Can mainstream conservatism survive in the 21st century?

Is it authoritarianism to ban Drag Queen Story Hour in public libraries, with the explicit threat of violent prosecution?

That's the question at the heart of the recent debate between author Sohrab Ahmari and National Review's David French.  Moderated by columnist Ross Douthat at Catholic University, the disputation was the first public confrontation of fusion conservatism and a burgeoning but inchoate mix of nationalism and integralism.

The contest of ideas, sad to say, wasn't an even-sided scrimmage.  The mainstream conservative side, represented by the hail-fellow-well-met writer David French, was dominant, aided by French's attorney background and jujitsu-style argumentation.  Ahmari ping-ponged between decrying proceduralism's fecklessness and offering his own thin-soupy proceduralist solutions.

For example, when pressed on how he'd combat crossdressers reading children stories in taxpayer-funded libraries, flaunting their sexual depravities, Ahmari could only recommend a congressional hearing and proscription via local ordinance.  Not exactly the Battle of Lepanto.

Ahmari lost the verbal battle, but the war over a proper right-wing philosophy in tune with the greater good continues.

If you aren't swotted up at the latest debate to roil a small subsect of Conservatism, Inc., here's a brief précis: Ahmari is part of a growing number of conservatives who suspect that classical liberalism can't stop itself from lowering to moral debasement.  The freedom afforded by liberalism qua liberalism too often leads to debased outcomes like intravenous drug use and ubiquitous pornography on smartphones.  In nuce, the alliance between religious-minded conservatives and libertarian-leaning fellow travelers is compromised.  It's time for a new conservative coalition focused on pushing for moral order in the public square.

That's more or less what Ahmari was getting at in his piece that started the whole donnybrook, "Against David French-ism," which he nailed to the door of Conservatism, Inc.  While Ahmari's identifying classical liberalism with French was novel, his argument about liberalism's moral tenuity is old.  Ancient Greek philosophers identified the shortcomings of unlimited freedom.  More recently, Robert Nisbet diagnosed atomization amid individualism in his classic "The Quest for Community."  In just the past few years, a number of books have been authored by thinkers questioning the bedrock liberalism of the U.S. Constitution, including, most prominently, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen.

Ahmari's confrontational approach has brought this critical cast of mind more public attention and, in turn, more ridicule.  Mainstream conservatives like French and sympathetic libertarians sniffily deride the idea that there's a moral lacuna within the classical liberal philosophy.  Peter Suderman of Reason says Ahmari's qualms with liberalism's decadent logic are really just "a flimsy expression of irritation."  The open and celebrated sexualization of children?  Ah, those are just "actions you personally dislike" — a haughty dismissal from a grown man who touts his expertise in "video games" and "cocktails."

It's true that Ahmari's actual policy recommendations are, generously speaking, lackluster.  They're mostly nonexistent, other than encouraging a hefty dose of public shaming with a scarlet-letter brand.  He expanded on his argument in a later article but went short on the details, only reiterating that the right shouldn't fetishize personal autonomy.  David French, too, doubled down, describing Drag Queen Story Hour as a "blessing of liberty."

It's here where the Ahmari and French sides diverge, and here where the future of this internal debate lies.  Can the public square be truly neutral?  Does neutrality naturally lead to degeneracy?  Does the American constitutional system really assume that a value-less public square is the apogee of liberty?

These questions are what the Ahmari-French divide will have to address next.  Ultimately, the answers that come from asking them will inform whether the traditional conservative coalition can remain viable.  David French's admission that pornography doesn't necessarily fall under the purview of the First Amendment already shows that there are cracks in the understanding that the Constitution is morally neutral in practice, even among those who propound as much. 

Libertarians are already dubitative about the use of governmental force to prohibit morally noxious behavior.  This makes them natural allies of the Left, to a certain point.  Conservatives have to decide if shutting down Drag Queen Story Hour, jailing those who deliberately sexualize children, is a step too far toward tyranny or a greater good.

At some point, those on the right have to get off the fence and decide: is the freedom to corrupt the young, possibly damaging them for life, really freedom?  If it isn't, then what does true freedom look like?

The debate kindled by Ahmari is far from over.

Image: MSNBC via YouTube.

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