Conservatives are fighting. Could any three words be sweeter to the Left than those? But it’s true. And while it’s been true for a long time — something has changed. The old disputes are passing away, and a new set of disputes are arising with great force, vigor, and urgency which sometimes verges on the vices of impatience and intemperance towards one another.
For example, I’ve published in both First Things and National Review, and I’m proud that both have been home to smart conservative thinking that advances a mix of good and bad ideas, usually in the same article. Each publication remains broad-mindedly conservative, publishing a range of voices, many of whom disagree on many particulars but who basically shared a common vision of America.
That consensus has been breaking apart for some time now, but was provocatively pronounced “dead” in a First Things manifesto I signed last March called “Against the Dead Consensus.” It claimed that the consensus which held for so long at such magazines, and which had fought so valiantly for all the conservative aims by the rules of procedural liberalism, died in 2016 when Donald J. Trump was elected President. I did not agree with everything in that manifesto, but it did seem clear then that something in the consensus was broken, and maybe even “dead.”
On abortion strategy, one can see the divide between those who argue “against incrementalism” in favor of forcing lots of state-level challenges to federal abortion law, and those who claim that such efforts are not only futile, but irresponsible as they could jeopardize all of the patient incremental strategies for ending the long genocide. As is typical when a consensus falls apart, no one wants to split the difference.
One of the reasons I signed the manifesto against the consensus, however, was that I saw in it a well-measured vision of a new consensus which might emerge that some have called “common good conservativism.” I did not take it to be a declaration of war between conservatives, since I thought it made a great many claims completely acceptable to every kind of conservative under the sun. Rather I saw in it a demand to think together about the common good, and how we could advance it towards the highest good. In this sense, I thought of it this way: “the consensus is dead, long live the consensus.”
But the dispute hasn’t been playing out quite the way that I thought because it turns out that the death of the consensus was caused by an acute fracture, splintering conservatives into the old family consensus, which is fairly well-defined according to the rules of procedural liberalism, and a new family consensus which wants to break with liberal proceduralism which it takes to be in the death-throes anyway. There may well be a third family who wonder who they are caught between the old and the new consensus. Which is all to say, the consensus is dead. Now what can be done?
First, conservatives need to figure out how to have disputes with one another that are serious and substantive about the common good. This is what I took to be Sohrab Ahmari’s aim in his recent critique of David French as a representative of the old family consensus. And Ahmari is certainly right that we actually need to lean into this as a disputation because it matters for how human beings live and love one another, it matters for how they build families, and help them to flourish in a country they call their own. It matters for how we understand the dignity of the person, the work of their hands, and the regard they give to their neighbor. We need agreements on these necessary things. But the necessary things are about the order of our loves, and so should refer us to charity even in argument. Lord knows, we all fail at this all the time. If we care about the disagreement as one which is truly substantive, then we would do well to follow the ancient Athenian principle of seeing your interlocutor as a friend whose job is to help you make your own argument better, so that you can both advance in the truth. I take it that this is what David French means by “iron sharpening iron.”
Second, the politics of enmity belongs to the Left. They are utilitarian, and ruthless in their will to power. But conservatives who put the family at the center, as both sides in this dispute do, should also regard themselves as a kind of family. The kind of family that publishes in one another’s magazines. And the kind of family that orders the common good to the highest good, which we can call divine charity.
The danger for conservatives at this moment is that we become everything we fear about the Left. When the goods we pursue come at the cost of charity towards those who want the same goods as us but in a different way, we become what we behold. Domination of the enemy and the utility of the other are the hallmarks of the left to eschew not emulate. Our means express our ends. Some may say that enmity is the fundamental political reality, but I say to you that it is not. It is created reality, and truth, and love. It is friendship. Enmity is just a privation of this greatest good, and we should work with all our measure to avoid it.
Our animating force must be charity. Roman pagans once thought that Christian charity made Rome weak, and vulnerable. But they were wrong. Christians engaged in serious disputes, guided by their confidence that truth can be found together if united by charity, and it is this charity that produced Western civilization as we know it. That’s not going to be changed by losing or gaining a consensus. But it’s what is necessary for finding a new one.
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