly without merit: Religious conservatives are not paranoid to imagine themselves pariahs someday in the future because of their views; it was not so long ago that liberal champions such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton held public positions that today would be described by the left as bigotry. Nor should the left expect to win every battle with the right over matters of religious conscience; there will be moments when its opponents are correct. The same wall between Church and state that prevents the state from being dominated by the Church also bars the state from dictating the religious commitments of the Church. A law that compels Catholic priests to break the seal of confession, for example, likely runs afoul of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, despite the state’s obvious and compelling interest in preventing child abuse, and despite the Church’s abysmal record in doing so.
In spite of their disagreements, Ahmari and French are in accord about a great deal when it comes to abortion, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. French’s adherence to liberal democracy is a commitment to a set of rules under which these goals can be pursued in a pluralistic society: through public discourse, the courts, and the ballot box. For Ahmari and his ilk, this is insufficient. He seems to believe not only that the state should always settle such disputes in his favor, but that it should prevent cultural and political expressions he finds distasteful.
This isn’t an exaggeration. In a since-deleted tweet, Ahmari praised Alabama Public Television for refusing to air an episode of the cartoon Arthur in which the titular character’s male teacher marries another man; his attack on French was preceded by another since-deleted eruption, over Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library, in which he cried, “To hell with liberal order”; and he has since suggested the humanities should be defunded because “they may be lost to us for good.” If this is where Ahmari and his cohort are while the GOP still controls the courts, the Senate, and the presidency, imagine what they’ll be willing to countenance should they lose them.
Ahmari’s demands here outline the United States that illiberals would like to see: one that resembles Orbán’s Hungary, where rigged electoral systemsensure that political competition is minimal, the press is tightly controlled by an alliance between corporations and the state on behalf of the ruling party, national identity is defined in religious and ethnic terms, and cultural expressions are closely policed by the state to ensure compliance with that identity. It is no surprise that the vast majority of black and Latino Christians see a secular but pluralist left as more trustworthy allies than conservatives who rail against “poisonous and censorious multiculturalism,” and darkly warn of a plot to “displace American citizens.”
When Ahmari was asked, however, by Jane Coaston at Vox what his “ideal order” would look like, he said, “Working mothers wouldn’t be expected to return to work a mere eight weeks after giving birth.” This sort of obvious, coy insincerity about the actual nature of the changes they seek is one of the major reasons religious conservatives like Ahmari have lost so much ground in the public square, and why the left is inclined to view their demands for religious exceptions to be thinly veiled excuses for discrimination. The question of whether working mothers deserve more generous maternity leave does not represent a bitter split between the religious right and the secular left, nor is it given prominence in his manifesto, which focuses on crushing the left, or, as he put it, fighting “the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Although the intraconservative critiques leveled by Ahmari and his allies sometimes take on the language of opposition to market fundamentalism, they are not truly opposed to the concentration of power and capital. These critics observe the decline in wages and community that has resulted from this concentration, and propose to do nothing at all about it other than seize that power for themselves, to be used to their ends. The illiberals see the wealthy and upper-middle classes getting married, forming families, and raising children much as they did in the 1950s, and conclude that the problem with working-class Americans is not the diminished political power relative to their bosses, but the absence of a sharp enough lash, whether from the state or from a culture that has escaped the religious right’s grasp. Gillette should be making commercials about women staying at home and fathers going off to work, not dads teaching their trans sons to shave for the first time.
This understanding also helps illuminate the right’s eruption over YouTube’s decision to demonetize (but not remove) the channel of Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTuber who called the Vox reporter Carlos Maza a “lispy queer,” among other slurs. A world in which one can refer to gay people as “lispy queers” without repercussion is one in which the illiberal right is winning the culture war, so it matters little that YouTube is no less a private business than Masterpiece Cakeshop, and has a right to define the rules for using its platform. The same sort of protests that the right decries as illiberal when deployed against right-wing speakers on college campuses are suddenly a legitimate tactic when used against Drag Queen Story Hour. The objective here, in Ahmari’s words, is to defeat “the enemy,” not adhere to principle, and that requires destigmatizing anew the kind of bigotry that was once powerful enough to sway elections.
Indeed, the illiberal faction in this debate retains Trump as its champion precisely because the president is willing to use the power of the state for sectarian ends, despite being an exemplar of the libertinism to which it is supposedly implacably opposed, a man whose major legislative accomplishment is slashing taxes on the wealthy, and whose most significant contribution to the institution of the family is destroying thousands of them on purpose. It is power that is the motivator here, and the best that could be said for these American Orbánists is that they believe that asserting an iron grip on American politics and culture would offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Every authoritarian movement has felt the same way.
And that's where we are right now in America, one side going "Everyone should have rights and may the best ideas that don't trample on those rights prevail" and the other now saying "We should take rights away from as many groups as possible in order to preserve our ideas as the correct ones for generations to come."
We openly have people in my generation and younger questioning whether or not the Civil Rights era was worth it, and whether or not those protections should be eliminated because of the "unfair stigma" it places on white Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z kids who "weren't responsible for racism but now must grow up experiencing it".
These are the same garbage arguments white Boomers had in the 60's, "You can't solve racism with more racism" but anybody under 45 it seems still has trouble asking why this should be.
And Trump is laughing and winking his way back to 1950's America and the kids think it's okay. Clinton lost the white vote in every age group, people seem to forget this, even 18-25 and 26-35 year-old white voters voted for Trump.
And here we are, facing 2020 with the major question of America being "should we keep messy, fractured liberal democracy or just go right for a white supremacist state?"
The answer is I don't know what will happen.