Vox recently published an interesting postmortem of the midterm elections, looking to see how right-wing intellectuals (a term which I consider an oxymoron) are responding to the lack of that promised “red wave.”
This New Right “intellectual” movement arose after the 2016 election; its approach to Republican politics is a commitment to relentless, aggressive culture war. (Fortunately–at least in the recent elections–voters have seemed unreceptive.)
The article describes three distinct, albeit overlapping, reactions. One is a call to display what the article calls “some tactical moderation” (most notably by bracketing abortion, which was clearly not a winner for the GOP); another “centers on whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis represents the movement’s future, and what reasons there are to prefer one over the other.” The third centers on democracy itself.
A minority of New Right thinkers responded to defeat by suggesting the electorate is too far gone for conservatives to ever triumph — and even questioning the value of democracy itself.
“Democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion,” declared Chad Pecknold, a self-described “postliberal” theologian at Catholic University.
The “thinkers” pursuing all-out culture war want to discard the conservative commitment to limited government; they argue that limiting the power of the state “stands in the way of waging an effective counterrevolution.” They believe that their culture war can only be won “by jettisoning libertarianism and using the levers of policy to roll back the left’s cultural victories. Out with tax cuts, in with bans on critical race theory in schools.”
Abandoning the culture war, on this perspective, is not mere folly but national suicide. For some on the New Right, the idea that their approach to these issues might be unpopular is unthinkable.
One star of the New Right argues for switching allegiance from Trump to DeSantis –saying that he “backstops his culture-war agenda with capable governance.” (Granted, no one in his right mind could argue that Trump can even spell governance, let alone provide it.) This DeSantis partisan believes DeSantis will be more able to deliver on the New Right’s shared goals: “to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards.” In other words, eradicate “woke-ness.”
If the DeSantis contingent doesn’t terrify you sufficiently, there are the New Right “integralists.” These are “Catholic arch-conservatives who believe that the United States government should be replaced with a religious Catholic state.”
Integralists are a part of a broader “postliberal” trend among right-wing intellectuals that traces the cultural decay of American society back to its ruling liberal political philosophy: the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, promotes licentiousness and a corrosive individualism…
Postliberals believe that instead of protecting individual freedom, government should aim to promote the “common good” or “highest good”: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine. This leads them to support an even more active role for the state than even the national conservatives, endorsing not only aggressive efforts to legislate morality but also expansions of the welfare state.
And here we come to the crux of the anti-democratic argument. It isn’t new.
Liberalism–properly defined–rests on a belief that humans are endowed–born with– certain “inalienable” rights that government must protect. The liberal conception of the common good is a society in which government respects those individual liberties to the extent that their expression does not infringe on the rights of others.
A liberal polity will argue–often vigorously–about where that line should be drawn. As I used to tell my students, freedom of religion cannot excuse the ritual sacrifice of your newborn.Figuring out what it can excuse is harder. Every liberty protected by the Bill of Rights has sparked philosophical and legal debate over the extent to which government must respect it–does your freedom of religion allow you to discriminate against people your church considers sinners? Does your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches prevent government from going through the garbage bag you’ve left on the curb for pickup?
What the New Right wants is statism.
These “thinkers” assume that they will be the ones who decide what the common good looks like–and they want government, under their control, to enforce their vision. (They’re not so different from the Tech moguls who want to impose their beliefs by remaking society in their own image.) That approach to governance is incompatible with the cultural assumptions of most American citizens–not to mention the U.S. Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
You can call this philosophy a lot of things, but it sure isn’t American.