The American Right Never Really Loved Freedom

Of the illiberal ideologies clamoring for attention and influence in the contemporary American right, integralism, touted by some prominent Catholic thinkers, managed to be both the most coherent and quixotic. Roughly, the idea is that the radical self-authorship that markets and liberalism’s individualistic ethos enable and encourage have led our society away from not just the common good, but also meaningful, personal happiness. We’ve become hedonistic, atheistic, and unmoored from the traditions that give us meaning. We choose to abandon traditional faiths, explore non-binary genders and non-traditional gender roles, have families that aren't nuclear, and take our kids to drag queen story hours. What sets the integralists apart from, say, the National Conservatives who share many of their gripes about liberalism, is that integralists see the solution in what would effectively be a Catholic theocracy. The Roman Catholic Church is, in their minds, not just the one true faith, but also the source of the traditions and values we need to thrive.

But while integralism as a program of public policy is likely dead in the water, it can’t be dismissed as a mere fringe right-wing faction in America. Rather, its project makes explicit the fundamental nature of the right. In fact, I’d argue, what we’ve seen over these last five or six years isn’t the fringe taking over, but instead that fundamental nature reasserting itself.

Take Adrian Vermule: He’s a Harvard law professor, Catholic integralist, piner for theocracy, and a leading intellectual of the post-liberal conservative turn. A few weeks ago, he got dragged on Twitter for setting out his wishlist for a post-liberal order. He was asked: What do you traditionalists and national conservatives want? His answer was quite simple:

A lot of this is downright silly — just a way to put into law the peculiar preferences of a handful of hard-right Catholics. Most of the conversation about Vermeule’s demands focused on the constitutional issues it raised or how much authoritarianism the “etc etc” lacuna appeared to hide. However, the bigger issue is not the extremism of Vermeule’s brand of integralist conservatism. Rather, it lays bare the inherently illiberal currents in conservatism’s political project.

For Vermeule, as other integralists, there’s a proper way to live and in that proper way is found happiness of a worthy, genuine sort. He imagines this proper way to be something that resembles traditional Catholicism. Those who deviate from it might believe they are happy, but they’re actually not. Instead, they are prey to a liberalism-imposed false consciousness, dragging down not just their own well-being, but that of society as a whole. The goal of government, then, isn’t to force people to become traditionalist Catholic, because that’s not possible, but instead, as we see in his laundry list and its menacing “etc etc,” to compel them to at least behave as if they were.

The problem for Vermeule, unless he’s planning a violent overthrow of the US government, is that fewer than a quarter of Americans are Catholic. Moreover, that portion is declining, and many actually existing Catholics are, in fact, quite liberal. In other words, he won’t have much success at the ballot box. Thus, we needn’t worry too much about America plunging into a traditional Catholic theocracy anytime soon.

But that gets us back to Vermeule as symptomatic of something bigger. While most conservatives don’t share his peculiar idea of the good and virtuous life, the underlying idea that it is the state’s job to enable, support, and perhaps even compel us to abide by a particular “right way to live,” and one grounded in certain cultural traditions, is just what it means to be a political conservative.

In an earlier essay, proposing that we can view political philosophies as ultimately about constructing or maintaining social and governing patterns, I put it this way:

Conservatism, as a political ideology, seeks to maintain those social and economic patterns that conservatives prefer or believe are conducive to a good society. Thus, in contrast to classical liberalism, political conservatism is not about identifying, cultivating, and maintaining those patterns of rules and institutions which maximize liberty or at least keep state power in check. Instead, it is about maintaining social patterns which result in a society that aligns with the conservative’s cultural values and personal tastes.

This creates an irreconcilable tension between conservatism and liberalism given that liberalism aims at maximizing liberty but conservatism does not. We can see this quite clearly in Vermeule’s demands.

Of course, since the rise of “fusionism,” or the attempt to fuse classical liberalism/libertarianism with conservatism, beginning at the National Review and then the Reagan GOP and the establishment party that followed, Republicans, to the extent they represented American conservatism, talked a good game about liberty. They may have been squeamish, for example, about extending freedom to the bedroom. But they buried these concerns and argued, instead, that America’s constitutionally limited order aimed at protecting individual freedom and free enterprise. Until the collapse of the GOP into Trumpism, at least mainstream Republican leadership presented itself as, in fact, liberal in the classical sense, and said it wanted the government to effectively protect liberalism from its enemies on the left.

But Trump ushered in an era of “post-liberal” conservatism, whether that was his own crude and unfocused populism, or the more intellectual approach of national conservatism, or the fringe integralists. The idea that government should, above all, respect and protect individual and economic liberty, is increasingly sneered at by the American right, and that disdain for liberty is finding purchase, and, it seems, dominance, within the GOP establishment.

The clearest example is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), a highly-educated and rather intellectual  politician, who also happens to hate your freedom and does nothing to disguise that. He’s written and spoken at length, both before and during his political career, about the need to abandon liberalism in favor of a “common good” conservatism that is willing to exercise state power to advance the common good as he defines it. In an essay about Hawley just after the January 6 insurrection, I argued how he:

rejects the idea that “liberty is all about choosing your own ends,” but sees freedom as a destructive turn away from a purer way of life, constrained by social hierarchies and tradition. Liberty, he says, “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” He believes liberty has led to a country that is riven by conflict, marked by distasteful cosmopolitanism, and overly welcoming to foreign people and ideas. It is an America too concerned with the outside world when we should focus on promoting a socially conservative working class protected by impenetrable borders.

Again, while we might still think of Hawley as the fringe of the establishment, the difference between Hawley’s anti-liberalism and what we used to think of mainstream conservatism isn’t about whether the state should trample freedom to maintain a certain way of living, but how far out of step culture is allowed to get from those traditionalist ideals before it does.

As rapid technological and economic change drives cultural dynamism and cosmopolitanism, and as “traditional” social, gender, racial, and religious structures and relationships give way to liberty-enabled evolving preferences, conservatives committed to “conserving” will feel more pressured to kick off the fusionist consensus and instead support the Vermeule/Hawley/populist constellation of anti-liberalisms.

We should worry about the future of American conservatism not because conservatives will get on board with Vermuele’s particular wishlist, but because he, and the rest of the New Right and the NatCons, represent conservatism reawakening to what it’s always been about, namely, support for liberty only insofar as liberty doesn’t mean cultural and economic drift too far from “traditional” norms and values. But because liberty inevitably means just that, more and more American conservatives are likely to feel, if not solidarity with all of Vermuele’s particulars, then increasing affinity for Vermeule’s broader anti-liberal project.

Join the conversation

or to participate.