Ross Douthat on Conservatism’s Uncertain Future

In yesterday’s New York Times, Douthat suggested that the recent spat between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is fundamentally a dispute about what, if anything, should replace “the consensus that … belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump.” Douthat, characterized that consensus as “an ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.” According to Douthat:

French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed.

Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.

After describing several varieties of anti-fusionism, Douthat concludes:

The further this reconsideration goes, the more fanciful, utopian or revolutionary it might seem. … But the basic concept of a right rooted more in cultural conservatism and economic populism than in libertarianism and individualism isn’t fanciful; it describes the emergent right-of-center ideological formations all across the Western world. The American pendulum may swing back to fusionism after Trump — French is hardly alone in championing the old regime, and most Republican politicians remain instinctive fusionists — but some version of Ahmari’s turn is one that the right is making almost everywhere, for now.

But in making that turn, so far, the American version of conservatism hasn’t solved a problem that’s also distilled in Ahmari vs. French — the problem of how a culturally conservative movement can expect to thrive under the leadership of a figure as distant from its official ideals, and as alienating to persuadable voters, as the figure of Donald Trump.

The problem is both moral and practical. Moral, because Trump implicates his supporters in policies and personal behavior, from birtherism to child separation to adultery with porn stars and sexual assault, that are un-Christian in a particularly naked way. Practical, because even if you argue that these compromises are politically necessary, there is no way for the Republican coalition to successfully re-fuse around some mix of cultural conservatism and economic populism without not only the white working-class voters Trump won in 2016, but substantially more minority and/or younger and/or female votes as well.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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