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Michael Brendan Dougherty posed a challenge on Twitter:
I objected to his choice of target as I think French is a good ally and we should be grateful for what he’s done. But I’d like to see one critic engage Sohrab Ahmari’s point about how liberal principles, divorced from a pre-liberal inheritance, resolve disputes in one direction. (@michaelbd)
I would like to answer that challenge.
First, the question itself is odd. There are no liberal principles, divorced from a pre-liberal inheritance in America. Liberalism and the American nation have been linked since the beginning. Even cursory glance at American history has shown that Liberalism, morality, civic organization and local cultural norms are perfectly compatible with a Liberal order and if they at odds now the question is why?
The first cause is, of course, slavery. Liberalism, informed by Christianity, could not abide slavery despite the shared racism of whites in both the North and the South. As the Southerners began to realize that their fear grew that their access to wealth and status, Cotton, was going to be at the mercy of Northern majorities at some time in the future. The fear of that caused the South to try and overturn a lawful election by force, which led to the Civil War. This violation of Liberal norms destroyed an old consensus about the Federal government and gave the Federal government greater credibility against the State Governments. This altered the course of our Republic and changed the balance of forces in our Federal system.
Still, through the rest of the 19th century, it could be said by the standards of today both Democrats and Republicans were hard right wingers on social policy and economic policy. The ultimate fusionism practiced by both parties. This consensus advantaged Republicans though and that made Democrats desperate to find other ways to power. This was provided by a massive wave of immigrants in the 1880s that lasted until the 1920s. The previous wave of immigrants to the US had been more easily absorbed because of the Civil War and the fact that many of the migrants came here, from Europe, because of the failure of the Liberal revolts in 1848-49.
The new wave of migrants was not familiar with Liberalism and the Irish while knowing Liberalism had a good reason to hate it. These alienated migrant communities were very receptive seedbeds for Democrat politicians that wanted to break up Republican control of the Federal Government. At the same time new ideas, new ways of governing and incredible technological progress gave credibility to new Progressive ideas that were directly opposed to the Liberal Republic formed by our founding documents.
Progressivism won its first triumph with Woodrow Wilson who set about taking a wrecking ball to our Constitutional norms attacking Federalism by removing the protection of the Senate from the States, revamping the voting public, attacking property rights, freedom of Association, Free Speech and wedding his assault on Liberal values and norms to a new more robust nationalism that led to things like Prohibition, which was anti-immigrant as well as anti-alcohol, and attacking individual rights in general through Eugenics which strips the individual of agency and instead talks of the needs and good of a “race”.
With our entry into World War I being only a little more than a year America, unlike Europe, returned to sanity. Electing Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, of blessed memory, there was a return to Liberal values of the past. And Coolidge’s re-election against Davis was the last election in which, in the modern sense, both candidates were Conservative.
The twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II changed that again with the awesome power of Government to accomplish things, seemingly, apparent for all to see. This forged a more powerful political consensus that a form of Wilsonian progressivism was needed for the foreseeable future and leaving no real Conservative option politically. The New Deal coalition agreed to avoid attacking the Constitution as directly as Wilson did correctly understanding that a frontal assault on our Liberal values was the only threat to the new consensus.
The New Right rose up to oppose this Consensus with William F. Buckley’s famous battle cry of “Yelling Stop!”. To often overlooked is the rise of the New Left as well. The New Deal Consensus was as despised by the New Left as it was by the New Right. What made the New Left angry was the restrictions put on their pursuit of justice by our Liberal values, norms, and process. With the New Left primarily engaged with the Old Left, the New Right was able to position itself as the only sane alternative to the New Left thanks to the leadership of Goldwater and the great Ronald Reagan.
The New Deal liberal didn’t have a principled stand to take against the New Left because they held liberal values loosely, as a concession to political reality and so they failed to answer the moral claims of the New Left for Justice. It was the New Left that picked up power and support from oppressed minorities, immigrants and marginalized and their claims were always that the old order was at fault for all injustice. Does a police officer get away with abuse of power? It was the jury trial that was at fault. Did Right-wing politicians win elections? It was the fault of our voting system? Was their inequality? Obviously the fault of private property.
As the New Deal Liberals fell to pieces in the late sixties and early seventies it seemed that all that was left to choose from was the New Left and the New Right. Reagan won that battle for the New Right and the New Dealers began to break into the New Left and the New Right. It was always the case that New Deal Liberals didn’t like the New Left but felt that they had a strong moral point and a righteous cause. They hated the New Right correctly perceiving their old enemy of Liberal Values creeping back into power. Never did Reagan perform a more appropriate and symbolic action then by hanging the portrait of Calvin Coolidge in his office.
We should not overlook that the New Dealers breaking Left and Right changed both the Right and the Left creating new alliances and new coalition dynamics that changed the New Right and the New Left after Reagan.
Reagan restored legitimacy to the Presidency and the Conservative philosophy, controlling inflation, building self-confidence back into the American people, reducing government interference in general and seeing off Communism. This led to the land side of Bush I but Bush was a manager, an excellent manager, but a manager nonetheless who did not have the vision for carrying forward a Conservative agenda. Bush responded to the problems brought before him, often brilliantly, but the country needed more guidance more. FDR had nearly 12 years to enact his consensus Reagan had 8 and FDR were followed by men of similar vision Reagan was not.
Post Reagan, there was no political consensus that could make sustained change. Clinton and Bush worked around the edges nudging things a bit left or right and when Obama finally tried to return to the New Deal, of all things, his actions gutted the Democrat parties and awakened the forces of the New Left. The Social Justice Warriors of today who are once again attempting to defeat their old foes of the New Deal progressives.
In this kind of environment where no political consensus is holding both sides are winning victories and suffering defeats. It is still the case that Progressives, as they always have, hate the liberal values of our founding documents. Now there is a New Right that hates the Liberal values of the country as well. As always the radicals on both sides hate a system that demands balance and consensus and time to get things done. Liberal values do not demand specific outcomes what they do is set limits on what those outcomes can accomplish and demand the outcomes reached are done through a wide balance of forces, factions and regions so that no one is a such an oppressed loser they feel the need to rebel and that no one is such a triumphant winner they have the power to do away with the norms.
Affluence, driven by capitalism and technology, always undermine morals, conformity, and civic institutions. Morals, cohesion, and institution are hard and require work, affluence poses the question “Do you really need to make so much effort?” Affluence tempts us to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Technology limits our need for the irritating and vexing other and with one-half of the political parties opposed to the Constitution and at least some factions on the Right also opposed how can our Liberal values and morals not be undermined? It is the way of things.
Mark Charles is running for President as a Democrat. He says that he is “Thrilled and honored to Run for President.” But he is neither. He claims in his announcement video that the Constitution is designed to both imprison Blacks and oppress women and the poor. That when we see injustice it is because the Constitution is working properly. What kind of oath of office could Mark Charles swear if he were elected? He should be, by all rights, ashamed to run for President.
It has been a habit on the Left to proclaim to love the Constitution only to undermine it, to want the country to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence only to seek to destroy the reason of the document. On the Right what kind of Conservative are you if the founding documents of our Republic are not worth conserving? We preserve the Liberal Order of our founding documents and our message on cultural issues, morality, work, and economics will benefit greatly because what we say is true. That should be enough for us.