Rising conservatives as hostile to freedom as leftists

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SACRAMENTO – Delegates to the California Democratic Party convention last weekend drew national attention after they booed a presidential candidate, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for saying that “socialism is not the answer.” Conservative writers were aghast. Look at those crazy California Democrats, they insisted, who get upset at a few jabs at an ideology that’s long been associated with collectivism and misery.

Yes, there’s a deep rift within the Democratic Party between its traditional-liberal and progressive wings, with the latter moving in some troubling ideological directions. But Republicans, who have gleefully warned the public about Democratic flirtations with socialism, shouldn’t be quick to gloat given the emergence of an anti-freedom movement on the right.

While Democrats were airing their internal strife in San Francisco, Republicans were having a knock-down, drag-out ideological battle in a couple of journals read mostly by intellectuals. The fault lines are strikingly similar. Two factions are fighting for the soul of the party, with one side proposing that the GOP scuttle — or strongly soften — its historic support for pluralism, freedom and markets.

The first volley was lobbed by Sohrab Ahmari, in a May 29 column in First Things called “Against David French-ism.” Few people know that obscure religious journal and even fewer have heard of “French-ism.” Even French, the target of the piece, seemed bemused by the term. Both are conservatives. Both are pro-life Christians. French is a lawyer who has filed religious-liberty cases. Yet Ahmari, an editor at the New York Post, tarred him as an ideological softy who is too interested in “individual autonomy” to fight the culture war with sufficient zeal.

French fired back at Ahmari, arguing that “there is no political ‘emergency’ that justifies abandoning” a political order that goes back to our nation’s founding. He found it odd that Ahmari would tout the libertine Trump as the key to restoring traditional values.

This looked like some insider blog debate, but it garnered wide attention among conservatives. Even mainstream media writers in The New York Times and Vox wrote about the dust-up. That’s because the argument wasn’t really about two conservative writers, but about the future of the conservative movement and the visions each of them represent.

French holds to the classical tradition that champions liberty, market economics, civility and decency in the public square. I disagree with him on many issues (foreign policy, for instance), but agree strongly with the traditional American idea that government should try to neutrally protect individual rights — rather than be used to advance cultural preferences.

Ahmari believes Americans are fighting a “cultural civil war” and that the “only way is through — that is to say, to fight 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.” It’s a bizarre argument given that cultural conservatives lose every culture war that they fight.

Ahmari essentially complains that the left is doing to the right (re-ordering the public square) exactly what the right would like to be doing to the left. That makes me more committed than ever to this neutrality thing. Maybe neither side should be using the government to force its culture on others?

Ahmari never specifies what policies he would endorse once his allies grab control of the levers of power — perhaps because such policies might seem authoritarian to the average American. But one needn’t take too many leaps to see where this populist-religious conservatism is headed.

“Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill,” Ahmari writes. “In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly.” So, Ahmari won’t use big government to control everything. He might allow some individual enterprise provided, of course, the rulers believe that it conforms to the “common good.” Well, that’s a relief.

That nebulous term “common goo,” drives me crazy. It means whatever people in charge of the government say it means. Those of us in the classical-liberal and libertarian camps believe that each individual can figure that out on their own without government mandate. They can do as they please even if we might not personally approve of their decisions. But Ahmari wants “to enforce our order and our orthodoxy” on society. Creepy, no?

Even creepier is this reality: Many influential conservatives no longer value liberty or the marketplace. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently praised some of leftist Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s economic agenda and blasted Republicans as “libertarian zealots” controlled by banks who yammer about entrepreneurship. Conservatives might have a problem if some of their thought leaders start channeling Warren and Huey Long.

The Democrats are dealing with a socialist-friendly left that despises economic freedom, but Republicans are facing a resurgent nationalist right that shares many of the same hostilities. There’s a clear and present danger on both horizons.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at [email protected]